August 13, 2009

Farmer's Markets: The Untold Story

Farmer's Markets: impractical exercise in idealism or a Newer Better Way?

Ever wonder? We did. (Okay, okay, I did.) So... our hard-hitting reporter (me) went undercover to get the REAL story, an exposé of the soft flabby underbelly of the world of Farmer's Markets.

This is what I expect to find in a Farmer's Market

Not this:

Myth #1: Farmer's Markets are a place where local farmers can bring local fruits and vegetables to local people. That way, people can bypass big chain grocery stores that have been known to haul food from hundred or thousands of miles away.

Well, they probably have local pies... maybe even fruit pies

Truth #1:
It's local, but sometimes it's animal or mineral rather than vegetable.

In other words, you might have to look hard before you can find a vegetable stand at a Farmer's Market. Our reporter reports that the local market near her house features 3 or 4 food stalls for every 1 vegetable stand. Also, there were stalls selling insurance policies, crafts, and assorted weird stuff. (Yes, I realize the insurance policies and crafts were probably local. I don't care. It's just not the same.)

I have seen the light... Beer has hops... hops come from farms... maybe this is okay...

Myth #2: Farmer's Markets are organic

Truth #2: Really? Where's that written down anywhere? It's local and it's fresh, but that doesn't mean Farmer Phil didn't spray pesticides on his stuff. If it ain't specified, don't assume. It's local, which means it's so fresh you might want to slap it, but that doesn't automatically mean organic. You're going to find a wider selection of organic produce than at the store, but not all of it is.
Organic BBQ?

Myth #3: Farmer's Markets are more expensive than the grocery store.

Truth #3: Well, okay, so this one isn't necessarily a myth, or rather it's only a partial myth. In other words, It Depends.

I couldn't find white-coated research studies that dealt with the subject in an ept manner. According to one survey, people bought from farmer's market or roadside stand because 'freshness' was important. That seems so obvious that I wonder why they would ask the question.

On the other hand, when science lets you down, there's always Blogland. The blogger Mama Goes Green led me to the Neighborhood Farmers Market Alliance blog, who conducted their own research and collected data from a class statistics project that showed buying locally actually was cheaper on the whole:

Average savings at market: $.62

Average miles saved by buying local: over 900

Granted with a name like Farmers Market Alliance there just might possibly be a wee bit of bias there, but they obligingly show the data that led to the conclusions.

I think it's really cool to buy local, whether we're talking vegetables or crafts and BBQ. I wouldn't have a problem with people coming to a street near me to sell these things. It just bothers me that it's called a "Farmer's Market" when it's really a no-calories-barred street fair.

Am I being too fussy? Are your local Farmer's Market events full of stuff fresh off the farm?


  1. We shop at several, both out here in the boonies and in the city (they have one at work, actually). My experience is that the markets aroud here have fresh, organic, locally-grown produce, eggs, meat and locally-produced foods (like artisan cheeses and ales).

    Between that and the permanent West Side Market, we probably do 80% of our shopping at farmer's markets.

  2. What? You don't have people selling insurance policies at your farmer's markets? Bizarre.

    80%? Excellent! I'm sure your local community loves you :)

  3. Wait... a Farmer's Market at your work???

  4. Yeah; seriously. Our Wellness department invited one of the local farmers markets to set up shop on the green every Wednesday, and they sponsor live music and free samples. It rocks!!!

  5. The two that i've been to had mostly veggies, with a honey stand (local) thrown in...maybe I've lucked out though?
    The rest seems to be true for the ones I've been to. It's not organic unless there is a sign saying so, and teh price varies (some cheaper than others). I like that they give (gave? is it only mine?) out samples so that you know it's good :)

    That's crazy that yours has all that...well, crap! I'd be dissapointed for sure.

  6. We shop at the main one in our small southern town. No BBQ or pastries here, BUT. . .

    There are a group of Mennonites who sell unpasturized milk, fresh eggs and meat. They have one of the most popular stands. People bring their glass milk jugs for a refill.

  7. Heh! I live in Perth, Scotland and we have a "Farmer's Market" every month. No insurance policies (yet!), but not much veggies either. You can buy some local produce, but it tends to be baked goods, meat, elderflower wine and crafts.
    On the other hand, a group of local farmers sets up a stall every week outside the local hospital and sells organic fresh fruit and veg so it's not all bad.

  8. Great investigative journalism Merry!

    We've checked out farmers markets in many parts of the country, and I've found a huge variety in what they've got. Some are huge and awesome and packed with all kinds of fresh produce; others are lame, lame, lame, lame, lame.

    One of my favorites was in the Oakland/Berkeley area--had a festive atmosphere with tons of earthy-crunchy families and dogs and music and FREE SAMPLES. Also, great healthy food stands, and tons of variety in the produce.

    I also found that some of the local farmers who weren't using pesticides couldn't officially call their produce organic because of the cumbersome beaurocracy around it. I'd still rather shop with them that eat technically organic stuff harvested weeks ago from across the country and shipped to my grocery store.

    I gotta say, your farmers market looks firmly in the "lame" category!

  9. Santa Rosa just had it's last "Wednesday Night Market" of the year last night.

    I went for the rock music and a chocolate coconut meringue.

    At least they didn't have the chutzpah to put the word "Farmer's" in the title.

  10. Around here it varies. Some markets are mostly fruit & veg, other's are all organic & local, some are way cheaper, some aren't.

    What makes them cool for me is the farmer who sells tomatoes for example and only those. He'll have 5 different types that you can try.

    Then there is the strawberry seller who is at our market each week in winter. Based on the weather of the past week he'll tell us wether the strawberries are a little squishy or really sweet that week. I love that and the rest of that market is a flee market - no insurance, but I wouldn't be surprised.

  11. Why can't the farmers' markets in my area sell beer? I loved the report. Oh, and I want to work where Beanie works.

  12. Sounds like Beanie has a good work environment!!! That Farmer's Market of yours is dang "interesting"!!!!

  13. I've never been, but it seems like you were at a flea market more than a farmer's market.

  14. I admit I haven't been to one, but from the other bloggers I read and from my parents' description my parents give me, the one in my hometown is chock full of veggies, fruits, locally raised meat, locally made cheese, and honey. Although, there was a huge uproar recently because the county health department banned the sale of any baked goods that weren't made in a commercial-grade certified and inspected kitchen. Apparently they had been ignoring this rule for years and letting people sell baked goods they made at home.

  15. I will have to go to the farmer's market in town and investigate. The last time I was there, they had a lot of fresh produce (especially at this time of year).

    Perhaps your expectations are too high?

    Was the insurance salesperson a farmer? Or perhaps selling farm insurance?

  16. We shop at a few Farmers' Markets, and they are all a bit different. My "main" market, sells fruits & veggies, but there is also a pie stand and a coffee stand. Other markets, have more food vendors. I have never seen an insurance stand, however...

    I like your point about not all produce being organic. I think this is something many people assume, but it's not true. I have "my organic" stands at each market I go to. I love Farmers' Markets and do almost all my produce shopping there.

  17. Crabby makes a good point: the veggies could be pesticide free even though for reasons of bureaucracy the seller can't label it 'organic.' And freshness is an important factor.

  18. I live in Minneapolis, where there are several farmer's markets. You have to be very aware of the different rules for them, though. For example, once a week they have one set up through the middle of downtown, so you can go on your lunch break. Awesome! Except that I went there one March day, fired up from reading that Barbara Kingsolver book... and they were selling pineapples. And bananas. And oranges. NOT local food, if you haven't put that together. So, being a pushy person, I approached the vendors anyway, and asked where the food came from and how it was that is was for sale at a farmer's market, since they clearly did not grow it. They made a joke about the Minnesota banana farms, but then told me they buy it from a wholesaler and re-sell it at the farmer's market. It did not appear any fresher than what I would buy at the grocery store, and the "farmer" did not give me any story about supporting small growers in other climes. Intrigued and indignant, I asked a food writer I know, and she explained that the mpls farmer's market did not have rules about the food being local. In years (decades?) past, it was still a pretty great way to get produce, as it was often fresher than the supermarket stuff, but now that is no longer true because food shipment has improved. St. Paul, apparently, requires all food at its market to come from within 75 miles. I think the Mill City farmer's market, and other small ones in mpls, also have similar rules... but people should be aware. If they had not been selling something so obviously imported at this market, I would never have thought to ask.

  19. Our Farmers' Market here is really quite wonderful. It does, however, have some of the same "extraneous" vendors you've pointed out. I can even buy a purse or a dress if I need one. :) By and large, tho', the produce is from farms that are with a 35 mile radius of Des Moines. I've been asking each week as I visit the vendors. Also, a few smaller towns have created very LOCAL markets during the week, which has been wonderful. I also belong to a CSA which is certified organic, so I know what I'm getting there.

  20. Here in Dallas, the farmers market is primarily veggies, with honey, meat, eggs, and flowers thrown in. Plus one or two random things like local pasta or bread. All of which is wonderful. However, most of the produce vendors are not local at all. They are wholesalers, so we find oranges with Sunkist stickers on them, pineapples, etc. The first time I went I was perplexed. Luckily the wholesalers are in a different ares from the local farmers, so you can chose to only buy local if you want (I do!).

  21. Hmmn....
    All the vegetable stands in my f.m. had signs reading "Joe's Farm, Localville" and things like that.

    Makes no sense to import pineapples to Minnesota when there are farms locally. That's crazy.

  22. The farmer's market I go to in Boston is mostly produce. Of the 10 or so tents, only three aren't (two are jewelry and one is to buy meals ready-made and delivered to your house). But they do vary as far as organic (only two are actually organic). I heart the goat cheese stand, that's one of my faves (I suppose I should eat all the frozen goat cheese I have from last year...)

    I'm surprised there're not as many produce stalls at markets on the Cape. I'd think it would be the other way around.

  23. Actually I live out in western Oregon, in an area surrounded by farms. Within 5 miles of my home there are blueberry farms that encourage people to come pick the fruit for themselves, things like that.
    Maybe that's why they weren't at the market, they were expecting the people to come to them?

  24. My local farmer's markets are tiny things -less than 20 vendors. They have several vegetable vendors (including usually 2 that specialize in Asian vegetables like bitter melon, raw peanuts, yard-long beans, etc.) They also must be certified organic.

    Then we have a variety of small food producers-mexican, indian, pakistani, who sell jars and wraps of stuff. yum.

    And the prices are cheap.

    Go to something fancy and upscale like the market in the Ferry Building in SF? The prices for the same produce (sometimes same farms) double or triple. More gourmet items, etc.

    So I think it depends what you town/city has to offer.

  25. The quality of our Farmer's Market depends greatly on the month. From April until late June it's mostly baked goods and canned stuff. After that? The produce takes off. There are a few folks who do greenhouse produce that get there early, but we have such short growing seasons it's hard.

    The meat guys are always there. And one dairy farm just set up shop! Hurrah!

    Most is organic, but you have to ask. It goes back to the rules governing the "organic" label. And there are a few who aren't. Prices are usually about the same or a little less than the grocery store. Some is higher, but is always worth it for a better tasting (and often times heirloom or at least non-GMO) food!

    And we just went through the same hoopla as Erin. The health department got all up in arms after the local paper ran an article about the thriving Kuchen business at our local FM. Luckily a local bakery is donating kitchen space to the guy until he can get his kitchen up to snuff.

  26. It's also good to remember that a lot of small farmers can't afford the whole 9 yards of bureaucratic hoo-ha to get official "organic" certification -- even though their practices may qualify. The nice thing about farmers' markets, though, is that you can ask the person at the stand about how they raise their produce and/or animals -- something you can't really do at a supermarket.

  27. Some "farmer's markets" are really nothing but a reworked flea market. Fortunately, in lovely Cleveland, we have a year-round market in the form of the West Side Market, which is a large indoor agora of food paradise. Some of the produce is NOT local, as evidenced by the Dole stickers, but we've been able to weed out those imposters and have a reliable list of vendors specializing in local produce and fresh, organic meats and fish. And hummus, spices, cheese and smoothies and flavored popcorn and kimchee and...oh my.

    Oh, and the best part is the haggling! I feel so shrewd, sometimes I think the just let me win. But we've saved some bucks this way.

  28. Our markets here are pretty strictly produce if they're specified as farmer's markets. The website that lists the different farms selling makes that clear -- definitely no insurance vendors!

    My word verification is "crabses." Ha!

  29. No farmer's markets around here. Well, there is one that I know of but I've never been - it's got odd hours.
    However, there is a street that has like...4 asian fruit/veggie shops with great prices. I have no idea if it's organic or'd be nice if it was, as they have fair prices and everything is always very fresh!

  30. Our local farmers markets (Berkeley Farmers Markets) sell only local, organic produce out of policy. They also have vendors with pastured eggs, local fish and grass fed meats.

    I've been to other farmers markets in the local area ran by other groups and no, they dont all sell organic produce. You have to read and ask. I was shocked too.

  31. The one by me has the most delicious fresh squeezed o.j. I have ever tasted. That alone is enough for me. Although the funnel cakes help...

    In my vocabulary "farmer's market" means street fair. I have never known it to be different than that so I am ok with it. I've made my peace that if I go to one I am liable to get some amazing o.j. and tighter pants.

  32. We use to grow and sell heirloom tomatoes and other veggies at a few local markets, and found that one of the reasons our local markets are fairly lame is the lack of farmers.

    Lot of market vendors have no interest in growing food, but they want to bake something or craft something or knit something. So market managers let them participate in an effort to get more customers to come and support the few "farmers" that are willing to grow and do all the work involved in harvesting, transporting and displaying for a few hours of market time. When you factor in the time and expense, very few people make any money on produce that they sell at a market.

    And Peripatetic makes a very good point about the different rules of markets. Many have websites now with the rules and regulations posted. Even still, a vendor can be "grandfathered in" so there are often exceptions to the rules.

    Growing organically (the original definition, not the water-downed definition used these days to become “certified”) is timing consuming, and really, a labor of love. So until more people can figure out how to cover their costs and make a little money for their time and effort, I don't think there will be enough "farmers" to support many true farmer’s markets.

  33. Around me, they vary like crazy. Within driving distance I have everything from the one that sells 90% produce, 5% fresh bread and 5% fresh eggs and fish to the one that sells 25% produce and 75% food, arts & crafts, books(!), and various other things.

    The one in Santa Monica has ALL of the above, and even has permanent structures erected! Unfortunately, it's also the most crowded, among the most expensive, and by FAR the worst parking. :P

  34. I like buying local but I agree, there's lots of stuff there that I raise my eyebrows at too.

    And yum, pesticides!

  35. I love me some farmers market beer! HA!

  36. Oh no!! They have corrupted your farmer's markets!! Living in my isolated, little known area of Florida, "they" haven't found us yet, and for the briefest of moments, we are still safe from "them." Don't go outing us, Merry, OK?

  37. I like going to farmer's markets mostly for the walking around a grocery store anyday!

  38. My local farmer's market is a COMPLETE and utter disappointment. There is no produce!!!!!!

    My disappointment is even bigger because I live near one of my Province's three two fruit producing regions. It should be teeming with fresh goodies. But instead most of the stuff is packaged while unrippened and shipped off to the United States. Meanwhile we import produce that was picked in its unrippened state from the U.S.

    It doesn't make sense.

    Of course every weekend I seem to forget the lack of produce and head down to the Market with hopes of marvelous produce inspired meals a la Jamie Oliver. Silly moi!!!!

  39. They sell expensive Donnelly chocolate at our farmer's market.

  40. yeah, but -- is it /local/ expensive Donnelly chocolate or does it come from a Minneapolis Pineapple Farm?

  41. Sounds like my farmer's market here... there's a green fried tomato stand, candied popcorn booth, jam and cream cheese booth, a pianist who tries to sell his cd's, a hot dog stand, and many other "fresh" stands. With only a handful of produce stands. WTH?!

  42. and because the produce stands at this particular farmers market only sells local fresh produce, we don't have things like apples, peaches, fresh berries, or oranges. We mostly have bananas, mangoes and papayas. Not that there's any thing wrong with bananas, mangoes and papayas, but I would love to buy a box of fresh peaches for under $5!

  43. Our farmers market doesn't have any hot food vendors at all. There are some bread booths, and maybe one or two craft booths. But it's rather small, and mostly filled with lots of fresh vegetable vendors (one or two of which are from local organic farms).

  44. Wow now that totally makes me have to sit down and think for a minute. Although it does depend on what farmer's market you go to, I still wonder now how much of a benefit I'm doing for my body. I feel healthier when I shop at the farmers market, but then again it could just be my minds effect from clever branding and "word of mouth" marketing.

  45. The best farmer's market I ever went to was in Hood River, OR, where my parents live. Gorgeous fruits and veggies, honey, handmade soaps, cut flowers and fresh herbs, neat dried seasonings, and some cool "hippie" clothes - oh, and handmade jewelry!

    I loved it and wish we had one like it here in Texas...but knowing Texans, there probably would be deep-fried everything, along with a few veggies. Oh well.

  46. Hood River is a cool place. Has its own brewery and you can windsurf the Columbia river. Must check out its FM next time I'm there.

    I'm amazed at the wide variety of Farmer's Markets there are out there. The idea of importing food from far off to an FM seems strange. I don't see the advantage of having the wholesalers ship it to an outdoor market vs. an indoor one. Doesn't the seller markup the price in either case?

    Still, cool comments! Thank you :)

  47. In CA, a "certified" farmer's market has to meet specific requirements & the growers who sell have to have their scales officially calibrated & a county-issued certificate verifying they are the growers, plus the seller has to be the grower. There can be a non-certified/non-food section but it is separate from the growers'. There are other vendor markets, but if the fresh food selection is limited, or the same year-round, or someone's selling bananas (or other items that can't be grown locally), you can be assured it isn't a true farmer's market. CA also requires certification if you claim your food is organically grown; otherwise you have to take the seller at their word if they say they don't spray pesticides. Inspectors come on site at the farms AND at the market for unannounced monitoring. If the fruits/veggies vary a lot by season at your market, that's a great indicator that the growers ARE local.

  48. My Farmer's Market has literally been my salvation in escaping the prison of binge-induced morbid obesity. All the fresh, local fruits and vegetables I find there are so amazing and delicious that I don't even care about cookies anymore.

    Almost everything I see there is local produce, but there are a couple stands with local free range eggs and meat. And 2 or 3 local bakeries. But that's okay. I just adore the veggies (some of which are organic for the same price!)

  49. Farmers' markets vary. Our little one insists that all produce be grown and sold by the producer. Other markets let sellers by their produce to sell a the market. Like you said, It Depends.

    Most markets will state what their criteria are. For some, it is about local vendors, not necessarily local produce. For others, local produce is king and there are no value-added products.

    I am happy with a mix of local farmers selling their produce with some local vendors thrown in.

    As for the cost. We live in a mountain region and our foodshed is about 100 miles in diameter. The cost to cover that is translated into the cost of the produce. So, it is not cheaper to buy at our FM, but perhaps still worth it.


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