Saturday, June 2, 2012

Eating Part III: At the Farmer's Market, Or, (One) Way To Be a Blabbermouth!

Dear those of us getting ready to go to the farmer's market, most particularly those who haven't navigated such shores much or in a very long time,

So you're going to the farmer's market!

This is the third post in our mini-series on eating.  First we discussed what to do when you're just toying with the idea of gravitating towards a more organic, whole diet, in Part I: We're Thinking About It, Or, When a Pig Sty Comes In Handy.  Then, we discussed a few practical steps that can make these ideas come to life in Part II: Practical Steps, or, Why We Bought A Cow (Really, We Did!).

Now, in Part III, we'll discuss visiting the farmer's market, since for many of us this will be a central part of our foray into new, better food!

You've done your research, and you plan to buy produce, eggs, and milk.  Maybe some local honey, too!  Now, what to do, how to begin?  Where's the grocery cart?

There aren't any.  Just so we have that out of the way.

What to bring: Bring reusable bags, coolers (if you'll be out for a while, or picking up eggs, milk or meat), cash, and if you are going to be hauling seriously, bring a wheelie-cart.  Bring paper to make notes if you like, if you are planning to meet new farmers and discuss bulk prices, or vet CSAs.   Why cash?  Many farmers will accept plastic now, but it's generally faster and more convenient for them to take cash - and a lot of them don't have the facilities to take card, anyway.  You wouldn't want to turn down that huge, luscious watermelon just 'cause all $14,000 of your spending cash is locked up behind plastic, would you?!  

By "serious hauling," maybe we mean kids?
You can freeze water in jars to keep the cooler cold if you don't have any fake
ice.  Just be careful to leave LOTS of headspace for expansion!
When to go: Try exploring your particular market at different times.  It's fun to get there early and have first pick of all the freshest produce, and meander about before huge crowds set in.  Be aware that in most areas, buying is not allowed to begin until a "bell" or other signal indicates that it is "open" - however, you may be able to wander about prior and browse from a distance while farmers unload.  It's also fun to come later: some specific items may be sold out, but farmers might be willing to cut you a deal on leftovers so they don't have to load produce back on the truck.  They may have accumulated a box of "softies" (maybe bruised tomatoes, or something) that you can take home and turn into salsa for dinner.  The question is, are you looking for a specific item ("I need arugula and onions") or are you just looking for local, organic produce ("We need produce for the week but I don't have much cash!")?

Who to see: Establish a relationship with a few farmers by visiting their stalls regularly, and making conversation.  For all of history commerce has been about relationships; only recently has it evolved into self-checkout and online purchases where you never speak with anybody, never see the person who produced the product, and live your life in a lonely bubble without every encountering germs or personalities.  Going to market is different.  You'll have a lot of fun if you treat it more like a festival, and less like a grocery store.

Don't assume anything, EVER: Ask, ask, ask.  Ask if they are organic.  Not certified?  Maybe they just haven't owned their property long enough to be certified, but they don't spray or use any pesticides.  Ask how they grow the produce.  Maybe they'll share their philosophy.  Where are the goods from?  Where are the cows raised, how far does the milk travel?  Where are the chickens at?  Who raises the meat?  Just if it's in a "natural" meat market doesn't mean anybody has a clue where the meat is from - usually when I talk to butchers at these stands, they have no clue where the meat is from!  Our CSA is not certified organic, because they just acquired their new property last year.  However, the farmer is passionate about caring for the earth, putting good food in our bodies, and avoiding chemicals.  He never sprays, uses chemical fertilizer, and so on.  He is keeping meticulous records so that he can obtain certification after a few years of farming on this land.  Don't ever assume that because it's in a little white tent at an open-air market that the food is locally produced or organic (but if all you want to do is buy food at an open air market, that's fine, too).  When I was looking for organic, non-ultra-pasteurized milk in Virginia, I found a creamery at the farmer's market.  Plastered on the door were "Buy Fresh, Buy Local!" signs from the current campaign to buy fresh and local.  Inside, I found that the milk was already a brand familiar to me - because it is the same brand I purchased in Chicago when we were stationed there!  Yes, this milk was shipped from Chicago and was already three days old by the time it arrived.  This wasn't really what I was looking for so we didn't buy any.  Ask, ask, ask ... At a produce stand for a farm that I knew was organic, there were again "Buy Fresh, Buy Local!" signs all over the place.  Curious about the wide variety of produce so early in the year, I asked the lady taking payments if they sprayed their produce.  "I don't know," she said.  "This isn't from our farm, our stuff isn't in season yet.  I think the tomatoes are from Florida, and I know they aren't organic or anything."  I found stickers on some stuff and found produce from Peru, Mexico, and all over the place.  There were three items that were locally raised and organic.  I can go to the grocery store and pay half the price if I want conventionally grown produce from another country!  

This thermal bag from my aunt is very handy for bringing eggs home
Run your mouth (and then your ears): Talk, talk, talk.  Wth cashier, with people unloading crates, with other customers.  Do you ever sell bulk at wholesale prices?  Do you have a newsletter (maybe with info about overgrowth!)?  Where is the farm?  How are you doing?  Are those your kids?  Yes, I'd love a sample of your apples!  Who bakes this bread?  How fresh are these eggs?  What is this purple thing?  How do you cook it?  This part of the process is particularly intensive for me as I keep moving and establishing new networks of knowledge!  Just don't be that annoying customer that stands there for too long - be aware of other customers in line, and how busy your farmer may be! 

Have so much fun! Bring BINGO for the kids!  Okay, we'll be honest - bring BINGO for yourself, and as a prize buy a pastry from that gal selling cinnamon rolls and apple turnovers when you (inevitably) win!

Many, many many of you have been stalking the markets much longer than I have.  What are your farmer's market tips?  Be sure to share them with us in the comments below!

Mrs H



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