Five Tips to Thrive at a Farmer's Market, Week #2: Be Aware

In Week One of our Farmer’s Market series we talked about how important it is for market patrons to build a little flexibility into their cooking methods.  Today we’ll tackle the issue of market intuition.

This is a tough one to sort out, as it exposes our vulnerability from preconceived notions about farmer’s markets.

The phenomenon is happening everywhere: salesmen see the burgeoning interest from consumers to purchase directly from the grower, and, in a dodgy move to sidestep the laborious process of growing quality products, will simply purchase goods from larger farms to be re-sold at the market.

At first, this might not sound all that shocking to you: OK, the guy is buying stuff from people in our region, so I’m still getting local produce.  That’s not the end of the world. 

What we’re not considering is the buy-then-resell method returns us to precisely the system we decided to avoid when we went to the farmer’s market in the first place.  Produce grown en masse is packed and auctioned or sold in bulk at or below the cost of production, which is then re-packed into consumer sized portions and sold, again, at a price far below the sustainable breakeven for farmers who are actually growing the products they sell. 

A reselling vendor at a farmer’s market has two major advantages: First, supply is unlimited because restocking is as easy as heading back to the wholesaler, and, second, lower prices attract sales.  Artificially consistent inventory paired with ‘bargain’ pricing combine to make that merchant the most popular in the parking lot, to the detriment of legitimate growers who cultivate, nurture, harvest, clean, pack, and sell their products.

I don’t think such favoritism would occur if customers realized what’s occurring behind the scenes.  Many of us walk into a market carrying the belief that one purveyor is as good as another, because, after all, this is a farmer’s market, and a farmer’s market is full of farmers who grow things.  Alas, this is not the case.  We need to always remember if it looks too good to be true, it probably is.  Paradoxically, one of the most favorable aspects of a farmer-vendor is restricted supply – the limitations are proof that what’s for sale is not being supplemented.

In order to enjoy an honest market experience, it’s important to maintain awareness of the details.  Low prices and huge inventory are a red flag; don’t automatically gravitate towards them.  Instead, make a circuit around the perimeter and get to know everyone.  Ask questions and grill salespeople about the origins of what they’re selling (don’t be rude, just thorough.)  When you have an idea of who’s who, put your new instinct to work and select items from those who answer your questions directly and honestly. 

Your dollars yield tremendous power to completely change our food landscape, and you must remain diligent to ensure they are flowing into the correct channel. Unfortunately, the act of entering a farmer’s market does not free us from responsibility; instead, a farmer’s market requires more thought than a trip to the grocery store, but the effect of such effort is a brilliant landscape occupied by vibrant small farms growing excellent food for your family. That reality is worth a little extra effort.