My interest in farmers markets isn’t the normal fare for a nurseryman’s column. Yet I can’t deny the integral importance of this concept into our modern agricultural production systems. After all, horticultural activities lie at the root of many of our commercial agriculture systems and it’s important to recognize how diverse our industry has become relative to agriculture as a whole. At the local level a growing number of people have taken interest in participating and supporting farmers’ markets, a traditional concept spun with chic appeal that is rapidly catching on as a hallmark of sustainable agriculture.
The concept behind a farmers’ market is simple. Local individuals supply produce in an open sales environment replete with all the good tenets of capitalism. Bargaining, straightforward marketing, and a seasonal supply and demand system are reined into a simple initiative that anyone can become a part of. By supporting local farmers’ markets you are not only supporting your local agro-horticultural economy but also reducing greenhouse gas emissions (fewer miles required to transport produce from source to sales). I find that a farmers’ market is the best classroom for learning and comparing the quality of products to the type of production system they come from. From tomatoes to cut flowers, each grower takes special pride in their work through the means which they produce their crop. Depending on the regulations structuring the farmers’ market you support, you might find all around high quality produce or a mixed gamut of offerings. Growing a nice, red, round tomato might seem intuitive but anyone who has ever tried to grow something that is held at the time of sale to standards of accountability knows otherwise. Nonetheless, I often find that the best produce I see in a growing season is found on the tables or racks at a farmers’ market.
For me there is another intrinsic incentive to patronizing farmers’ markets. Frankly, I think the stuff tastes better. Maybe it’s the whole “Aunt Gerdie grew this herself” ambiance but it’s something that’s important to this horticulturist who’d rather devote his farm to the production of ornamentals and leave the edible stuff to someone else. I guess that’s two incentives, isn’t it? Regardless of your motives, supporting farmers’ markets is simple: just show up. I’ve often heard people complain that farmers’ markets don’t always have what they are looking for. Why not just go and build the meal as you go? Sure you’ll wind up with a more seasonal menu but you’ll also appreciate the timely bounty of summer while it lasts. I practically count the days until I can find fresh zucchini; zucchini bread, fried zucchini, zucchini cakes (like potato cakes only better), and the list could go on. I’ve also heard people complain about prices (usually at urban farmers’ markets). Lower prices at the grocery store make sense because so many aspects of traditional food production are subsidized. Unfortunately local, sustainable agriculture has yet to enjoy these premiums. Paying a little more to support someone’s attempt to make this a greener world is a noble act. And seriously, store-bought red balls or fresh off the farm stand tomatoes?
But the farmers’ market movement needs more than your patronage. Tell your friends and act as a publicity agent for the benefits and joys of buying produce at a farmers’ market. Many communities now have a non-profit organization that organizes farmers’ markets in their area. Get involved with the group and offer to put up flyers, do radio interviews, or seek out local farmers as potential vendors. By teaming up for local agriculture we not only create something that is nutritionally sustainable but economically sustainable as well. Finally, lobby your congressman for more support at the federal level for farmers’ markets and community-supported agriculture projects (CSAs). While the USDA has put forth a number of funding programs recently, more is always needed. Let’s get the goodness of locally grown food off our plates and into the minds of our society.
Kelly D. Norris is Farm Manager at Rainbow Iris Farm and, when not in the garden, can be found roaming the greenhouses of Horticulture Hall at Iowa State University. Check out his blog, the E-Garden Almanac, at his website Kellydnorris.com.