Saturday, May 1, 2010

Navigating the Farmers' Market

This morning at the market while I was waiting for Thane Palmberg to pull some spring onions out of his truck for me, two young women approached his stand and pointed to the baskets of spinach and asked what kind of "leaves" they were. Without stopping to consider their choice of words, I told them they were spinach.  Since Thane had come back with the spring onions I turned my attention to him and we continued our conversation.

Thane had brought nettles to the market today. When I said "You're growing nettles?" he responded wryly, "Well, I can't say that I'm really growing them...". Thane, who grows everything he sells, was referring to the fact that stinging nettles are a weed. For those unfamiliar with them, they are a green that is prized by foragers and chefs. They must be cooked to be eaten (I shudder to think what they would do to you if you ate them raw). If you have ever run into a patch of stinging nettles, you will remember it. I don't recall if the stings leave welts, but you do feel it for a while. I don't believe I have ever eaten them and the only time I ever experienced them as a plant was in Normandy while picking raspberries. I must have managed to avoid most of them, because it is the idyllic scene among the raspberry bushes that is most vivid in my memory. Thane gave me some to try. You might be able to occasionally find some on the menu at Lydia's Restaurant.

Anyway, while I was talking to him about nettles (and spinach and chard and rhubarb...) my mom was telling the two young women that the spinach at this stand was really good. My mom told me later that they seemed very excited to be there. They had confided that this was their first time at the farmers' market.  She then told me that she had so badly wanted to take them under her wing and coach them a bit. I had noticed as we left that they had purchased some commercial carrots and celery and I had not thought much about it other than that it was too bad when there was so much good, local stuff to be had. I guess they really did need some assistance. I had missed it, but my mother, who can be much more observant than I am when it comes to people, had not.

Of course I really don't know if those women needed, or would have even wanted, some help this morning. I tend to be too shy to speak up anyway. In any case it's too late to give them any pointers now.  But the situation made me think that there might be some people out there who would appreciate a little advice on how to get the most out of their farmers' market.

The market that I frequent is located in the old City Market in downtown Kansas City and most of my comments will apply specifically to that market. But don't stop reading if that's not your market. Although markets are unique, they have much in common.

The women that I saw this morning had most likely fallen into the trap of thinking that everything at the farmers' market is farm fresh produce. This is unfortunately not true. At my market there is a perimeter of old buildings that house permanent retail tenants, among them several "green grocers". As a newcomer to the market, these vendors are the first you will see and I really recommend that you pass them up until you see what else the market has to offer. Even if you are familiar with your market, it is always a good idea to make a quick pass through the market before buying anything so that you will know everything that is available on a given day. You will generally make the wisest purchases this way.

I suppose there is nothing wrong with purchasing produce from the grocers around the perimeter as long as you understand what you are getting. What you are getting is the same produce that you would get at your neighborhood grocery store in the suburbs. In some cases you will get a better price because these vendors know that they can move produce quickly on the weekend and will have purchased produce that another grocer would have passed over since it would go bad before it could be moved off of their shelves. Most of the time you will have to use anything purchased from these vendors very quickly because it is ready to use (sometimes past ready) and you may still have a lot of loss. The best time to buy things from them is during the height of a season when there is natural abundance of something that doesn't grow in the Midwest—Bing Cherries for example, in the middle of June.

One of the great things about the City Market is that the perimeter of the market includes a wide variety of ethnic food and other interesting stores where you can purchase ingredients to compliment the farm fresh produce that you will be getting from the farmers. There is also a coffee shop (a market essential as far as I am concerned) where you can sit down and catch up with a friend.

Once you have passed through the perimeter you will see that there are three long aisles underneath permanent open-air structures where the remaining vendors have set up their stalls. In addition to the produce stalls there are stalls selling plants, baked goods and craft items. I am most concerned here with discussing how to navigate the produce stalls, because even here, there is no guarantee that what you buy will have been grown by the person selling to you. Market managers are becoming more and more diligent about visiting the farms of their vendors to verify that foods advertised as locally grown are indeed local, but as with anything, you will need to make an effort yourself to make sure that you are getting farm fresh produce, direct from the grower, if that is what you came to the market to get.

Some of the sellers have grown everything they sell, others supplement some of what they grow themselves with things purchased from farm auctions. Some occasionally have items from a neighbor grower who for one reason or another is not at this market. Everything ought to be grown within a specified distance of the market, but this doesn't always hold true. Here are things to look for:

• Avoid any stall that is selling something that is out of season (sweet corn in April for example) or something that never grows in your region (bananas or pineapples in Missouri)

• Avoid vendors who can't answer basic questions about what they have supposedly grown. I remember one time asking a vendor what variety of potato they were selling. The response was a bored "I dunno." A grower will be able to speak knowledgeably about their produce.

• I find that growers and farmers that are really growing what they are selling are very proud of and often excited about what they have. They will be willing to talk to you about it. When they handle their produce, they will handle it with care and respect.

• There are a few stalls at my market that each week have the exact same items as each other in the exact same kind of containers. I'm not sure what this indicates, but it looks suspicious to me. Since these vendors also occasionally sell marginally out of season items. I avoid them. Trust your gut. If something looks off, shop somewhere else, there are many real growers with beautiful stuff.

Some of you who follow my blog may be wondering now about my willingness to purchase strawberries in early April when they usually don't come into the market until mid-May. There are a couple of reasons for this. First, I could tell by the way these berries looked, felt and smelled (and I probably could have tasted one if I had asked) that they had not been shipped in from California. In addition, when I talked to the farmer, he told me all about them. They were new this year for him. He had planted ever-bearing strawberries and so hoped to have them all summer. Right now the price was kind of high because of all the heat he was having to pump into his green house to get them to produce. So, he was honest with me about how he was growing them. Would I rather have field grown berries? Of course.  But when the stores are full of the overly large—often flavorless—strawberries from California, I'll take a tender, local berry that has been grown with care in a hot house any day.

Later in the season there will be vendors at my market who are selling local peaches. Most of these sellers are not growers. They are people who make the trip each week to the many orchards in the surrounding areas of Missouri where the peaches are ripe and ready for the market. This is an instance where I am not too bothered that these are not being sold to me by the grower. These peaches are tree-ripened and fabulous—and they are local. But, if you do want to make sure that you purchase peaches from the grower, there are several farmers that have a few fruit trees and sell peaches in addition to their other crops.

You will probably have noticed that much of what I know about my market I know because I have been going week after week, year after year. The growers recognize me and I have a history with many of them—if not by name, certainly by sight. Markets are easiest to navigate if you are familiar with them. So get to know your market. Also, become familiar with the rhythms of the growing season and what grows in your area so you will know if something is out of place. You will occasionally make "mistakes" with your purchases. But how bad can a "mistake" be when it results in some tasty food? The benefit is that you will eventually be bringing home things that were mostly grown in your region. And you will have a connection with the people who are growing it.

After all this, you may be wondering what I brought home this week. For the most part I purchased the things I expected to be able to get: asparagus, lettuce, spring onions, spinach and strawberries. There have been morels now for a couple of weeks, but I live with someone who doesn't care for them and they are just too expensive to buy if you don't love them. But that's OK because I also found the first beets! I almost missed them. The grower hadn't set them out yet when I made my first pass through the market. I spotted them on my way out. They were next to a bunch of beautiful baby carrots. I exerted great will power and didn't buy the carrots. So it begins, the battle every week to restrain myself from purchasing far more than we can possibly consume in a week.   Even if the weather is still a little too cool for the first of May, the market is truly warming up.....


Paige said...

Hi Chris!

I didn't see Oliver's show, but I heard a lot about it from people who did.

I am teaching a "Food from the Farmers' Market" class on June 8, at The Community Mercantile!


Gloria - The Ginger Snap Girl said...

Thanks for the tips! This is very helpful and I've been going to our local farmers market for the last 3 years or so. I live in California and the market near our home is quite small. It wasn't until last year that I started asking the vendors where the produce came from. My whole awareness came from reading the book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver. It's been eye opening! Appreciate your blog! Thank you.

Katrina said...

I'll be at that class in June. It'll be my last. SIGH!

Paige said...

Hi Gloria,

I will have to read Kingsolver's book--I've heard it's good (and have read some of her fiction). Another good one for tips on Farmers' Market shopping is Deborah Madison's Local Flavors.

Paige said...

Katrina, I can't believe that will be your last class. I'll miss seeing you...