I love hitting up local Farmer's Markets, but I'll admit that I rarely make it out to them. For most of the year we have soccer on Saturday mornings and that's the big Farmer's Market day around here. The market location and the soccer fields are on opposite sides of town, so I'm out of luck most of the year. I think there are a couple open on Sundays only, but we try to stay home on Sundays so we have at least one car-free day a week.
But the soccer season is over and I happened to be in a shopping center today that does a Farmer's Market on Saturday mornings. But it just didn't feel right to me. It felt more like a flea market than a Farmer's Market. I could get sno-cones and funnel cakes and all sorts of jewelry and flip-flops and I only found two tented produce stands. I expected a lot more than just two, but they were both large booths so maybe they'd be just fine. I wandered over to them and immediately noticed a few things that just felt off.
1) The person selling the produce did not give off the vibe that they were employed by the farm where the produce was sold. I can't explain this any further without sounding horrible, but the sellers just didn't look like they'd ever set foot on a farm. Call this a bias on my part, but they appeared to be hired hands from a local labor pool and not affiliated with any farms.
2) There were no signs on either produce stand stating which farm the produce came from. I've noticed this even at nicer farmer's markets from time to time. I realize that not every farm has a name, but it is sort of strange to me that there was no farm name or city anywhere to be found.
3) Many of the items being sold did not appear to be local. I saw cherries, apricots, bananas and potatoes labeled "real Idaho potatoes." I suppose there could be somewhere locally that grows these items, but Florida isn't famous for any of those things as far as I know.
Then I got to wondering…. There is a local city in Florida appropriately called Plant City. It is where all the produce comes in to the state and gets distributed. I belong to a local veggie co-op and the coordinator goes to Plant City every two weeks and buys whatever looks good and is affordable and boxes it up and sends it out to the co-op members. I stopped getting co-op deliveries from her awhile ago since my boys had seen enough squash to last them all summer, but I did find it odd that we sometimes got grapes and bananas in the box - again, two items that are not grown in Florida. I once asked the coordinator if the squash was from the Orlando-area and she said "I don't know - I just get it all at Plant City." But things come into Plant City from all over… so am I really buying local?
So what stops someone who wants to make a buck from going to Plant City and buying up produce and then selling it at local Farmer's markets under the guise that they grew it themselves? Just hire some workers from the local labor pool, buy some card tables and a tent, and you're got yourself a quick business. The buyer has no idea if pesticides were used on the produce or if the produce is even local. We go into it with a set of assumptions about the Farmer's Market faire that might be false.
Then I noticed that some of the fruits and vegetables were so incredibly uniform, much like you see in the grocery store. I know that some locally farm-produced foods can be uniform, but they usually don't look so "grocery store perfect," if you know what I mean. Then I got to thinking…what stops this same person who wants to make a buck from seeing that the local Albertson's is having a sale on Idaho potatoes where you can buy a 5lb bag and get one free. Then buying a bunch of bags of potatoes, opening them up and putting them in trays, raising the per-potato price and selling them at their booth at the farmer's market?
I've read repeatedly that Farmer's Markets are one of the fastest growing alternative food business in America. They're popping up all over the place, which I do think is great. But I started wondering if some unscrupulous sellers might be pulling the wool over the eyes of unaware buyers and selling them produce that's not from a local farm at all, but might be from overseas or half-way across the country, and might be laden with pesticides. I know that one of the main reasons I visit a Farmer's Market is to buy local, pesticide-free produce, but now I wonder if that's what I'm getting at all.
I'm not knocking the Farmer's Markets, but I am suggesting that 'Buyer Beware' might be the best philosophy when you visit one. Michael Pollan mentions how great the markets are since you can talk to the farmer about their farming practices and shake the hand that feeds you, so to speak. Maybe we should ask questions from the person taking the money to make sure we really are getting what we pay for. If they're a legitimate farmer, I'm sure they'd love to talk to you and you'll be able to buy fresh fruits and vegetables with confidence.