Rebecca Miller Ffrench explains her growing enchantment with farmers’ markets
Do you remember your first farmers’ market? I can’t say that I do. I’ve been racking my brain to recall a time when I was growing up, in the late Seventies and Eighties, attending any type of open-air communal space with farmers selling their products — but I can’t.
Instead, where I grew up in a far-reaching suburb of Chicago (we were actually closer to the Wisconsin border than the city), farmers in our area would set up stands at the end of their driveways, loaded with sweet corn, eggs and other abundant produce, usually with an honor box, sometimes manned, sometimes not. We would choose the best-looking ears, greens, or squash, pop the money in the box, and be on our way.
Other than when I visited a distant aunt with a farm, that was the extent of my interaction with farmers, except of course when I’d see Roy and June, who were good friends of my grandparents. “They do really well with their crops, you know,” my grandmother would brag. “They sell to Del Monte, their corn gets canned.” There was no talk of GMOs, pesticide use, or lack of biodiversity — only of making money.
It’s ironic that my next encounters with farmers would be in New York City. I moved there in 1993, and my now-husband introduced me to the Union Square Greenmarket. It felt so exotic, so European. Of course for forward-thinking chefs like Alice Waters and restaurateurs like Danny Meyer, this type of outlet was nothing new. They had been procuring local, seasonal food from farmers’ markets for years, incorporating their finds into their restaurants’ daily menus.
For me, that was not an everyday occurrence, nor a weekly one for that matter. I got down to Union Square when I could, which wasn’t often. I was still shopping at markets in my neighborhood, much of the conventionally grown produce stickered with labels displaying their far-off countries of origin. In the back of my mind, though, the Union Square market was always there, always beckoning. It was actually while my husband and I were traveling —from San Francisco’s Ferry Plaza to Guadeloupe’s Pointe-à-Pitre market — that we would seek out local foods. Obsessed with cooking and eating, we wanted to experience that fresh catch, the just-picked produce. The flavors were incomparable.
Fast-forward twelve years. Now I was a wife and mother of two. My family and I moved upstate to the hamlet of Phoenicia, pre-Diner, pre-Graham, and before it was ever voted one of the coolest small towns in America. It was funky, artsy — and home. Many folks I met were growing their own vegetables, foraging from the forests, and baking their own breads. There was no late-night pizza delivery; we learned to toss our own. My neighbor was teaching my two daughters to start seeds and harvest lettuce. An acquaintance showed me where to find ramps. And yet another friend got me hooked on goods from the area’s farmers’ markets, from BuddhaPesto to tart, crispy apples.
La Scanlon, a market veteran, has been selling Rock Hill Bakehouse bread, which comes from Glens Falls, for over twelve years. An Ulster County resident, she gets up in the wee hours of the morning to get her goods to market. She has worked in Pine Hill, South Salem and Warwick among other outposts.
“Markets are a beautiful thing,” says Scanlon. Her customers have watched her three boys grow up, they bring her gifts, share tips, and exchange ideas. One woman showed her concern for Scanlon on a 30-something-degree day by bringing her homemade hot cocoa. She says the relationships she’s developed are meaningful, and the market is a caring, engaging community.
There has been over a 350% increase in farmers’ markets nationwide since 1994. The USDA estimated there were 8268 markets operating in 2014. There are dozens in the Catskills/Hudson Valley region. The four in my area that I frequent are Pakatakan, Woodstock, Kingston and Rhinebeck. I’m perpetually learning at these fresh-food hubs, where I’m continually introduced to new varieties of fruits and vegetables. Education is among the missions of most markets — teaching consumers about farming practices, connecting their finished meal to the dirt from which their food grows.
Understanding what you’re putting on your plate is a step toward a sustainable, local food system. These buzzwords — farm-to-table, local, sustainable — are heavily overused, which is exactly why it’s important to know exactly how they pertain to your food purchases.
At a market, you can ask the vendor how and where the foodstuff was grown and how it was harvested or slaughtered. Some farmers don’t want to pay for an organic certification but they still use organic practices. Find out if the farmer sprays, and if those sprays are harmful. Vendors are oftentimes brimming with a plethora of knowledge.
At the opening day of the Kingston market, Oleh Maczaj, owner of Rusty Plough Farms, told me to be sure I buried my heirloom variety tomato plants deep, “at least to the first real leaves.”
I also met John Michelotti, the founder of Catskill Fungi. He lives right up the road from me in Big Indian, but we’d never met. It was at the market we shared a mutual love for sauted mushrooms. That is exactly why Michelotti says he started doing markets this year: “to reach out to the community, to reframe the culture of mushrooms in North America … to teach, and just connect with people.”
Shopping at farmers’ markets has changed the way I plan meals. I have learned to let go and allow the farmer to determine what’s for dinner. My husband was always a proponent of seasonal shopping. Fifteen years ago when we’d plan dinner parties, I’d want to know exactly what we were preparing before we went to the store. He’d say, “I’m just going to get what looks good.” In essence, he was buying what was freshest, what was in season. Me, I wanted to eat what I wanted, when I wanted.
Then I learned. I understood it could be so much better. Why in December would I eat flavorless strawberries that are white and cellulose-y inside when in June I can have true flavors — juicy, deep red, fleshy berries that are extremely sweet and satisfying.
Since foods are sold at markets directly from farmers, they are fresher and retain more nutritional benefits. The produce farmers delivers is not sitting on a ship or in storage, waiting to ripen. Because there is less distance between you and your food, fewer natural resources are used to get the produce to you. A smaller carbon footprint is left. The food is also usually less processed, not waxed, which also makes it more desirable as does the fact that you don’t have to scan for unwanted ingredients like high-fructose corn syrup — not to mention there is no packaging claiming health benefits that are usually quite marginal.
There’s no doubt that buying from farmers has a multitude of benefits. But what about the cost? And the loss of time spent making an extra stop, and then walking from vendor to vendor? After all, you can’t get your toilet paper and laundry detergent there (at least not yet!).
Let’s not kid ourselves, prices are high. The consumers aren’t as diverse as I would hope. While the farmer can cut out the middleman, quality products are still expensive. When you’re just trying to feed your family and make ends meet, how do you justify these prices?
Author and food activist Michael Pollan says quite succinctly, “Spend more, eat less.” He says, “Americans are as addicted to cheap food as we are to cheap oil. We spend only 9.7% of our income on food, a smaller share than any other nation. Is it a coincidence we spend a larger percentage than any other on health care (16%)?”
The good news: many vendors accept SNAP (supplemental nutrition assistance program, formerly food stamps) payments. Most markets have a table with an EBT terminal where a card is swiped for payment and tokens are given to the SNAP user to spend throughout the market. Unfortunately, not all vendors accept the tokens, mostly those selling prepared foods and non-food items.
Anthony Fassio, chair of Slow Food NYC, whose organization supports local food traditions and advocates for people to know where their food comes from, how it tastes, and how food choices affect the rest of the world, says change must be incremental. You cannot rid yourself of processed foods overnight. There is a learning curve. You need to learn how to prepare fresh foods, how to store them, and how to enjoy them. Also, connect with the cycles of nature. If you’re buying foods at the height of their season, prices are usually lowest since there is an abundance of that food. You may also find foods you wouldn’t in a conventional market such as venison or stinging nettles.
Whether you’re on a budget or not, Leanne Brown’s Good and Cheap cookbook is a good place to start. It’s a free PDF download available online (leannebrown.com). An NYU food studies scholar, Brown wrote the book for people with tight budgets, particularly those using four-dollar-a-day SNAP benefits. It has been downloaded more than 500,000 times.
Once you’ve perused that book, get out go to your market. Ask questions about quality, freshness, nutritional values and sustainability. Most importantly, meet your farmer!