Farmers Markets: Just a bucolic mask?

Most people generally assume that the produce, meat, and other items they buy at farmers markets are grown or made by the people from whom they are purchasing the items. I recently went to a nearby farmers market (one my mother typically avoids because she insists it is far more expensive than other local ones). It was a small market, maybe ten vendors in total, two selling inedible crafts, two selling sweets and breads, and the rest selling produce or meat items. The first vendor I went to had their produce displayed in quaint woven wood baskets with handles. Clipped to each basket were signs that declared the product, the price, and – on some – the words “our own.” Those two words were at the top of most of the laminated signs, but not all. So where, then, did the wax beans come from, if not their farm?

Cargill Farm veggies

Another vendor had clothes made from alpaca wool displayed. There was a plastic grocery bag stuffed with the shorn wool (fiber) for passersby to touch and marvel at its impossible, unequaled softness. The woman owned several alpacas, and she was selling fiber and yarn straight from their backs, but the beautiful sweaters, hats, and scarves were made by a couple of different companies in North America, and even by people in Peru. Of the latter, the woman confessed, “they’ve been doing it for centuries, and they do it best.” Indeed, but to be sold at a farmers market in New Hampshire, some four thousand miles from origin?

wax beans, snap peas, green beans, plum tomatoes

There was another vendor who had a dizzying array of fruits and vegetables. On display and for sale were green beans, wax beans, tomatoes, snap peas, broccoli, red and green lettuce, eggplants, cucumbers, zucchini, summer crookneck squash, sweet peppers, corn, beets, carrots, onions, red potatoes, radishes, blueberries, plums, peaches and raspberries. ‘Cargill Farms’ was embroidered on the polo shirts of the vendors, and the man who gruffly sold me green beans told me he was located in the next town over. I looked them up: Cargill Commodities Farms. Those first two names certainly didn’t inspire much confidence. Google “Cargill” and you’ll find the out it is the “international producer and marketer of food, agricultural, financial and industrial products and services.” But this is a different Cargill, I’m sure.

plums and blueberries

So it was time to move beyond cynicism and speculation to seek out the facts. I hunted down the manager of this farmers market and was given a most ambiguous and uninformative answer of “we follow the bylaws of the New Hampshire Farmers Market Association.” Thankfully, those bylaws are readily available online, and it certainly did not take long to read the bylaws that pertained to what each vendor can or cannot sell at the farmers markets. They state that their goal is to create venues to sell NH-based agricultural products and crafts, and to have “at least 50% of a producer’s products meet this definition.” The bylaws go on to add that if a vendor wants to sell produce that is not from their own farm they must seek approval by their market manager and also identify it as such.

summer crookneck squash

I found those bylaws a tad vague and not very stringent. However, these were the bare minimum, allowing each individual farmers market to create rules at their own discretion. Bedford, NH has its rules posted in pleasant transparency on its website, and they demand that vendors sell produce that is 90% their own. They further maintain that no more than 25% of the vendors will sell agricultural crafts, which includes baked goods and preserves as well as jewelry and woodcrafts. However, this little farmers market I attended had neither a website nor a manager who seemed keen on transparency. And so the solution was simple.

Straight from their farm, barely 5 miles away.

Hello, Mr. Cargill? I really enjoyed the green beans I bought from you last week. Are they from your own farm? Is all this from your own farm? Where are you located? Do you sell from your farm and can I stop by? And so it was uncovered that Cargill Commodities Farm is not a dubious offspring of the giant corporation, but a wonderfully successful NH farm. The alpaca woman? She was selling the fiber and yarn, which were her own, and thus met the 50% quota. Any vendor I approached was more than happy to talk about their products, which were theirs, and which came from a smaller neighboring farm they bought it from. No one was selling cases of broccoli they had purchased from the Boston Terminal Market, after all, when would they have had time to drive down there? These folks are all hard at work on their own farms.

early girl tomato, blue potatoes, zephyr squash, beets, corn

So rest assured, the vendors selling to you at your local farmers market are your neighbors selling primarily their own products. And if you’re ever unsure, ever questioning the origin of an item, just ask! Most of them even have a small shop or farm stand at their farm, which brings you even closer to your food’s roots. Farmers markets are growing in size and numbers across the U.S., thanks to all those who are demanding fresh, local, healthy food. So keep demanding it! This is how you vote with your dollar. I placed a lot of votes this past week, as you can see by the photos below on my farmer’s market basket. Be sure to check out how I cooked up all of these fresh veggies by lightly grilling them!

Farmers market basket

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