The Farmers Market Conundrum

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Anyone who knows me personally or reads my blog (or the eGullet Forums) knows that I love Farmers Markets in general and especially the ones local to me. They are great for buying top quality food and supporting an important element of the local or greater regional community (for all the urban dwellers). I love the variety, freshness and social aspects of the market – all things that are extremely difficult to impossible to get in a supermarket, including even the best ones. I also think that when one considers the quality and entertainment factors, they represent excellent value on the dollar.

I am not, however, uncritical. I can understand and appreciate that farmers markets are selective, usually employing strict rules as to what vendors can and cannot sell at the markets. The markets should certainly be vigilant about making sure that their vendors sell only high quality products that were grown, raised or prepared within their particular catchment area. Sometimes, the rules can be somewhat loose when it comes to artisanal food products, such as the peanut butter vendor at some of the local markets even though peanuts are not grown anywhere near our region. I don't really have a problem with that, so long as the product is artisanally made locally and of high quality. I am not interested in excluding vendors so long as what they are selling is of quality and within the framework of the market. But here is the the conundrum. What I do not understand is the Market's exclusion of top quality farm-raised products from specific farm vendors. For example, why can't a local farm that raises some of the best free-range pigs around and has some of the finest pork in the area, not sell their pork at the same market at which they sell their equally high quality grass-fed beef? While there are other vendors selling both of those items, the market is not over-saturated with either. I think that markets would garner even more support if they allowed all the farmers to sell all of their items of quality.


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3 Responses to The Farmers Market Conundrum

  1. Kevin says:

    First time I’ve seen your blog – thanks, its very nice. On this story, we have small farm and sell at a few local farmers markets. You can get some great stuff at many of the markets, but I’m afraid you have to be careful about your assumptions. All of the meat vendors we have encountered have been legitimate. Perhaps half of the produce vendors are. The rest buy their produce at the Menands wholesale market, or have it trucked directly. Very few of these are upfront about this. Some will tell you if asked, but we have encountered a few who will outright lie to customers even when asked directly if the product was grown at their farm. It is really bad. Similarly for processed and baked goods, some use local products to the extent possible and actually make their product. Some outright buy bulk products and unpackage them for sale. Again, really bad.
    Certain markets are really good about 1) having rules and 2) enforcing rules. Quite a few have rules, but don’t enforce. One of the markets we do, in Kinderhook on Saturday mornings is the best that we have encountered on managing this, but I have heard that others are also very good. I’m not going to vouch for others without firsthand knowledge, but in many cases common sense should clue you in. For instance, this year’s apples aren’t ripe yet – if someone is claiming fresh local apples around here at this time of the year, they are lying.
    By the way, I should point out that just because something isn’t locally grown doesn’t make it bad, it is probably of reasonable quality. It just isn’t what it is purported to be.

  2. John Sconzo says:

    Thank you, Kevin, for the compliment and your comments.
    I have seen some vendors at various markets, for whom your assertion would seem to apply, but the majority at the markets I frequent, I believe are entirely legitimate. It helps to get to know the farmers directly and even to visit their farms. I also tend to buy vegetables from farms that sell more than the same varieties that one can find in a supermarket. One of the big advantages of shopping at a farmers market is just that, being able to find and buy less typical varieties of vegetables. As for apples, I agree, if they are being marketed as fresh, just picked apples, they aren’t local. The only apples I have seen locally recently are from Saratoga Apple. They make no such claim. Their apples are from last year’s harvest and have been stored. Even though, they are of decent quality for that, I generally don’t buy them this time of year anyway. There are too many other delights to think about last year’s apples right now!

  3. suzanne says:

    One of the best things about shopping at a farmers’ market is your ability to get to know YOUR farmer/s. Over time it will become apparent who to buy from and who not, depending on what is important to you. That being said, markets need to do MUCH better job policing and inspecting their vendors. I think the markets recognize this and are working on this important issue.

    As far as the markets not allowing vendors to sell their entire line of product that they raise, there is the issue of flooding the market with too much of the same and not letting the first-in farmers be viable. You will see this issue much more in vendor run markets, such as Saratoga and Troy than non-vendor run markets. Some of what is being criticized/discussed here is whether or not free-market capitalism should be run full course at a farmers’ market. We don’t want to hurt a farmer’s income or the health of the market by allowing too much product in of the same variety, but we want to offer a choice and best product to the consumer. It is a tough line to draw.

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