Monday, July 6, 2015

Is your farmers' market the real deal?

One highlight from our recent trip to western Massachusetts was a stop at a real farmers' market in downtown Northampton.

I call it “real” because Northampton’s Tuesday Market features vendors who sell only what they grow or make.  That's different from most farmers’ markets in Central Florida where produce vendors often resell fruit and vegetables purchased from wholesale distribution centers.

That’s a big difference, especially if you’re shopping at a farmers' market because you want to support Central Florida agriculture and get the freshest, most locally grown produce available.

You might think restricting vendors to local growers would limit selection. It doesn’t, at least not in Northampton. On the Tuesday afternoon we were there, six farmers displayed a wide array of organically grown produce picked fresh that morning. We saw leafy greens, ripe tomatoes, onions, garlic scapes, ginger roots, broccoli, ripe strawberries and tender stalks of asparagus in addition to numerous other fruits and veggies.

Ralph fills a bag with locally-grown, organic broccoli at the Tuesday Market in Northampton, MA

There were pastured lamb, beef, turkey and chicken products, wild mushrooms, local honey and maple syrup. Two different cheese makers displayed their wares alongside a kimchi and tempeh maker. 

Not only were samples of homemade cheese available, but the actual cheesemakers were on hand to explain the cheesmaking process to potential customers 

Nearby was a display from an area winery and a flower grower with photo-worthy displays of annuals. 

Jenny poses by a stand with beautiful flowers

One stand held an assortment of artisan jams and jellies while another had a tempting array of breads and pastries. People of all ages milled about as acoustic musicians performed on a center stage and a young girl danced while deftly manipulating a hoop around her body.

Acoustic music, freshly picked veggies and a hoola-hooping dancer to boot!

It was a festive yet relaxed scene. None of the people — neither vendors nor shoppers — acted as if the Tuesday Market was anything out of the ordinary. That may be the case for progressively attuned western Massachusetts residents, but for this Central Florida girl, it was an extraordinary experience.

I’ve lived in Lake County, Florida long enough to realize that we are not only literally but also figuratively south of more progressive parts of the country. Central Florida may be widely known for its world-renowned theme parks but when it comes to sustainability, environmental awareness and healthy living practices, we’re barely a blip on the national radar. Although there is no shortage of farmers’ markets in Lake County, not one is dedicated to exclusively presenting products from local farmers who grow, raise or make what they sell.

Why does this matter? It matters because people are being misled. The very label ‘Farmers' Market’ suggests something most Central Florida markets are not — venues for farmers. I have spoken with numerous shoppers who assume everything they’re waiting in line to buy, from pineapples to potatoes, comes from local growers. They’re surprised when I explain that’s typically not the case.

Much of the produce sold at Lake County farmers' markets does not come from farms in Lake County 

Although most farmers’ markets in Lake County have at least one local farmer selling whatever crop is currently in season, their limited selection is often overshadowed by much bigger displays presented by commercial enterprises. At those professional pretend-farmer stands, customers can choose from a broad assortment of produce presented in an intentionally funky bale-of-hay kind of way.

It’s not unlike shopping at the supermarket, except customers are outside in the heat with flies buzzing around, picking through boxes of produce, which in many cases was grown hundreds to thousands of miles away. Plus, there’s no refrigeration to keep perishable foods fresh. It’s one thing for produce to come from nearby farms and be sold the same day it’s picked. It’s quite another if it had to travel many hours or days before showing up at an open-air stall.

I applaud places like Mount Dora Village Market, which strives to be a true farmers' market. Yet even the best venues still include purveyors selling produce that comes from out-of-state.

There are many differences between the part of the country where I live and the Massachusetts community where my daughter Jenny and her family have chosen to reside. When my husband Ralph and I visit, we try to take advantage of that area’s unique offerings, including its farmers' markets.

Do I wish my own community were more like Northampton? Sometimes I do, but I’m also hopeful that my own area will one day understand the importance of being what you say you are. It’s appropriate for theme parks to create illusions that fool people into thinking they are somewhere they’re not, but that’s not how farmers' markets should be run.

Make-believe land is fine if you're a theme park but farmers' markets should be the real deal

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