farmers’ markets – bringing the country to the city

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There’s a movement that’s revolutionising the way we buy and eat food and that movement is the farmers’ market. Revolutionise is a good word, because we have turned a full circle and come back to how we used to buy food: in an open air market, direct from the farmer.

While farmers’ markets have been around for thousands of years, urbanisation, intensive farming and supermarket chains led to their decline, until recently. The last 20 years has seen  a resurgence in farmers’ markets, not only in Australia, but also the UK, Canada and the US. This is a reflection of our (consumers’) increasing interest in the food we eat, its quality and nutritional value and its environmental impact.

The benefits, however, of farmers’ markets go well beyond the table. Farmer’s markets are environmentally sustainable. They build community. They re-educate us about where our food really comes from. We get back in touch with seasonality. The bring a little bit of the country to urban living.

7 reasons to check out your local farmers’ market this weekend

1. Freshen your fruit and vegetables

You know the story about fruit and vegetables from the supermarket. Some are imported, some are kept in cold storage for months at a time; they are often hybridised, standardised and sprayed.

On the other hand, fruit and vegetables sold at farmers’ markets are usually grown by smaller farmers, it is often organic or more sustainably grown, with less sprays and other yuckies.

It’s also fresher, in season and local.

2. Broaden your foodie horizons

Fresh fruit and vegetables aren’t the only things you can buy at farmers’ markets. You can also find an array of specialty foods (like artisan sour dough bread), locally produced foods from local ingredients (like cheese and specialty meats) ethnic foods and homemade foods (like jams and preserves). In other words, things you won’t find at your local supermarket.

3. Build relationships with your food and your supplier

Urbanisation may have meant that we as consumers have lost touch with the land, but it doesn’t mean we don’t want to know more about where our food comes from and how it is grown.

Shopping at your local market makes you more aware of seasonality. You learn more about the primary production in your region and your children learn more about where their food comes from.

By buying directly from the producer, you have the opportunity to ask questions about the food you purchase (which is impossible in a supermarket) and to get more information about what products are recommended and how to use them.

“It is the relationship between the people who grow it with the people who buy it….You see them physically, as you would in the Queen Vic market or farmers’ markets. They actually talk to the person and say, ‘What do you suggest I get this week?’. ‘I suggest you don’t get the lamb, it’s not good this week but the beef is lovely.’ It is the relationships that are created which is the enormous difference between us and the supermarkets. There is a relationship between the seller […] and the person buying. ‘How is that cheese made?’ They can be told how that cheese is made. That is what I think makes the difference.” [source].

4. Good for the hip pocket

Farmers’ markets often have the stigma that they are more expensive than ‘regular’ produce (funny that we find tasteless, hybridised supermarket buys ‘normal’ despite the fact that we’ve been eating produce closer to farmers market produce for thousands of years). Anyway…

If you’re buying handmade, ash rolled goats cheese, they yes, it’s going to be more expensive than your supermarket, home brand cheddar, although if you are buying gourmet cheese, then price isn’t going to be your motivating factor. Which I think for many people is the point: price isn’t the main reason they shop at farmers’ markets.

On the other hand, farmers’ market cut out the middle man. There are little or no transport, packaging and storage costs. It’s fresh and in season. All reasons that make it cheaper to sell and therefore cheaper to buy.

I personally find most produce at farmers’ markets (not all) cheaper than their supermarket counterparts. Studies support this conclusion. And when it comes to organic food, farmers markets are always cheaper.

The best way to find out, of course, is to go check out your local market!

Tip: One of the best ways to save at farmers’ markets is buying in bulk and making your own preserves.

5. Good for the local economy

The Victorian government’s study into farmers’ markets had several findings. They found that it can be a lucrative way for small farmers to make a living, especially those farmers who cannot sell to supermarkets because they are too small, or cannot meet the exacting specifications set by the supermarkets regarding size, shape and appearance of produce.

The report also found a flow on effect of money spent at farmers’ markets, that for every dollar spent at the market, another dollar is spent elsewhere in the local economy. Rather than taking away from existing local businesses, farmers’ markets support local business, particularly by increasing foot traffic.

When they started the Djerriwarrh market, the big independent supermarket manager across the road came across and abused me and said, ‘You’re going to take my business away’, and I said, ‘No, we won’t’. Three months later he came to see me and said, ‘Peter, you were absolutely right because when you have a farmers’ market here, my takings go up by between 16 and 18 per cent’ [source]

Finally, farmers’ markets in towns just beyond the urban fringe become tourist destinations, which is good for the local economy of the whole town.

6. Good for the environment

There are several environmental benefits to supporting farmers’ markets. Firstly, buying local food means less ‘food miles’ and therefore less energy consumption in production and transportation. Long term storage of supermarket produce also increases the energy needed to get the food to your table.

Buying from the markets often means less packaging (especially if you take your own bags). Buying organic food not only means less energy consumption (oil in fertilisers; cost of production of said fertilisers etc), but there is less chemical pollution.

A less obvious positive environmental benefit is that many farmers are making substantial investments into land and capital and are radically altering their farming methods to better cater to the growing customer base of market goers wanting organic produce.

7. Farmers’ markets build community

The other key article for this month’s newsletter was about building community in urban areas. Farmers’ markets are helping to do just that. Going to your farmers’ market is more than just a shopping trip. It offers a space that is more conducive to positive human interaction than a supermarket is (no trolley rage, in other words) It is often a way of supporting local charities (who charge a dollar for parking or entry, for instance). I think Michael Pollan sums it up best:

“Farmers’ markets are thriving, more than five thousand strong, and there is a lot more going on in them than the exchange of money for food. Someone is collecting signatures on a petition. Someone else is playing music. Children are everywhere, sampling fresh produce, talking to farmers. Friends and acquaintances stop to chat. One sociologist calculated that people have ten times as many conversations at the farmers’ market than they do in the supermarket. Socially as well as sensually, the farmers’ market offers a remarkably rich and appealing environment. Someone buying food here may be acting not just as a consumer but also as a neighbour, a citizen, a parent, a cook. In many cities and towns, farmers’ markets have taken on (and not for the first time) the function of a lively new public square.” Michael Pollan, “The Food Movement, Rising,” The New York Review of Books, 10 June 2010.

As a side note, it is also a place for farmers to meet each other and catch up.

So this weekend, take the family for an outing to your local farmers’ market, savour an organic coffee, listen to the buskers and support your local, sustainable farmer. Our ultimate food security lies in their hands.

Much of this article comes from the Victorian Government report on farmers’ markets, which is an interesting read. The Atlantic publication also has an interesting article on farmers’ markets and price, with interesting counter arguments in some of the comments.

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