There is so much to enjoy at the local farmers markets: fresh produce, local meats, baked goods, maple syrup and, of course, the chance to meet and chat with the farmer. Undoubtedly, most of the vendors are known for their product or a particular trait: the cookie man, or the woman with the red pickup. But with some worthwhile effort, you can (and should) get to know more about the people who are putting food on your table. Most people enjoy talking about what they do, and farmers are no exception! For you, there is the added advantage of a better understanding of your food supply, and options that are open to you by getting to know your farmer better. Here are some guidelines:
1. Try to avoid "absolutes": Telling a farmer "I only eat organic products" is like saying that everything (and everyone) else is not worth discussing. Try to learn what the farmer does to assure the safety and quality of their produce. What chemicals do they use, and are they trained in using them? What product(s) receive less "chemical attention"? How do farmers prepare the food for their own table?
In the same way, try not to condemn any particular offering with "brussels sprouts? Why would anyone want those awful things?" Instead, try to learn how to prepare things you are unfamiliar with and get ideas from the farmers (they don’t throw away what doesn’t sell!) or the local extension educator. Lean on the expert: Every tomato is the same, right? Well, yellow tomatoes have less acid and a milder taste; and some heirlooms are very sweet while others are meatier, which make them better for sauces. The farmers know what they have grown, and the qualities of their products, so ask questions. Just because the "kid" at the supermarket is clueless about their produce doesn't mean you have to just accept what is in front of you! There is also an expert in front of you, so don't be afraid to ask!
2. Ask about other products: Once you have established trust with a farmer, use them as a resource, even if they don't have the produce you seek. After all, they see many of the other vendors at your market regularly and know who is doing the best work with what. Looking for collards? Ask your "most trusted source" who has good collards this week. As long as it is not taking business away from their farm, most farmers will gladly share what they know is available in the market, or around the area.
3. Chat, but try not to linger: Most of the folks I have met at markets are very friendly and easy to talk to, and the vendors are chief among that group. But at the end of the day, this is their business, their livelihood, and they may have many customers to serve while chatting with you. Be sensitive to their business flow and maybe stop back when they are less busy to catch up or just shoot the breeze.
4. Growing and gardening advice: In addition to having great veggies, farmers also have great ideas about getting the most from your plants and garden. Many are trained gardeners, botanists or experts regarding certain strains and varieties, and they will know if others among them may be able to help with particular questions. Ask the farmer with the nicest peppers how they managed to grow such excellent produce! The answers may surprise you, and help with your own garden!
At the end of it all, these vendors are neighbors, and should be treated as such. They have a wealth of expert advice and sage wisdom. They are able to sympathize with every crop that has failed or pest that has invaded a garden plot, and they appreciate your interest in the product. Most of all, showing an interest in your farmers reflects a deeper commitment to their craft and helps to build your understanding of the professionalism and dedication they bring to what they do: getting food to your table.
Stop down Saturday, July 18, for Family Fun Day at the Auburn Farmers Market and see what delicious recipe I am making! See you at the market!