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What is a farmers market - really?

(post, Jean Feingold)

There is no legal definition for the term "farmers market." Believing it to be a popular and appealing concept, a supermarket will sometimes appropriate the term for what would otherwise be called a sale on fresh produce. Any place that wishes can use the term for whatever they sell. 

But I am a purist. I formerly managed a farmers market and wrote a book about how to start and operate these places. Much research was done, both by looking at other markets and in setting up the one I ran. Because of my personal experience, I believe a real farmers market is a place where farmers sell what they grow and things made from what they grow and nothing else. 

Why is such a strictly defined farmers market valuable? This type of market helps farmers keep farming by allowing them to set the prices for what they grow so they are more profitable. It helps consumers know what they are eating by meeting the people who grew the food. Growers can tell you what, if any, chemicals were used in its production, what variety it is, and how to prepare it. These farmers take pride in what they grow and either refuse to sell blemished products or sell them cheaply, perhaps recommending them for canning. Local communities benefit when local producers sell their products locally, as less energy is used in their transport to the final buyer. These markets also maintain an historic tradition of farmers selling directly to consumers. 

Some so called farmers markets allow "supplementation," through which a farmer can sell some purchased produce along with produce they grew themselves. But farmers who do this end up in the trap of selling out of season fruits and vegetables. They know nothing about how these things were grown and are less likely to discard unsold spoiled food they paid for. There are already many fine places to buy out of season produce - they are called grocery stores. A real farmers market does not expect to offer every type of produce every day. Its offerings reflect the seasonal bounty of its area. 

The simplest, most polite question you can ask to find out if someone is a real farmer is “Where is your farm?” If even that seems too pushy, you might inquire about what variety of beans they are selling. A reseller will almost never be able to answer that question. But a real farmer may not know either, as they sometimes get seeds from friends or fail to keep good records. 

Another benefit of patronizing real farmers is that they will offer varieties that are not only fresher but also are more flavorful, as well as some unusual things not available elsewhere. That’s because these varieties are selected for their taste rather than for their ability to withstand the rigors of shipping or for their ease in growing in large volume. 

There are many good reasons beyond helping farmers to open something called a farmers market. For example, here there is a downtown market with farmers (who are allowed to supplement), many bakery stands (even though no flour grows around here), music, and crafts. Its quite legitimate purpose is to get more people to go downtown. It has a festive atmosphere that does liven up downtown. Some of the same farmers who sell at the market I helped set up go there as well for another opportunity to sell the produce they grow and make more money. But I have also seen out of season, tired sweet corn with dried out husks for sale here, something never seen at my market. Interestingly, I did not see anyone buying it, so maybe those who offered it will figure out it’s not worth trying to buy and resell. 

I'm not suggesting that regulators take on this issue and restrict how the title "farmers market" is used. I don’t think regulation is either needed or desirable. Should any kind of regulatory system develop, it would take money to administer. That cost would have to be covered by the legitimate farmers markets and they would have to pass it on to the farmers and ultimately the customers. It’s like the federal government system for “organic” produce labelling. I know growers who have had nothing unnatural on their land since the 1940’s who can’t say what they grow is organic because they can’t afford to sign up for organic certification. These farmers often hold to stricter standards of non-use of pesticides and fertilizers than the government definition of organic, which, to me, makes the official designation meaningless.

I am instead encouraging consumers to ask questions and find out whether they are in a real farmers market or not before they buy. A real farmer loves to talk about what they grow and will never be offended for you to ask about it.