Who doesn’t love throwing some cash in your pocket and some cloth bags on your shoulder, grabbing a cup of coffee, and hitting up an afternoon or weekend farmer’s market? I know I sure do….I look forward all winter long to the time in late spring/early summer when the markets will start to open again.
Of course, since we relocated from the Chicago area to the outskirts of Green Bay, Wisconsin back in late February, I was eagerly anticipating a solid spread of local produce, meats, and general goodies due to our now rural surrounding. Green Bay, which lies south of our home, has two big farmers markets every week, while Sturgeon Bay, equidistant to the north, has one. Unfortunately, once the markets opened and I had a chance to do some exploration, I was dismayed to find a serious lack of actual farmers, instead easily spotting many “fakes” or imposters.
About 5 years ago I used to represent a start up at-home gardening company that frequented local farmers markets as a vendor and, over time, I got to know the market manager and the actual local producers well. That was the first time I was exposed to the idea that some of those people selling you produce at the local markets are not in fact farmers selling their grown goods.
Instead, you have people who have actually made a business out of going down to the docks (or whatever your local import equivalent it) to buy shipped-in produce at significantly discounted bulk rates, then hauling it out to farmer’s markets throughout the week and weekend, selling it as local produce at a higher cost and, therefore, turning an easy profit.
Of course, for those of us looking to place votes with our dollars and support our community, this is very misleading and honestly quite infuriating; you think you’re buying fresh, local produce and helping to support the local farmers, but all you’re really doing is providing income to someone who, in my opinion, is basically making a living off of deceiving people.
So now that you’re aware these intruders exist, the real question becomes how can you spot the fakes?
Once you learn to look for the signs, it actually becomes relatively obvious and easy to pick them out.
Look for a farm name
Are they in a regular old (usually dirty) pick up truck or a small marked box truck? Do they have a farm sign or banner somewhere in their booth with info about where the farm is and what/how they grow? This would be as opposed to a handwritten sign on a piece of cardboard that says something obscure like “D&J Produce” (I actually saw that last week) or, more often, nothing at all.
When you have small, local farms trying to make a living, they are always looking for any way possible to advertise their name and let people know they exist. If they’ve gotten large enough to need a bigger truck, they’ve likely already established their farm name (as opposed to mom & pop’s farm down the road) and slapped it on the side of their truck, because even their trip down the highway to the market is free advertising for them.
If you see an unmarked box truck behind a booth at the market (or better yet an actual Penske), this should be your first warning sign that it’s unlikely this is a true local farmer and it's more likely someone that rented the truck just to haul their purchased goods from the dock. The same goes for a booth without some kind of signage or a banner proudly displaying the farm’s name and location.
Take notice if their produce is out-of-season
Does the booth have tomatoes & peaches in May? How about winter squash in June or asparagus in August?
You’ve noticed the unmarked truck behind the booth and now as you look at the stuff they have for sale your suspicion starts increasing….half of their produce is completely out-of-season.
This can be a tougher call for those who aren't familiar with growing produce of their own, as our society has become accustomed to having any variety of produce at any time of year and are therefore less in tune with the cycles of in-season produce, especially those living in more urbanized areas.
One of the greatest ways I’ve come across to remember what’s in-season is the advice outlined by Barbara Kingsolver and represented by what she calls the “Vegetannual” in her book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. She provides a really solid method to help yourself remember what’s in season and what’s not.
Talk to the Farmer
This is absolutely THE MOST IMPORTANT step you can take (and the most obvious) - don’t be afraid to talk to the farmer!
And of course, this is also true for anything else you’d like to know about the vegetables you’re buying, such as if they’re organically grown, if they use any kind of pesticides (organic or otherwise), if they use fertilizers, etc. But this is going to be your absolute BEST source of information about where your food is coming from…yet I find many people are nervous or feel intrusive to ask these questions of the sellers. Don’t be! Get friendly and talk to people...most farmers are proud of what they do and happy to talk about their farm with you.
The bottom line is, if they can’t or won’t answer your questions, they’re probably not farmers, and they’re definitely not the people you want to be supporting with your dollars.
It's unfortunate that we live in a time where dishonesty has become such a common part of our everyday lives, but the solution is, as always, to keep your eyes open and to gain as much information for yourself as possible. Luckily there are still plenty of good people out there too, and those are the ones worth building connections with!
What kind of experiences have you had at the farmer’s market? Do you have any great tips to add?