Across the table, the woman tending the booth chuckled. “If we had’na grown ’em, they’d throw us outta here.” Even a small-town farmers’ market has rules. One of them is that you can only sell produce you’ve grown yourself.
The chuckling woman goes on to explain how she manages to grow perfect tomatoes, even this late in the season. She and her husband, a slim farmer with a scraggly gray beard, are fond of handing out advice to their customers, right along with the rattlesnake beans and eggplants. In fact, they seem to enjoy talking about vegetables as much as selling them.
Last week, the bearded farmer warned me with particular zeal against weeding watermelons, something he says should never be done. Never.
He seemed to know his melons, so I bought one from him, along with some eggplants. The eggplants were especially good, some of the best I’ve had. Today, I tell him as much.
“How’d you cook ’em?” he demands. He and his wife listen with genuine interest before sharing their own recipe.
Farther down the line of tables, another farmer is selling jars of bay leaves from his twenty-five-year-old tree. Every year for more than two decades, he tells me, he has carefully pruned his bay tree and collected and dried the leaves. The trees grow real slow, so there’s a bit of history in those jars.
Conversations like these are what you come to expect from a local farmers’ market, but they’re simply impossible in the supermarket system. In the Wal-Mart age, we’ve almost done away with face-to-face, farm-to-table food shopping. While we’ve gained convenience, we’ve lost personality, and I don’t think it’s a fair trade.
I’m not the only one. Nationwide, there are enough local foodies to support over 7,000 farmers’ markets; the number has increased 150 percent since 2000. And they’re not just popular in green strongholds. Even in Alabama, where the recycling rate is appallingly low, farmers’ markets are everywhere. Buying fresh and local is something we all can get behind.
To many greens, local food and sustainability go hand-in-hand. But unlike many aspects of sustainable living, farmers’ markets have not been colonized by politics. People don’t go to make a political statement; they go because they want to buy fresh food from real people they can get to know. That’s part of what makes farmers’ markets successful throughout the country.
The social aspect of farmers’ markets runs deep. Your food dollars stay in the community and help independent growers stay independent. The money goes to the growers themselves, not to faceless corporations. And until you’ve experienced it, you don’t realize the value of actually knowing your farmer.
Some folks who have been around a bit longer than I might be amused that the idea of buying food from an individual is suddenly new and progressive. After all, it wasn’t so long ago that people visited the barber, the dentist, the grocer… Then came fast-food culture–an example of progress taking a wrong turn.
In recent years, the trend has been toward convenience, at the cost of quality and personality. But if we want to build sustainable communities–not just companies with social responsibility statements–we need to shake the drive-through mentality. We need to take a good, long look at our food priorities.
Why choose food out of so many pressing issues? Food has one thing that solar panels and Priuses do not: a universal connection. In other words, everybody has to eat, and most of us would rather eat something good. As a result, many people with no interest in being green are turning back to real, fresh food. It’s this group, as much as the granola types, that has made farmers’ markets popular.
In short, food brings families and communities together. Because of that, it is powerful.
Image credit: Natalie Maynor