Friday, May 1, 2009

Is the farmers' market safe?

Recently, as I hosted a farmers' market booth at a local festival, I had a passer-by ask me an interesting question: Do vendors at the market have to be inspected by the health department?

At first, I assumed the young lady was interested in becoming a vendor, wondering what certifications she needed to obtain to have her application accepted. But as we talked, I realized what she was really asking was "Is the food at the farmers' market safe?" It's a question certainly worth asking, although this was my first time to answer. Frankly, after years of watching documentaries and reading books about what "really" happens in our commercial food infrastructure, the question came as a shock. It's a no-brainer, right? Food at the farmers' market is safer. During last summer's tomato scare, news agencies across the nation encouraged people to visit their farmers' markets where contamination-free produce could be bought with confidence. 

So what makes my farmers' market products safe? As far as I know, only one of our vendors has a certified and inspected commercial kitchen, and none of them are large commercial farms (mostly average people with larger than average gardens). Why should they be preferred over the commercial varieties where inspection and government regulation is required? I suppose I can only speak for myself, but here's why I feel safer shopping at my local farmers' market:
  • Direct sales - As I mentioned earlier, my farmers market is a wonderful group of everyday average people with larger than average gardens. Most of them are, in fact, in the business of selling their produce and minimally processed goods (like jams and jellies, pickles, baked breads, etc), so it's not that the market is a hobby for them. What I'm trying to say is that these small farmer/large gardeners don't have salesmen selling their goods. When I visit the market, I have the opportunity to speak directly with the individual who raised the food I'd like to buy. I can ask how it was grown, whether or not pesticides or fertilizers were used, and when it was picked. When you buy at the grocery store, it's a guessing game (ever asked a supermarket produce manager how something was grown? Yeah - good luck!). I love talking to the farmer, the jam maker, the bread baker, and knowing exactly what I'm getting!
  • Reputation -  Unlike corporations, which have billions of dollars to cover their mistakes (between food recalls and lawsuits), my farmers' market vendors have only their reputation of producing a consistent quality product to support their families. If they sell a shoddy product or something that makes me sick, I won't be buying from they again will I? - And because I participated in direct sales, I know EXACTLY from whom the product came.
  • Sharing the Harvest - To me, this is the most telling of reason of why the farmers' market is safe. I've seen documentaries where commercial farmers refuse to eat the product they've raised because of the amount of chemicals that have been dumped on it - the harvest all goes into the food infrastructure while the farmer tends a small (usually organic) patch that is used just for the family. Not so at my farmers' market. One of my favorite vendors tells me all the time, we grow what we eat and bring the rest to market. To me, that means I'm part of the farmers' extended family. From the food grown in the field to the jam made in the house kitchen, I enjoy the same foods that market vendors' families enjoy. Now on the producing end (I'm privately selling homemade organic whole-wheat bread out of my house), I know this is true. Sure, it's not made in a commercial kitchen, but whomever enjoys a loaf of my bread received the same high quality and attention to detail that I provide my own family. 
  • Relationships - Finally, my favorite reason of all - Relationships! As I attend my farmers' market week after week, I build relationship with each of the producers. That translates into a trust you just can't equal with a corporation. I'm never felt chummy with Con-Agra, what can I say? I trust my farmers' market vendors because I know them. They are my friends, my family, my neighbors, my community. 
Surely, I've missed some wonderful reasons why buying from the local farmers' market is safer than the big-box grocery store. Why do you shop at your farmers' market?


Sue said...

Sounds silly, but I go to the farmers market for those few items I absolutely CANNOT grow...broccoli and cauliflower are two that come to mind. I have never had luck with them. We have an Amish family at our market that grows the best!
Oh, and sweet corn. Too much space needed and far easier to spend $3 a dozen than to try and keep the raccoons and turkeys out of a patch of that.

Gamer Girl said...

I hate to say it, but at my Farmer's Market you have to be *very* careful. There's at least one merchant who brings in imported produce. *sighs*

Helen said...

As for the imported produce...our board members get a signed application from each vendor agreeing that they grow the food themselves. That's just a # 1 rule at our farmers market.

Beany said...

I think Marion Nestle in Food Politics (which I still haven't finished) said that the FDA doesn't have the manpower to individually visit all food producers. They only respond to complaints.

Isn't it time we start taking our own health and concerns into our own hands though? No one else seems to care as much.

Anonymous said...

When I saw your section about direct sales, it made me think about an opportunity to enjoy that situation with green personal products as well. While edible green products are important, so are the products we put on our bodies everyday.

Anonymous said...

You can also take advantage of the option to visit the farm and see for yourself how it's done. There's nothing more safe than that. Just like growing your own.

Heather @ SGF said...

Sue - That doesn't sound silly at all. Once my garden is in full bloom, I'll be doing the same.

Gamer Girl - That's unfortunate. As Helen said, our market is for growers only. I love knowing that what I see came right off the vendors land and the market board is pretty strict on how far away the farms can be.

Helen - I'm so glad that's the case. That's why I get so frustrated with the Farm Patch (a local produce stand). They make it look like they are the farmers' market but most of it's imported.

Beany - I agree. Obviously the "rules" don't always work. I'd rather buy from local growers and producers. To me, that's just like making it myself because the growers/producers feel like family.

Jessica- do you mean like soaps? Thankfully we now have a soap maker at our market too (they make fabulous gifts too). I love buying local!

Anonymous - Absolutely! I'm the coordinator for a group called the Brazos Locavores and that's exactly what we do! I take people in town on field trip to local farms so that people can connect what they're buying to the farm. It's been very popular.

Donna said...

Great post. I, too, have visited the farms of some of the vendors and have been (mostly) very impressed. On one occasion, I decided I'd rather shop from someone else. The relationships are my favorite part.

Heather @ SGF said...

Donna - that's the best part of buying local - the transparency of the vendors so we truly can make intelligent choices about the way we eat. Good for you for investigating and making your own decisions!