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Monday, July 1, 2013

Farming the market

"So, how much did they cost?" she asked me as I handed over the two dozen eggs I purchased at the Eastside Farmer's Market in Houston. She nearly choked when I told her: $14. About the cheapest eggs I found at the market were around $5 a dozen, and that was still nearly triple what supermarket eggs cost regularly. True, these were labeled cage-free, and came in a range of colors from brown to white, but I could tell my friend was reevaluating if it was worth it to spend that much on eggs.

On occasion, I take a stroll through our local farmers' markets, but I find that I do not tend purchase anything for myself.

Variegated and different shaped summer squashes. These are pretty large, though, a bit past prime harvesting stage. Each basket is $5.
Rarely, I encounter a varietal that looks interesting, but most of the time, our farmers don't seem to plant or harvest crops that are too far from the norm. In effect, they are in direct competition with the supermarket produce. Moreover, due to "seasonality" constraints, most vendors sell the same items! I do like talking to the farmers, but I am more likely to find a range of greens from an ethnic market than the farmers' market. So, the question is - is this heritage breed, or some such, worth the price premium?

This vendor had brussels sprouts, which is pretty impressive in the June heat of Texas. 

Mushrooms here are also the standard varieties you'd get in the markets. Only about 3x the price. FYI - portobellos are just the mature form of creminis. And white mushrooms are a sport (mutation) of creminis. 
That's, of course, a personal decision, depending on what one understands as valuable. Personally, I'm hoping for varietals that are impractical to enter the supermarket system. When I visit farmers' markets on my travels, I've encountered amazing peaches, strawberry, avocado, and tomato varieties that can never leave the local area, because they are too fragile, too difficult to cultivate - but have unique flavors worth paying extra for.

Local honey is a valid option for displaying the distinctiveness of the region. I just wish it didn't come with pseudoscientific claims about curing allergies
What I did find all over the market, are labels. Lots of labels with adjectives virtuous and vague: "Sustainable. Local. Natural. Organic. Free range. Humanely raised.". These labels have no scientific basis, and lack enforceable definitions - but near as I can tell, serve the bulk of justification for the exorbitant pricing. This cavalier attitude about labeling is perhaps why lots of the same folks don't understand the difference between this and legally enforced mandatory labeling (as proposed for GMOs). But the emotional reaction elicited by these terms is as powerful a value determinant as esthetics is for art.

Or in this case, way beyond organic. Whatever that means.
Largely, I think our farmers' markets aren't so much for the farmers as they are for the artists who labor to produce these illusions. Farmers can make it so much easier for themselves by leveraging modern technology, producing crops more reliably, but artisan farmers eschew this for the challenge. And a consumer community has grown around this idea.

I'll bemoan the enshrining of pseudoscience in these markets, but the self-delusion is part of the fabric of community that makes these weekly rituals fun to go to, despite the heat and parking. In a sense, it's quite an anthropological wonder to observe. 


  1. I went to that same farmer's market this weekend and couldn't have put it better myself. It's insane how widely prices vary from one store to another for the same type of produce. I do find that the produce from the utility research garden to be pretty interesting though.

  2. Concerning the eggs - no they weren't labeled "cage-free" - the label read: "From pasture range hens, no antibiotics, chemicals, GMO grains. Hens fed certified organic grains, grass and bugs." BIG DIFFERENCE. Nor were their colors exactly as you say - there were no truly white eggs, there were a variety of shades of brown to pink plus almost half were varying shades of blue/green (some may be a very pale blue). How these hens are raised and fed are a world different from your cheap supermarket eggs. Notice on the sign that they were all sold out - as they most always are. And of course they are all extremely fresh (like less than 4 days old). Just ask our customers who reserve them in advance and refuse to buy eggs elsewhere! We can't compete with huge factory farms on cost, but we can produce a product they can't begin to match in terms of taste, quality, freshness, and healthiness! David Crank - Oaks of Mamre Farm.

  3. One more comment about the "labeling" at the farmer's market: Unlike in a grocery store, the farmer who raised the food offered for sale is physically present to show pictures and explain in detail how his food was raised. And you are invited to make a relatively short drive out to his local farm to see for yourself! At farmer's markets, labels attract the initial attention of customers so they can ask questions and find out what is really meant by these labels - vs. supermarket labels, many of which are poorly defined and often hide the truth about how the food was produced - and you have no means to verify. If you are truly concerned about how your food is raised and how healthy it really is - there is no substitute for personally knowing the farmers who produce it and their values and practices - such as by buying directly from the small farmer at a farmer's market. Of course it costs more, but not because the farmers or anyone else is making a lot of money. These farmers have chosen to operate on a small scale and using proven methods that produce quality while minimizing the health risks and environmental risks associated with so many of the low cost/high production factory farming methods of today.