I got an e-mail from Adam Mahler asking me to blog about a House of Representatives bill that would involve government support/funding of Farmer's Markets nationwide. I'm in a weird position, as I love Farmer's Markets but disagree with the bill. Allow me to explain.
If the idea is to use such legislation to improve the eating habits and educate the palates of the American populace, this is going to fail. You can't force people to eat good food anymore than you can force them to drink decent wine or beer. Look at the most popular wines and beers in this country, and then imagine legislation that would try to steer them towards better quality, locally produced alternatives. I'll pause for laughter.
Farmer's Markets are generally cheaper than supermarkets, but quality varies wildly depending on where you are. For instance, here in the Mid-South area, I'm limited to fruits, vegetables, and honey for local produce. The honey is great, the tomatoes are awesome (more on that in a moment), and you can't buy freshly shucked crowder peas or purple hull peas in the grocery store. During the spring, summer, and fall, I buy as much as I can from the Farmer's Market, though I tend to focus on peppers, onions, potatoes, tomatoes, melons, and various peas. Most of the other fruits and vegetables actually come from out of state and have stickers on them like you get at the grocery store. I've seen commercial Hawaiian produce at my local Farmer's Market. Outside of those items listed above, most of the offerings at the Market tend to be inferior to the supermarket varieites. Hey, we're in a cotton-growing region; what do you expect?
I don't think federal money is going to help Farmer's Markets much, nor is it going to change eating habits. But if they want to make more money, here's what I'd suggest, and it's something that I plan on trying this spring. I happen to live near a major tomato growing region. Aside from the standard Ripley tomato, it's known that these farmers also plant rows of heirloom tomatoes for restaurants and special clients. Last summer I lucked out and was able to gorge myself on incredible Brandywine tomatoes. This spring, I intend to make friends with a tomato seller (they always send their pretty daughters to market in the big city), and will offer bribes and the promise to pay double the usual rate for any heirloom tomatoes they bring me. If I could get a sampler basket of things like little yellow Tommytoes and zesty Green Zebras and other varieties I'd consider proposing marriage.
Let's note that I always overpay at the Farmer's Market. If it's just a staple item, I let them keep the change. If it's something I really like or can't get in the grocery store, I pay double or toss in a few extra bills. If I find a vendor I like, I reccomend them to friends and family. That's the way a community market is supposed to work.
Quick tips for Farmer's Markets:
1. Focus on crops that thrive in or are unique to your area, such as muscadine grapes here in the South.
2. Sell heirloom or unusual varieties that you can't get in the grocery store, and advertise this somewhere so that the gourmands in the area know about it.
3. Offer samples for God's sake. A piece of cheesecloth will keep the flies off, and don't be afraid to cook something if your local food service regulations aren't too harsh.