image3 Farmer's Market Fallacies: Why the Produce You're Buying Isn't As Good As You Think

Farmer’s Market Fallacies: Why the Produce You’re Buying Isn’t As Good As You Think

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Once the weather warms up, the first thing my mind turns to is all the delicious produce that Michigan has to offer. I have visions of the vivid displays of crisp asparagus, beautiful berries and juicy veggies that my local farmers markets have to offer to my summer plate.

But it’s all a lie.

Okay, maybe that is a bit extreme. However, what many people don’t realize is that in these early summer months of May and June, the produce you find at farmers markets and supermarkets isn’t actually from Michigan at all.

As the seasons change, plants (or, perhaps more accurately, seeds) must adapt to the fluctuating temperature and moisture changes of their environments. The specific temperature and water content levels required will vary from seed to seed, but many are unable to come to full maturity in Michigan until much later in the season. Plants such as tomatoes, corn and berries need up to six weeks into the summer season to come to harvest–about as long as it will take Lake Michigan to warm a degree or two. Because of this seasonality issue, many farmers who rely on farmers markets as a large chunk of their income will ship in produce from California and other states with milder climates to supply customer demand.

So, why wait?

It’s true, you could buy your produce year-round from your local grocery store, and you would probably be able to find almost everything you are looking for at any given time. However, the issues with that are tri-fold:

1. Out of season produce is severely lacking in nutrients.

The time that a plant takes to develop while still in the ground is largely proportional to the amount of nutrients found in the finished produce. For example, the fresh, earthy tomato plant your mother nurtured on the back porch took up to 12 weeks to bud flowers and put out bright red, juicy fruit. However, the red tomatoes which have been shipped across the country were more than likely picked while still green and then chemically treated to last through the long trip. Even organic produce is picked before optimal maturity, which means the plant hasn’t fully developed and the nutrient compounds aren’t complete.

2. Produce shipped in from other states (or even countries) has a much larger carbon footprint.

Think about it. The energy, labor and resources required to cultivate, package, ship and sell produce across many state lines is tens of times higher than that of your local Michigan farmer down the street. Don’t get me wrong, the mass shipment of food worldwide makes nutrition more accessible to all–a benefit I don’t intend to demean. However, buying locally when possible is much more environmentally sustainable.

3. Local farmers suffer when you buy from other sources.

Buying locally is important not only for the freshness, health and overall quality of the product, but also because of the economical impact. When local farmers and businesses are supported by their community, money stays in the area, providing more overall opportunity for growth. Keeping your money in your community helps with everything from taxes to unemployment rates. Not to mention the satisfaction of knowing your local Michigan farm’s story–and being entirely confident in the entire food story, from farm to plate.

If you were to look at our ancestors’ plates, you wouldn’t find zucchini in January or berries in May. There are pros to eating seasonally, including health, taste and economic benefits. As the old saying goes, “good things come to those who wait.” And I, for one, would prefer those things be edible (and delicious). Stay tuned for recipes and tips on how to best use your fresh, local produce!

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  1. Thanks for the great article! These are great reasons to buy locally. However, the issue of non-homegrown produce at farmers markets is more nuanced than the article lets on.

    As someone involved with the operation of a farmers market, I can speak from experience that the issue with resellers at farmers markets is
    something many markets grapple with, how does a market regulate farmers
    that grow most of their product but may not have land suitable for some
    other products, or farmers that have been selling at the market for
    decades, and stuck with the market through bad times (such as the 1980’s
    when our market almost closed), but may not necessarily farm much
    anymore, can resellers fill a void that Michigan’s growing season or
    climate cannot support so customers can do their “one stop shopping”
    while at the market?

    There are no easy answers to these questions, and there is no
    uniform solution for all farmers markets. Thus, our market has attempted
    to deal with this issue in three different ways, all designed with the
    knowledge that our customers are intelligent people, and when given
    information, they can come to their own educated choices in terms of
    purchasing decisions at the market.

    1) We have instituted a 100% Homegrown Certified program. A farmer
    pays a one-time fee for a farm inspection, and is awarded a sign that
    can be displayed at their stall. Every product for sale at their stall
    is required to be off their farm an every year this vendor has to
    re-certify to be eligible to display the sign. We have aver 25 farms
    certified so far, and are always in the process of certifying more.

    2) We have strict signage rules regarding produce that is not
    grown by the farmer that is selling it, and it must display where it
    came from – even if its from a neighbors farm or Georgia, we also have
    an official “product challenge” procedure in the event that someone
    believes that a vendor is misrepresenting their product.

    3) In taking into consideration of the future of our market, as of
    2007, all new farmers must grow a minimum of 80% of what they sell.
    Vendors sign an agreement each year that their farm can be inspected at
    anytime as a condition of selling at the market. Our Wednesday Evening and Winter markets also limit other 20% of product to have Michigan origin.

    4) Many farmers are beginning to use technology to extend the growing season. For instance, we have had homegrown tomatoes on market since late April due to greenhouses and hydroponics, and greens and lettuce as late as mid-Winter due to hoop houses.

    I apologize for the lengthy comment, but as you can
    probably tell, this is not necessarily a simple issue.

    1. Miss Market,

      Thanks for reading and commenting! It sounds like your market does a great job of keeping consumers in the loop- and that’s what it’s all about.

      I definitely agree that these issues are bigger and more intricate than my article delves into. What it boils down to is that people need to make sure they are asking the types of questions implied by all the effort your market puts in. Namely, where did this food come from? How did it get here? What process was used to grow it?

      I think the advancements being made in the farming industry are absolutely incredible, and I would like to hear more about you and the farms you work with . Feel free to contact me so we can chat more- I’d love the opportunity to be able to share a broader perspective on the issues of eating locally and sustainably!

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