Smile Politely

Eating Local, Part 3: A day at the farmers’ market

An ongoing examination of what it means to “eat local.”  Alysssa profiled local food blogger Scott Koeneman in Part 1 and Part 2.

The notion of “eating well” seems to be everywhere in the national media; Americans have learned about the food they eat from television programs like “Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution,” documentaries like “Food, Inc.” and books like “The Omnivore’s Dilemma.”

Even with all of these resources at hand, terms like “certified organic,” “grass-fed,” “free range” and “cage free” can be confusing, and making the decision between buying local, organic or commercially grown produce can be very difficult. That’s where the farmers at local farmers’ markets step into the picture.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) reported that, as of mid-2010, 6,132 farmers’ markets were in operation throughout the United States. Illinois is the third most populous state in terms of farmers’ markets, with 286 overall. Champaign-Urbana hosts four such markets each week, and 16 additional markets can be found within a 50-mile radius of the sister cities.

Champaign is home to three farmers’ markets – the Shoppes of Knollwood Market, which is held from 7:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Wednesday mornings; the Historic North First Street Market, which is held from 3 to 7 p.m. on Thursdays; and the Country Fair Farmers’ Market, which is held on Wednesday mornings from 7 a.m. to 1 p.m. In Urbana, the University of Illinois Sustainable Student Farm offers campus-grown produce behind the Illini Union (quad side) on Thursdays from 11 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., and Urbana’s hugely popular Market at the Square is held every Saturday morning from 7 a.m. until noon.

With nearly 180 registered vendors this year, Market at the Square is one of the largest and most diverse farmers’ markets in Illinois. Market at the Square Director Lisa Bralts explained how the Urbana market’s ecosystem works.

“It is like a giant puzzle every week – there are vendors who have been at this market for 20-30 years, who have had the same spaces [at the market] over time; those vendors have the same [vendor] application deadline, but they have seniority,” she said. “There are some vendors who aren’t at the market every week so they get the spaces they request, but those spaces can be filled if the vendors aren’t there.”

Bralts said vendors who want to get into the market on a limited schedule tend to bounce around in terms of where their carts are located.

Market at the Square’s main stretch primarily features fresh fruits and vegetables, as sold by Blue Moon Farm, Kleiss Produce Farm, Moore Family Farm and others.

“The primary difference between what you will find at the farmers’ market and what you will find at the grocery store is that all of the fresh fruits and vegetables are grown in state,” Bralts said. “At the market, you can also talk to the farmer who grew the food that you are buying.”

Bralts explained that patrons see more variety and freshness at the farmers’ market, than at the grocery store.

“Produce you buy at the market is usually picked the night before or that morning,” she said. “The same goes with flowers and plants.”

In a June 18 informal survey of about 30 Market patrons, many people said freshness makes a difference in determining where they spend their dollars.

“I much prefer the farmers’ market to the supermarket,” said Ian Noble, 23, who has attended Market at the Square for two years. “I care about where my food comes from, and the Market provides me with the smallest figurative distance from where my food is grown. The food also has little to no processing.”

Skye Durbin, 36, had similar things to say about why she attends.

“It is a good experience to attend the Market,” said Durbin, a two-year patron, “and the fresh food you can buy there makes for better meals.”

In addition to highlighting local produce, Market at the Square features vendors selling homemade baked goods and prepared foods, street food trucks, crafters and artisans, performers and community groups. This year, the community groups were moved to a location in front of the Market to reduce inside congestion and to build more of a public square area.

“I think a long time ago, before I was officially involved with the market, it was almost all food…and I think there are some people who wish it was still that way,” Bralts said. “Over the years, the market’s growth was helped considerably by the involvement of artisans.”

Bralts said the market’s management team is still trying to attract as many agricultural vendors as possible, but also to support the arts and engage people in any way it can.

Several survey participants noted that they enjoy the performances at Market at the Square.

“My favorite thing about the farmers’ market is the music,” said three-year Market attendee Marley Nelson, 27. “It makes it feel like you’re at a festival instead of just doing your shopping.”

The Urbana farmers’ market has no admission fee for performers, which allows a diverse group of people to attend every week. Bralts noted that these performing artists and community groups constantly expose patrons to different cultural practices and traditions.

“We don’t have to seek out performers…they generally come to us. Performers can fill out the application on-site; they can show up with their stuff and play immediately,” Bralts said. “And it isn’t just musicians – we have balloon artists, people who are juggling, et cetera. We sometimes get performers who otherwise play for money who play here for free…and that is fantastic.”

Market at the Square also has programming that is designed to educate; the “Sprouts at the Market” program allows children to meet local farmers and learn about the origins of the food they eat, while the “Art at the Market” program allows patrons to “get their hands dirty making art,” Bralts said. Past “Art at the Market” projects have been about agriculture and recycling.

Bralts said the market is very social – “It is like five hours of conversations and educating people” – but noted that there are challenges to organizing the market, too.

“My job is to present the best market possible every week, and sometimes that involves decisions that make some people unhappy,” Bralts said.

Market challenges can be logistical, like where vendors are located at the market or whether or not to allow animals (This year, Market at the Square has banned animals due to health and safety concerns), or spontaneous, like the local weather.

“The weather really affects our farmers; it affects produce availability and crop quality, and the attendance at the Market itself,” Bralts said. “I tell people that sometimes I feel like I am getting married outside every weekend.”

But keeping in touch with nature isn’t such a terrible thing, said Kevin Fahey, 64, a market patron of 32 years.

“The farmers’ market reminds us of the seasonal cycles of food production,” Fahey said. “Supermarkets treat food as a commodity divorced from nature.”

Bralts said working for Market at the Square has deepened her appreciation of the food she eats every day.

“It really is not easy to grow food,” Bralts said. “There is always a person behind food; even if the farm is completely mechanized, someone is picking fruit or spraying.”

Market vendor Diann Moore of Moore Family Farms said weather is, by far, the biggest challenge that she and her family encounter on the farm.

“Because of all of the wet weather we have had, we have had to continue planting things in the greenhouse,” Moore said. “Our sweet corn this year was seeded one seed at a time in the greenhouse and then transplanted outside on a nice day, just so we can continue to keep our weekly schedule going.”

This additional labor raises the prices of local food, and high prices can be a deterrent for some shoppers.

“Sometimes the prices aren’t too awful, but depending on what you’re looking for, you could spend three times as much as a farmers’ market for something local and organic that you could easily get at your local supermarket much cheaper,” said former Urbana resident Danielle Perlin, 23. “It depends on what your priorities are; I loved getting the goat cheese [at the market], but I didn’t buy some of the other products because I thought they were outrageously priced.”

Bralts gave some insight as to market pricing.

Though the venues’ tomatoes often cost the same per pound, Bralts said, consumers can purchase more flavorful, naturally ripened tomatoes at the farmers’ market than they can at most grocery stores.

“To me, it is also about value – it is about supporting local economy and getting better nutrition out of your food,” she said. “Organic tomatoes have better uptake of minerals from the soil than do commercially grown tomatoes.”

Bralts said Market at the Square does not dictate pricing for its vendors because the Market’s financial ecosystem tends to regulate itself; often, farmers will walk around the market to look at one another’s prices, and then adjust their own accordingly.

“If [vendors] are charging too much, people won’t buy from them,” Bralts said.

She noted that pricing also depends on “what the farm is doing.” In other words, if a farm is Certified Organic, bearing the USDA Seal of Approval, its customers will pay more for its goods than they would if they bought from an uncertified grower. But organic certification isn’t the only factor that ups a vendor’s prices.

“I think sometimes in markets such as ours, farmers are going to charge what they think the market will bear,” Bralts said. “They have to make a living; they have to pay their workers, and they need health insurance themselves, too. These are things we have to keep in mind when we consider their pricing.”

Bralts said she encourages people to come to the Market to meet their neighbors and see their friends, and to support the local economy.

“Especially when we enter a time where the natural resources are less plentiful,” she said, “we should learn more about local foods and about the people in our neighborhoods.”

Tomorrow: The Prairieland CSA – a cheaper price with a higher risk


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