It’s that time again: the asparagus spears are poking up from the earth, the early squash is almost ready, and soon I’ll be ready to take produce to the market. If you’re like any of my customers then this is a season that you look forward to all winter long. I don’t blame you. Sometimes on a cold winter’s night, I’ll be counting the weeks until the first home grown summer tomatoes will be ripe enough to eat. With all those months of anticipation, it doesn’t surprise me that some vendors can get away with what I consider a sin: Passing trucked-in produce off as locally grown.
Year after year, you see folks who have a genuine interest in buying locally grown produce purchasing from middleman vendors with produce that has been trucked-in from hundreds of miles away. To me, this is irony at its finest: People go to farmers’ markets to escape the trucked-in goods and end up buying trucked-in goods at their local farmers’ market. You have to be very careful in order to avoid it, but realistically, it ends up happening to most of us. It’s even happened to me!
One year, when we lost our entire crop of plums to brown rot, I stopped at a roadside stand to buy a peck of plums. A father and son duo was running the stand. There were a few bushels of fruit on the table beside a field of corn. This put me at ease.
“Did you grow these yourself?”
“Yes sir!” the 14 year old boy said.
…and I fully believed him until 30 minutes later when I ended up chewing on a “Product of California” sticker. (This was a good indication that it wasn’t local since I live about 2,500 miles from California.)
“%$@# penhooker!” I said after spitting out bits of plastic sticker and mediocre plum. I really felt suckered. I really was suckered! (For those of you unfamiliar with the term penhooker, that’s how agricultural producers refer to middlemen pejoratively.)
This brings me to the point of why I’m writing to you. I don’t like to be cheated, and I don’t like to see others cheated. So I jotted down a few simple tips to help you identify and buy local produce. If you believe that it’s important to support your local farmer, keep in mind these tips so you don’t get the wool pulled over your eyes and end up with a mouthful of California plums (…unless you live in California, then that’s okay.)
Determine if your vendor is the producer. Ask them about their farms. Ask them about how they grow the food. Most of the farmers that I know are tickled pink to have you ask about their farm and will be happy to talk about it at the drop of a hat. If they’re selling you their produce, a real farmer wouldn’t be offended that you want to know how they grew it.
Buy from a knowledgeable middleman. It’s not always possible to buy directly from the person that grew your food, and this is often the case with very small farmers that produce 1 bushel a week of a single crop and nothing else. These farmers might be represented by a middleman acting as a salesman for 5-10 local farmers. The big difference here: When you ask, the middleman they ought to know the farmer’s name and where his farm is located. The question “Where was this grown?” can be very useful under these conditions. It can also be very telling.
Watch out for this conversation. If you do end up asking “Where was this grown?” and you get the following response, be skeptical!
“Where were these tomatoes grown?”
“Oh I picked those up in ***-ville.”
“How about these onions?”
“I got those over in ***-ville, too”
99% of the time I’ve overheard this conversation the %$@# penhooker in question was gently trying to persuade his patron that the produce was grown locally just a few miles away. The reality of the story was that the penhooker picked up his goods at a produce wholesaler located in ***-ville who brought them in on a truck from Timbuktu and Kalamazoo. You would not believe how many times I’ve heard this pitch or how many times I’ve seen it work.
Train yourself to do this. The best I can tell from observation and 14 years of being a market vendor is that people love a big pile of produce and lots of color. This is probably an evolutionary trait that kept us from starving in the caveman days, but if you’re trying to buy local produce it can be detrimental at the start of the season. Seeing a large variety of produce in March or April (depending on your region) is probably an indicator that you’re dealing with a middleman. As I said, that is not always a bad thing, but you should know that your brain is hard-wired to make that produce more attractive because of the cornucopia before you. Train yourself to take a step back and look at the tables with just one or two products. I can almost guarantee that the person standing behind them actually grew those items. (If those two items are asparagus and squash then it just might be me!) When in doubt, I always buy from the person that brought the least amount to market. Not only is this a safe bet, it will encourage that farmer to continue to show up in the early season. Who knows what they might bring next time that you’ll miss out on if they decided it isn’t worthwhile.
Look out for Product of California stickers! If they appear on produce from a roadside stand in North Carolina it’s a dead giveaway!
To end on a serious note, I am personally convinced that buying local produce is the finest thing that we can do to better not only ourselves but the community around us. I hope that you are similarly minded. If so, please remember that there are dishonest people who would take advantage of you if you assume that they are local producers just because they are at a farmers’ market or a roadside stand.
Remember, if we let ourselves be fooled then we’re directing money away from small local farmers who, too often, can not afford our mistake.
From the Farm,
P.S. If you like this article, be sure to share it with a friend and let Brad know by writing him at brad [at] highlyuncivilized [dot] com.
John is our friend from the east coast who has been involved in agriculture most of his life. At age 13, with his father and brother, he started selling produce at the Piedmont Farmer’s Market which eventually evolved into Goforth’s Garden. Today, they raise peaches, blueberries, and an assortment of other fruits and vegetables to be sold at local markets and through their CSA. John’s other interest include writing, whittling, and woodworking.