Farm Fresh

Local Farmers" Markets are a Healthy Choice

Howard and Mary Hall don’t get much sleep during the summer. They start picking salad greens at sun up every Friday, harvest produce all through the day and cut flowers late in the afternoon. On a good day, they finish washing, sorting and packing what they’ve grown on their 75-acre farm in Medina, Ohio by midnight. On Saturdays, they’re out of bed at 4:30 a.m. With the help of their three teenagers, they feed the sheep, milk the goats, water the seedlings, and fill the pick-up truck and trailer. They’re on the road by 6 a.m., heading for the North Union Farmers Market at Shaker Square in Cleveland.

When they arrive an hour later, the place is already busy. Farmers, dairymen, ranchers and small-scale food producers from all over northeast Ohio are unloading trucks and filling their tables with a luscious array of local products: ripe, ready-to-eat fresh fruits and vegetables; herbs; homemade cheese; grass-fed, free-range, and hormone-free meats and poultry; eggs; mushrooms; honey; preserves; and baked goods.

Shoppers arrive early too, before the market officially opens at 8 a.m. in order to have the best selection. Good product sells quickly. Mark Welton, a farmer with a four-acre spread in Norton, Ohio, specializes in mesculun greens and arugula, grown without pesticides or chemical fertilizers. "In season," he says, "I bring up 50 pounds of hand-cut salad mix and it’s gone by 10 a.m."

A National Phenomenon

Farmers" markets like North Union that are committed to selling only regionally grown products exist throughout the country. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, there’s been a 63 percent increase in the number of farmers" markets nationwide since 1994. There are more than 3,000 farmers" markets currently in operation, generating over $1 billion annually. This impacts more than what goes on the plate.

There are more than 3,000 farmers" markets in the U.S., selling regionally grown, often-organic produce and generating $1 billion in revenue. These grassroots markets preserve family farms.
Roddy Scheer

These markets are dependable sources of truly fresh, high-quality foods. New York City’s Greenmarket, founded in 1976, is one of the oldest and the largest with 31 locations throughout the metropolitan area. The produce Greenmarket sells is supplied by 170 farmers operating within 120 miles of the city. "Our customers come from all walks of life, all income levels," says special projects market manager Gabrielle Langholtz. "You don’t need to be a gourmet to recognize how much better this food tastes. Unlike the fruits and vegetables from big commercial growers, which are bred for durability and their suitability for mechanical harvesting and handling, Greenmarket vendors choose varieties for their flavor and pick them at the peak of ripeness."

It’s estimated that food processing, packaging, transportation and marketing consume 75 to 85 percent of the energy used in the commercial food industry. Farmers" markets are the linchpin of a nationwide, grassroots effort to create an alternative: sustainable food systems that directly connect growers and producers with their customers. The aim is to bring good food products to consumers in a cost-effective, resource-efficient way. This helps to preserve farmland and the rural landscape; insures the continued economic viability of the small family farm; counters the growth of agribusiness with its devastating impact on people and places, while supporting clean, environmentally sensitive farming practices; conserves energy; helps maintain biodiversity in food plants; and contributes to regional prosperity.

The traditional food distribution chain uses huge amounts of fossil fuels to move products from one end of the country to the other. The so-called fresh produce in supermarkets is often weeks old, and may have traveled hundreds of miles, no matter where you live. To make the journey, produce is often picked green, treated with chemicals to retard ripening, dipped in wax, and packed in bags, boxes and crates that end up in landfills. In contrast, locally grown food travels only a short distance from farm to table. It’s pulled from the ground or plucked from trees and bushes 24 hours before consumers purchase it, and brought to market in reuseable containers.

"Fruits and vegetables contain their highest levels of nutrients when harvested fully ripe and eaten soon afterwards," says Lola O"Rourke, a registered dietician in Seattle and spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association. "The wonderful flavor of truly fresh produce tempts people to eat more of it and that’s a real health benefit for virtually everyone."

"Approximately 80 percent of every food dollar spent pays for advertising, trucking, processing, packaging and disposal," says Brad Masi, founder of the Northeast Ohio Foodshed Alliance (NOFA). "Supporting farmers by buying locally grown food keeps that revenue in the community, and connects our personal health with the health of the land and the regional economy."

Each of us can be part of building a sustainable food system in our own communities. "Consumers have the most power to create change by creating demand," says Masi. "Pay attention to where your food comes from and where your food dollars go. Patronize farmers" markets."

The Dane County Farmers" Market in Madison, Wisconsin, founded in 1972, is the largest producers-only market in the nation. By giving Wisconsin growers viable marketing opportunities, it enables individual farmers to actually make a living using ecologically sound farming methods. And by choosing their produce and shopping at a farmers" market, each buyer becomes part of the larger sustainability cycle. That cycle is defined by the focus on products and practices that improve the quality of life while protecting and preserving the environment. It’s being put into action around the nation at farmers" markets.

"Concerned consumers who were raised eating out-of-season peaches in November and corn in April are learning to think globally by eating locally," explains Greenmarket’s Langholtz. "At a time when just 10 grocery chains control the purchase of 50 percent of the fresh food in this country, knowing who grows your food and where it comes from is a joyful responsibility."

Donita Anderson, North Union market manager and one of its founders, drew inspiration and know-how from the Dane County Market and New York’s Greenmarket. "We support family farms," says Anderson. "They bring fresh, local produce to city people, and build community. Urban farm markets make cities more livable, and the simple, pleasurable act of buying something good to eat is a powerful way to use your shopping dollars to do good." Every dollar spent at a farmers" market circulates through the state economy seven times, explains Anderson. "Moreover, when growers reap the rewards of their efforts directly, without the expense of middlemen, they have a better chance of staying in business. That translates into keeping green spaces around our cities because when small-scale farming is not economically feasible, housing developments grow instead and malls take over the countryside," says Anderson.

Ron Pardini, execu

tive director of the San Francisco-based Urban Village Farmers" Market Association, sums it up in a single sentence: "We need farmers" markets for health, environmental, spiritual and culinary reasons."

LAURA FAYE TAXEL is an Ohio-based food writer.