Fall farmers markets
Crisp fall temperatures have arrived, as welcome now as was the first warm spring breeze after a frigidly hellish winter. Even when daytime temperatures rival those in mid-August, the heat isn’t as oppressive, the humidity is lower and pleasantly cool evenings come quickly.
The foods and flavors of autumn are also a welcome shift. Suddenly a steaming bowl of stew, chili or soup is more appealing than a tomato stuffed with chicken salad. A baked apple satisfies better than does a cold slice of watermelon.
But there’s something that makes me sad each year: the drop-off of folks at Springfield’s farmers markets, at both the downtown Old State Capitol location on Wednesdays and Saturday mornings and the Illinois Products Farmers Market on Thursday evenings. It’s as if most folks think that the end of summer means the end of fresh local foodstuffs.
Nothing could be further from the truth. This is, after all, the harvest season. And while some early summer crops have disappeared, such as asparagus, rhubarb and strawberries, many more are making a second appearance in the more hospitable, cooler weather. Some cool weather crops will have disappeared in summer’s heat. Others that have been available throughout the summer are at their sweetest and most succulent when they ripen in cool weather. Area farmers markets and farm stands are overflowing with autumn’s bounty: spinach, lettuces and other greens such as collards, mustard, turnip and kale; root vegetables such as beets, turnips and radishes; kohl crops such as broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage and Brussels sprouts; and pumpkins, gourds and hard shell squashes are all at their peak right now; as are fruits ranging from pears, grapes and plums, to an astonishing variety of apples.
I’ve written before about Michael Ruhlman, probably the most widely respected American food writer today and certainly my favorite. And I’ll undoubtedly write about him again. But recently there was a piece about helping to support small sustainable farmers on his blog (ruhlman.com – always worth reading), not written by Ruhlman himself, but by a small-farmer friend of his.
Kasha Bialas grew up on a 55-acre farm in Orange County, New York. A single mother, she still lives and works on Bialas Family Farm, as well as publishing an excellent blog, thefarmgirlcooks.wordpress.com, about life on a small-family farm, recipes and more. What follows are excerpts from the piece she wrote for Michael Ruhlman’s blog: How to Help Small Farmers: A Farmer’s Words. While she doesn’t explicitly address drop-off in fall farmers markets customers, her words are spot-on about making sustainable farming sustainable not only for the land and environment, but also for the farmers who work to make a living within those perimeters.
Be Understanding and Flexible
Weather conditions can throw a farmer’s life into a total tailspin. Everyone in the Northeast right now is complaining about the dismal weather and storms, but sadly, the farmers are the ones who feel the far-reaching effects deep in their wallets. While it is our intention and desire to have as many items as possible available for you, one severe weather incident can cause irreparable damage. Three days of rain can wipe out a 6-week supply of lettuce. Hail tears holes in spinach. Frost can burn the outer husks of corn, but those husks protect the kernels within, so it’s perfectly edible despite outward appearance. Too much rain can cause tomatoes to swell, burst their skins, and rot on the vine. If consumers will only purchase products that are pretty, farmers would have to throw out half of what they grow. Nature is awesome, but she isn’t perfect. That crooked zucchini may not slice nicely into long planks but it’s fine for grating and making fritters. Radish or beet tops are a little wilty? If the roots are your primary concern, do the leaves matter?
Be Consistent in Your Support
We’re working every day (yes, seven days a week) to keep our plants and our soil healthy in order to bring our customers a great product. We depend on you to be there to buy them!
Become a farm share or CSA member. Plan your week around the farmers market or farmstand hours and be there, rain or shine. Not everyone can participate in rainy day markets (bread and baked goods, in particular, don’t hold up well in humid conditions), but we veggie and fruit farmers have been preparing our products for days and we need to sell them to cover the costs we’ve already incurred. We harvest and prepare ahead of time in anticipation of a successful market day and we need you to come out and shop with us. Our products are perishable and won’t necessarily last until our next market.
You can count on us to be there for you, regardless of weather, but we need you to do the same for us. A raincoat or umbrella is all you need to go about business as usual. Please don’t forgo the market because of a little foul weather. Please don’t choose to spend your produce budget at the supermarket rather than with your farmer because it’s more convenient. I politely remind customers that the electric bill (and many others) needs to get paid whether it rains or not, so yes, we are always at market.
Be Open to Trying New Things
Sometimes farmers get tired of growing the same old tomatoes and cucumbers. Occasionally what grew well in our soil or in our climate five or 10 years ago doesn’t anymore. Perhaps there was a seed failure or germination issue or a soil-based disease that needs attention. Whatever the issue, something beyond our control has forced us to switch gears. Keep tabs on what’s new or in the works and plan to try some garlic scapes or red komatsuna or pea shoots. You never know what will become your next favorite must-have.
Get to Know Your Grower and Producer
We’re real people who work hard and like to have a connection with the people who are enjoying the product of our labor. Ask us questions, participate in farm events, tell us what you think about how we’re doing. Farmers are incredibly smart people and they don’t often follow trends without serious research and experience to support them. We’re happy to share that with you.
Reading something on the Internet doesn’t make it true or practical. Talk to your farmer (sure, it’s OK to call us “your farmer”; we’re flattered!) about GMOs, growing practices, product availability, and storageability. It’s our business and we take it very seriously. It puts food on our tables and clothes on our kids’ backs and pays our bills.
If there’s a problem, please tell us! There may be a simple, straightforward solution and we’d hate to lose a customer due to lack of communication. Gives us a chance to make it right!
If you like what you see at our stand or our farm, tell everyone you know! Share our website, our Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and Instagram info. Word of mouth advertising from long-time satisfied customers is what keeps us in business.
Farmers want to work the land and create something wonderful to share. We’ve devoted our lives to it and we couldn’t do it without you.
Thanks, Kasha Bialas for telling it like it is, and reminding us about how much work goes into those wonderful farmers market displays of foodstuffs each week.
Contact Julianne Glatz at email@example.com.