Last summer I bought a kilo of fresh apricots at the local Farmer’s Market. I hadn’t gone to the market to buy apricots. I went to buy picnic food with my friend and daughter. But I liked the look of the farmer – late 50s, checked shirt, open smile and large callused hands – and so approached his stall.
The apricots on display, he quickly pointed out, laid out in wooden boxes on a trestle table, weren’t his best. He’d sold his best for $6 a kilo to a wholesaler – who then sold them on to supermarkets. Supermarkets these days, he went on, expect unblemished fruit that stay fresh in customer’s fruit bowls for a week following purchase (ie up to a month after picking). ‘Whereas these’, said the farmer, fondling a freckled apricot and passing it to me to taste, ‘are imperfect but gorgeous. And’, he added, ‘if you keep them in an egg carton in the fridge, they’ll stay plump for a week’.
‘Why’, I asked him, curious, ‘if you can sell your fruit wholesale for $6 a kilo, do you sell them at a Farmers Market for half that? ‘Well’, he replied, folding his arms and looking straight at me. ‘There are good reasons for that. It’s because the big buyers don’t like blemished fruit – and with 6000 trees we have lots of that. Besides the minute the wholesalers have paid for my fruit, they treat it as product – leaving it in warehouses for days, even weeks, before trucking it around the country. But also, if I sold all my produce to them, I wouldn’t be here having this conversation with you.’
My daughter hates me chatting at Farmers Markets, and chooses this moment to poke me from behind. So I pay for the apricots, thank the farmer and move on. Meanwhile my friend, over from Melbourne, has wandered off. We look everywhere round the foreshore market – not big enough for anyone to get lost in. My daughter spies her at a corner stall, paying for a huge bunch of heirloom roses. ‘But you mustn’t,’ I remonstrate, assuming she’s bought me pricy old roses as a thankyou. But no. For a huge bouquet of blooms, wrapped in wetted newspaper, she has paid just $8.
By the time you read this, there’ll be no more apricots – or roses – at the Farmers Market. The farmer who sold me his apricots will be selling something else – just as proudly, probably rubbing his big hands together against the growing cold. But whatever he is selling, he’ll know its worth – having accompanied it on its journey from farm gate to market. Some of his product he’ll have sold to wholesalers, of course. But his heart will be in the sales that he makes at the Farmer’s Market, where he can look his customers in the eye and have a quick chat. HIs exchanges will focus on his produce – winter root vegetables, perhaps, or spring greens – but they won’t be solely about turnips or rocket.
There is nothing high-end or shiny about Farmers Markets in Tasmania – however much inflight magazines would like them to be. Young and old, students and retirees, locals and visitors – all are drawn by the lure of buying seasonal food directly from growers. And it isn’t just food that draws them. Conversations that, fifty years ago, people shared outside church, milling round after the Sunday service, are now shared by the potato stall – or the resolution-breaking fudge stall.
Few people, these days, need persuading that Farmers Markets are a good thing. Nonetheless, not everyone believes that the food they buy there represents good value. It just is hard to square the $3 paper bag of sandy Geeveston potatoes with their 3-kilo ready-washed Victorian brothers, on special at the supermarket.
Food shopping has morphed into a one-stop bankcard swipe affair. We’re all busy – even grandparents’ diaries are full. To be sure, it can be hard to give up a well-deserved lie-in for a trip to the Farmer’s Market, basket on arm – especially when the weather is less than idyllic.
Budget-conscious shoppers are apt to complain about the inconvenience and relative priciness of Farmers Markets. These markets, they say, are for people willing to pay $6 for a loaf of bread. And yet, despite such calls, the number of people attending Farmers Markets is growing. Supermarket food is only cheap, market-goers will say, because its secondary costs haven’t been factored in. Pollution, over-use of fertilizers, antibiotic resistance in animals, government subsidies, the financial insecurity of farmers, Food & Safety induced waste, internecine supermarket pricing wars – all these costs have been made invisible by the system that delivers cheap food. To the point that, when we buy a kilo pears for $1.99 at the supermarket checkout, we think we’ve picked up a bargain.
‘Eat Your View’. This oddball bumper sticker harks back to the philosopher Wendell Berry, who was among the first to corral Americans into thinking hard about where their food comes from. His call for ‘fresh, trustworthy food, food from producers known and trusted by consumers’ was simple. Many others – including Michael Pollan in the US, Stephanie Alexander, Kylie Kwong and Margaret Fulton in Australia – have joined a chorus of voices calling for us to shop locally.
If you fall into a chat at a Farmer’s Market, and it’s hard not to, you’ll find that people have lots of reasons for being there. ‘The tomatoes taste like tomatoes used to taste’, one will say. ‘Where else can you get coffee this fresh on a Sunday morning?’ remarks another. ‘I always buy my seedlings from markets, and they always flourish’, says a third.
After attending a Farmers Market for a year or so something interesting happens. The baker starts calling you by your first name. The sausage-roll man gives you his last Samosa. The bulb lady writes down the phone number of the woman ‘down the Channel’ who makes a magic compost tea. Another thing happens, subtle yet powerful. You start viewing food shopping differently. It becomes a way of life rather than a chore. Handing over money to a farmer or stallholder, you feel like you’re handing over real money for real food.
Once this happens, ‘seasonal food’ stops being a list in a glossy cookbook, and becomes a pleasantly predictable procession of apples, pears, cherries and stone fruit. You make a point of going to the market even on weekends when it’s raining, or it’s inconvenient. Why? Habit, partly. But also because you start to feel implicated in the livelihoods of the farmers and stallholders you regularly buy from.
Admittedly shopping at Farmers Markets is less convenient, and, yes, a little more expensive than supermarkets. However shopping at Farmers Markets feels to me like shopping should. On leaving the market, on a Sunday morning, I feel earthed, and communally bound up, in a way that no artificially lit air-conditioned supermarket makes me feel.
Just before I left the Harvest Market a couple of weeks ago, I bought some meat. The display case was piled high with vacuum packed lamb ham, mutton roast, liver, tongue and brain. Chatting to the farmer, I told him how my mother used to cook crumbed brains with applesauce for supper – as if in some way my sisters and I might be the cleverer for eating them.
‘But’, said my daughter, peering through the glass at the pink brains in their sealed pack, ‘they look so yukky’. An older Polish woman piped up. ‘Brains are delicious’, she said firmly. ‘People think they’re hard to cook, but they’re not. And they’re so very good for you’. And with this she got out a small purse to buy mutton for a stew that, she told the farmer, she always makes at this time of year.
By chance the Polish woman left the market at the same time as my daughter and me – and complained once more about increases in food prices. ‘But,’ she said, ‘here at the market you can get such good brains – and tripe. And they really aren’t expensive. You just have to know how to cook them. Besides’, she added, perking up, ‘if more of us ate them I’m convinced there’d be a lot less cancer.’ And she shook head. ‘But I’m old, I know, and no one believes me’. She and I laughed, I touched her arm, and we parted.