The United States Department of Agriculture says the number of farmers markets across the United States increased 17 percent over 2010, up to 7,173 farmers markets across the country. Now, granted, the USDA is not exactly my first choice for accurate or reliable information about agriculture or food but writers like to quote numbers and they have to come from somewhere. The Farmers Market Coalition says that as recently as 2005, farmers market direct-to-consumer sales were already exceeding $1 billion nationwide.
The total amount of food dollars spent at farmers markets is still miniscule compared to the bucks spent at supermarkets on processed foods and industrial produce and meats, yet the shift is undeniable. There are compelling reasons to shop a farmers market. Here is a bushel full.
Shortest food chain is the safest Recalls, food-borne illness, tainted this and that — all makes shopping for industrial food a crapshoot. In the case of a true farmers market, you can shake hands with the person who actually planted, grew and harvested your produce or with the person who actually raised, fed and harvested your eggs or meat.
Common sense tells me I would rather have a tomato or some broccoli that was handled by only one or two people before I got it. Even the best of industrial produce is harvested by a multitude of strangers on distant mega-farms, packed on an assembly line, shipped thousands of miles, handled by distributors and store employees then shoppers then checkout folks. Get the picture? The shortest food chain is the safest food chain. That long industrial food chain is precisely why the USDA is having so much trouble keeping our industrial food safe.
Carbon footprint and food miles Eating from the local foodshed lowers environmental impact. Most farmers markets have mileage limits for vendors. For example, Village Pointe Farmers Market (Disclaimer: Heartland Healing is a sponsor) requires food be from within the state or within 150 miles.
Economics In most cases, farmers markets offer better quality food at a more competitive price, especially if you shop “in season.” That means longer shelf life by far. Also, a much higher percentage of your food dollar returns to the local economy when you hand it to your local farmer who puts it back into local circulation.
Your happy place A small study found that people who shop farmers markets tend to be happier overall. It’s probably due to the sense of community and could also be an evolutionary factor: Humans have been doing this kind of open-air community marketing since the beginning of agriculture.
Know your farmer, know your food When you have the opportunity to ask your farmer exactly how the food was grown or the animals raised, you have much more information than a little nutritional sticker on the side of a package. You’ll be surprised how much you can learn about food from someone who grows it rather than simply puts it on shelves.
Grass fed and pastured If you’re a carnivore and like beef, you should be interested to know that the nutritional profile of beef raised exclusively on grass is totally different than industrial beef. It’s proven that grass fed beef is higher in the “good” fats and lower in the “bad” fats. It’s also higher in other important nutrients that are lost the minute a cow goes on corn. Also, grain-fed cattle have about 300 times more e. coli in their gut than grass fed. And the e. coli in grain fed beef is more likely to make us sick (Cornell University).
There is nothing like a chicken that has been raised in a pasture and not in a building. They eat what chickens are supposed to eat: grass, worms, bugs and stuff. They are happier and when they reach your table, much tastier. And, of course, their nutritional profile matches their improved diet and lifestyle.
Don’t be misled by store labels. “Free range” does not necessarily mean the chicken lived outside. “Cage free” labeling at a store almost always means that a chicken lived with thousands of other birds in a metal building, never seeing the light of day. It just means they weren’t caged in that building.
Pork and lamb should also be pasture-raised. Ask your farmer.
Farm fresh eggs Eggs at a farmers market can often be only a couple of days old. But the “sell by” date on the best eggs at a grocery store can be up to 60 days from the time the egg was gathered. Eggs from a chicken raised on pasture have a much better nutritional profile than industrial eggs. A privately funded study found pastured eggs have seven times more beta carotene, three times more Vitamin E, 2/3 more Vitamin A and twice as much Omega 3 fatty acid than their industrial counterpart, including organic. Wouldn’t you prefer an egg that tastes better, has better nutrition and is up to two months fresher?
Fresher produce When I buy my spinach or Swiss chard at the farmers market I can ask my farmer: How did you grow it — with sprays or not? When did you pick it? In most cases, I find that they go to extremes to pick less than 24 hours before and usually use no pesticides. I know one farmer who uses little traps to keep pests like slugs and such out of his produce rather than spray. Industrial food companies may argue otherwise but studies say fresher produce has higher nutrient value.
Eat well. Live well.
Heartland Healing examines various alternative forms of healing. It is provided as a source of information, not as medical advice. It is not an endorsement of any particular therapy, either by the writer or The Reader. Access past columns at www.HeartlandHealing.com