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Farmers’ Markets & Beyond

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In The New York Times on May 24, 2006, a farmers’ market manager I admire apparently questions the new Real Food Market I’m starting for farmers, farmer co-ops, food artisans, and purveyors of local and traditional foods. ‘What’s the message?’ she asks.

Here’s my message: the market for slow and local food needs choice, diversity, and integrity. Farmers and eaters know that, but the official farmers’ market world is perennially threatened by competition, innovation, and best practice.

Three examples? For competition, allow me to present Whole Foods. For innovation, funding market managers from sales-based fees instead of relying on donations and volunteer labor. For best practice, requiring farmers to post signs with prices and information about methods of production.

Unfortunately, the NYT implies that eaters cannot buy ‘everything they need for Saturday night dinner’ at a traditional farmers’ market. Not so. At the 15 farmers’ markets I’m proud to run in Washington, DC and London, England, we have the strictest ‘producer-only’ and local-produce rules in the US or Britain. Everything – from apple brandy to cream, pears to poultry – is local, including major ingredients in jam, and of course you can meet the producer.

I’ve spent my life explaining to farmers, eaters, shopkeepers, and journalists what a true farmers’ market is, and I will fight for the integrity of the term until I keel over. I’ve worked since 1980 – when we sold at farmers’ markets where the producer-only rule was flouted with impunity by cheating farmers and managers were either absent or indifferent – for truth in labeling in the local food world.

If my neighborhood didn’t already have excellent farmers’ markets, I’d be compelled to start one – as I did in London and Washington. That’s how much I prize the unique role a producer-only farmers’ market plays in food shopping.

My chief complaint with many farmers’ markets is the lack of clear rules, fair enforcement, and transparency. At Greenmarket, I hoped to clarify, strengthen, and enforce the local-produce rules. But Greenmarket is not the only farmers’ market struggling with rules, enforcement, and keeping the customer informed about both.

At your local farmers’ market, is all the milk in that bottle from the farmer’s herd, or is he allowed to buy milk from a neighbor? How about the ice cream? Does the market sell marmalade – made with sugar and oranges, two exotic ingredients? Do the bakers have to use local blueberries in pie or can they buy them from anywhere?

At the Real Food Market, we’ll tell you who’s who – farmer, marketing co-op, food artisan, purveyor – and where the food comes from. At the new Real Food Markets in New York City, we’ll forage from the northeastern states. (Hello, Vermont butter.) Meat, poultry, fish, dairy, eggs, and fresh produce must be Regional. If the produce in prepared foods (say, raspberries) can be grown in the Region, it must be. Finally, all prepared foods must have a significant regional ingredient – and that means no marmalade, unless it’s sweetened with local honey.

Now, who would be threatened by that?

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