On cold Sunday mornings, the local farmers market is the only thing that tempts me awake before 8 a.m. Just-picked strawberries waft the scent of summer to still sleepy shoppers. Apples crisp from the morning dew—not the warehouse refrigerator—promise the crunch of fall. Discreetly bagged mushrooms, whose names require beginning-level knowledge of an Asian language—these are just three perishable (eat or share within the week) reasons to visit your local farmers market.
You’ve already heard the hype about how farmers markets are “healthier,” and could still use convincing. After all, you have a coupon for name-brand frozen dinner/canned food/ramen noodles burning a hole in your wallet. Why change your dinner plans? And how? This article will provide an outline of the edible—and inedible—benefits behind shopping at the farmers market. Start planning to eat in.
Yes—that again. When you pay for your tomatoes (with paper, not plastic) at a farmer’s small stand, instead of swiping your card at an impersonal gray checkout register, you’re actually doing your eco-friendly deed of the day. Generally, the food from farmers markets travels a shorter distance from its farm of origin to kitchen tables than do the items on grocery store shelves. This means that the produce or other items have a smaller carbon footprint (defined as “the sum of all emissions of CO2 (carbon dioxide), which were induced by your activities in a given time frame,” according to timeforchange.org). As you probably know, decreasing your carbon footprint is good because carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas that causes global warming. Or, consider something even simpler—more drive time equals more pollution—and then keep reading about ways to help prevent it.
Many growers at farmers markets are organic, don’t spray crops with pesticides or insecticides, or tend to use minimal amounts of such chemical pest control. They can cultivate produce this way because they work from the ground up, literally. Instead of simply spraying to control weeds or pests, organic and/or smaller growers use a variety of (often prevention) techniques, including: 1) building up healthy soil that leads to healthier, more disease-resistant plants, 2) rotating the sequence and types of crops in a given field, disrupting the environment for weeds and pests, and 3) certain botanical or other non-synthetic pesticides, if the first lines of defenses fail. Such techniques are practical and possible on a small-scale farm, but less so on large commercial-scale ventures. Just imagine hand-weeding the carrot fields of Green Giant.
Supporting local agriculture with our wallets means that we’re pumping money into the economy around us. Consider this: to whom is $6 worth of cucumbers going to make a greater difference, a local farmer or a national supermarket? For less anecdotal evidence, a 2011 report from the Union of Concerned Scientists found that farmers markets can create jobs: “Modest public funding for 100 to 500 otherwise-unsuccessful farmers markets a year could create as many as 13,500 jobs over a five-year period.” The report also notes that, “Patrons to markets are also more likely to shop at nearby businesses,” according to an Indiana Public Media article. If you’ve ever passed a farmers market held in a supermarket or mall parking lot, now you know why. Rather than a neck-to-neck competition with the grocery story, farmers markets can get consumers in the door—and there are just some things that farmers markets don’t necessarily stock, such as milk (regular, soy or otherwise). But after a few trips to the market, you may find new must-have items.
And of course, farmers markets benefit your own household economy. Some specialty items, like freshly made scones or authentic Afghani breads, may be more expensive—but they tend to be the exception. A 2011 graduate student’s report noted that farmers market prices for conventionally grown produce were generally lower than the prices for their supermarket counterparts. What’s more, all organic produce except potatoes was less expensive at farmers markets. Also note that you can get bulk deals on items that farmers are anxious not to take back home, or that have some slight cosmetic defect.
Still, some items may be pricier than their conventional store-bought counterparts. But consider what you’re paying for: all the benefits just discussed. For more insights into why conventionally grown and sold food might be cheaper in the first place, see “The High Cost of Inexpensive Food”.
This is where the benefits of farmers markets, with fruit and vegetable stands taking up the most room, have been most discussed because they are so obvious—unlike benefits to the environment and the economy. By eating locally available foods, we’re eating more seasonally, which can also have dietary benefits. 1) We eat a variety of fruits and vegetables—rather than living off canned peas and frozen corn throughout the year. 2) With a fruit basket full of eat-me-now produce, and a refrigerator that is like a walk-in salad, we have more incentive to build meals around these feel-good foods, rather than processed or high-calorie “treats.” And because produce loses fewer nutrients before getting to your table, that fresh-picked carrot retains more of its original multivitamin load.
The final thing to remember about farmers markets? Eat what you buy! For Part II of this field guide to farmers markets, we’ll discuss how to take advantage of the market near you, from where to park your car to cooking everything taking space in your vegetable crisper. Hint #1: Park in a shady spot.
 “What is a carbon footprint – definition.” Time for change, accessed October 28, 2012.  “Organic FAQs,” Organic Farming Research Foundation, accessed October 27, 2012.  Jeffrey K. O’Hara, “Market Forces: Creating Jobs Through Public Investment in Local and Regional Food Systems,” Union of Concerned Scientists, accessed November 7, 2012.  Liz Leslie, “Farmers Markets: Good For You, Good For Economy,” Earth Eats, Indiana Public Media, accessed October 28, 2012.  Barry Estabrook, “The Farmers’ Market Myth,” The Atlantic, accessed November 7, 2011.