A Conservative Case for Farmers’ Markets

March 11th, 2011 at 6:24 pm | 27 Comments |

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Every Thursday evening, around 7 p.m., I begin checking outside my side door to see if the elves have made their delivery yet.

It’s quite amazing: At one moment the brick stoop is empty. In the next, a rustic white-painted wooden box with a black lid sits waiting for me to bring it in to the kitchen.

I open it with an unfailing sense of awe and wonder.  During the previous week, the elves have been traveling all over the countryside, seeking out the freshest and most delicious things to eat. This night’s offering: some fantastically colored carrots, purple and yellow along with the more familiar orange; filets of local wild flounder, packed in ice; two young chickens, frozen. Under these lie a paper sack of all-purpose flour tied with twine; two tubs of hand-churned butter; a brown bag containing handsome-looking green beans; a scattering of full broccoli heads; and a carton of eggs.

My excitement amuses my children.  Jeez mom it’s just a box of groceries. I examine the carrots.  Compared to their ordinary supermarket cousins, they look truly odd: Aside from the strange colors, they are gnarly and thin—or wait, here’s one that is bulgy and fat.  I rinse and taste it over the sink—sweet, earthy, crunchy–the flavor you think a carrot ought to have but never does.  I offer a sample to our small carrot expert:  she agrees and eagerly asks for another.

There’s less enthusiasm for the fish. No matter: When I cook the filets the next day for their Dad and me—dusting the filets with flour, salt and pepper, and doing not much else to them except sautéing them in some butter—they will taste meltingly fresh and tender.   And as I put the two chickens away in the freezer—weekend supper—I explain to the kids that these chickens actually walked in a farmyard amongst other farm animals in real daylight. (When I get around to roasting them, my husband will be impressed that the muscles attaching their legs to their body require vigorous carving to remove.  They don’t just fall apart. “Maybe they were doing walking lunges around the yard…?” he wonders.)  The flour is unbleached and has been freshly ground in a mill, not a factory using a logo of a mill.  And the eggs have come from the same kind of aforementioned chickens.  I’m especially excited about the eggs. I’d tried my first fresh farm egg last summer, bought on vacation at a rural roadside stand:  It was lighter in texture and color than a store-bought egg, and had much more flavor.  Before then, I hadn’t ever thought much about the taste of eggs or their degrees of egginess. I’d immediately scrambled another for my mother, with whom we were staying, and who was raised in small-town Australia. Her family had kept chickens in the backyard and…

“Oh my gosh, this tastes of my childhood!” she exclaimed before gobbling down the rest of the egg.

As I finish unpacking the box, I realize that I have actually stepped back into my mother’s stories of a pre-refrigerated, pre-factory-farm world of food. She was born in 1935. Australia may have been a bit behind the modern curve by urban American standards of the time, but not by much. She remembers waking up from nightmares to the reassuring, early morning clip clop of the milkman’s horse. Like my little farm box, the fresh bottles were left by the side door and the empties removed (or what we now call “recycled”).  You had an “icebox” not a fridge or freezer—something like the ancestor of the Coleman cooler. If a fruit or vegetable wasn’t in season you didn’t eat it unless it came in a can.  Chickens were—as my mother learned—like house pets you put down less sentimentally than the family dog, and then ate. Beef was universally grass-fed and free-range; agricultural scientists hadn’t yet figured out that it would be more efficient and cost-effective to pen thousands of them together, stuff them full of corn and hormones, and let them marinate in their own manure for a few months before grinding them up into mass-produced hamburgers.

I don’t want to sentimentalize this period, obviously.  And nor would my mother.  In a time when cheap cuts of meat were less plentiful than they are today, she and her siblings were never allowed to leave the table until they had choked down their last piece of heart/kidney/liver or worse, rubbery tripe.  There are vegetables to this day I can’t persuade her to eat—squash, for example—because it was served to her as a canned watery mush when she was a child.

And yet–as I wash and put the box’s contents away–I’m struck by how much of what we are calling today the “farm-to-table” movement is really just a modern re-imagining, or re-invention, of a less industrialized time.  The elves (okay full-disclosure: they are not really elves) who deliver my weekly container work for a nascent web-based company, Arganica Food Club.   Like dozens of similar companies now popping up around the country, Arganica organizes food from regional farms for city-dweller consumption.   Every Sunday I am sent an email with a spreadsheet attachment that lists the coming week’s offerings.  Most of it is seasonal produce and locally raised meat, but amongst the suppliers are also artisanal dip- and cracker- makers, bakers, pasta impressarios, and even pre-fab homecooked meals for the time-pressed.  I check off what I want, email it back, and then the order appears on my doorstep a few days later.

These companies are a natural progression from the now ubiquitous urban Farmer’s Market: instead of waiting for the weekend—or whatever day of the week is officially declared Market Day—I can have the farmer’s market brought to me.  Not that I don’t like going to the Farmer’s Market—there are still some products I can get only there that I can’t get online (a local guy makes pastas and sauces that are to die for; ditto another stall that sells delicious cured meats).  But essentially Arganica and others are doing what even Whole Foods is now too big to do: deliver truly fresh, truly local, truly organic foods that still taste of the place they were grown in.

In that sense we have reached maybe the perfect juncture of old and new: We have the technological abilities (read: modern refrigeration, appliances and online shopping) to achieve the maximum benefit—and enjoyment—from locally grown, fresh food.  And the increasing awareness of this type of food’s health benefits have led to a growing consumer demand, one that small companies such as Arganica are scrambling to meet.

But maybe the biggest remaining hurdle fresh food advocates face is the pervasive perception that to eat locally and healthily is somehow “elitist”—not to mention more costly and time-consuming than buying fast or processed meals.   The minute you purchase an organic apple, you are suddenly lumped among NPR-listening, NYT’s crossword-puzzle-doing, out-of-touch-with-the-common-man liberals. As a conservative—in the robust, Teddy Roosevelt tradition—I am perpetually gobsmacked to find myself on the side of the political fence with people who are enraged that Michelle Obama is trying to introduce healthy foods into public schools—or insist that the right to be obese and eat junk food can be found somewhere in the Constitution. When you think about it, these arguments against preparing meals from scratch are nonsense.

Often an example given is the McDonald’s $1 meal, which we are assured is essential to low-income budgets: Imagine a single mother hauling her children in for breakfast before school drop-off, on her way to work.  No food prep needed during the morning madness when she’s trying to get the kids dressed and ready to leave.  If she has two kids, she spends only $3 (plus tax) on breakfast for the whole family.

Now compare the price of the $1 meal—along with its zero-nutritional value and the future health problems it’s going to create—to a box of Cheerios (“Honey Nut” if you prefer the sweet version). An 18-oz box costs approximately $3.00 at a chain supermarket.  One box contains approximately 17 servings–which works out to about 18-cents per serving, not including milk.  So add in a 1/2 cup of milk—priced at an average of $4 per gallon—and that comes to an additional 12-cents per serving, or 30-cents total per breakfast.  The “prep time” to pour cereal and milk (presuming the kids can’t do it themselves?) surely amounts to less time than it takes to go to a restaurant, stand in line, and pay for the meal.  And less money as well when you factor in gas or transportation costs to the restaurant. I could do the same exercise with lunch or dinner.

Then there’s the “time and convenience” excuse.  We are told that working parents these days are too busy to cook.  And even if they have a spare moment or two, they are certainly too exhausted to prepare a meal

But this argument too doesn’t hold up after a few minutes thought: Maybe never in the course of human history has a society had “more time” than ours to prepare and eat food. And yes, I’m including working single mothers and “dual-income earning” families here.  It wasn’t so long ago that you couldn’t eat a meal without lighting a stove—with firewood or coal.  And back then, it was common for everyone in the household to work and do chores, including children.  There were no microwaves, no electric stoves, no refrigerators, no food processors, no convenience stores or supermarkets. Every single item of food had to be cleaned and prepped from scratch using manual tools. The day ended with lightfall, so you’d better have it all done by then.  And even with the advent of better technology and lighting,  I don’t think an Edwardian or Depression-era household—or a 1950s housewife for that matter—enjoyed  “more time” than we do today. The sheer easiness and convenience of modern life has simply allowed us to busy ourselves in different ways, liberated from the once all-consuming daily tasks of domesticity. And thus we have drifted away from learning very basic, useful household skills.

So while it may seem easier to order in a pizza, or zap a pre-fab mini-meal in the microwave, it’s not really so.  How much extra effort does it really take to get together a bowl of salad (especially given that lettuces now come pre-mixed and pre-washed)?  Or boil fresh beans and toss them with some salt, oil and lemon? Or, as I noted with the fish filet, dust it with some flour and seasoning and fry it or broil it for a minute or two?  You can do the same with simple cuts of chicken and beef. Or put on a pot of pasta and in the space of time it’s cooking whip up very simple homemade sauce.  There’s an app for that.

Then do the economics for dividing the costs of the fresh ingredients among three or four people—for most dishes I doubt it will come out to much more than a large take-out Domino’s pizza.

The problem is that we’ve persuaded ourselves—as we surf the internet, download movies, check our email and play games on our phones—that preparing food from scratch is as awesome and time-consuming as knitting our own sweaters.  Who would even bother to do that?  It’s true that planning fresh meals does take a certain amount of ingenuity and creativity to avoid repetition—moreso than cruising the prepared food aisle or ordering the number 4 with Diet Coke, thanks.  And yet, that’s what makes the emerging farm-to-doorstep market so exciting—and in the end, so easy.

By putting the farm order forms online, you can order your groceries at your convenience—and also have the time to brood over the choices as you check your email or quickly google search a recipe. Arganica, like other sites, even posts fast recipes for that week’s seasonal harvest.  When the food arrives, you’ve already thought the meals through.  And now you don’t need to go to the supermarket for several days. What’s more, everything you make will taste delicious.  Anyone who has grown even so little as a cherry tomato on their patio knows the difference between the fresh-plucked juicy version versus the red cannonballs that fill supermarket bins in January.

I’m wondering, then, if farm marketers haven’t made a mistake by focusing on the homey, nostalgic aesthetic of another era.  At a certain level it makes sense: that customers receive their weekly deliveries hand-packed in wooden crates and paper sacks is a powerful psychological sales tool against the shiny, shrink-wrapped products of mass-produced food.

But I wonder if a better economic strategy wouldn’t be to package fresh farm products in a more contemporary way.  Americans are innately forward-looking.  They want the next good thing, not the good thing of 30 years ago. I’m sure there’s a way to box the food in a “green” container that looks hip and urban—a hint of retro, but not too much. Like the funkily patterned, reusable shopping bags now on sale everywhere—or even something in a smartphone aesthetic: What would an app for a farm-to-table delivery service look like?  Go from there.

Now excuse me while I go trim that broccoli for tonight’s dinner.


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27 Comments so far ↓

  • jerseychix

    Well, as someone who knits her own sweaters and hasn’t bought a loaf of bread in two years, I gotta agree.

    I am flabbergasted that this has turned into a conservative/liberal issue. It isn’t. Healthy eating is about eating yummy things (our chickens just started to lay eggs!) and doing well with what is available. How is that not conservative?

    And before anyone thinks I live out on a farm, I live in the ‘burbs of NJ in an 1100 square foot ranch on a postage stamp yard and a kitchen that doesn’t fit more than 2 adults working.

    • pnwguy

      jerseychix:

      It’s only turned into a conservative/liberal issue because so much of what defines the current definition of “conservative” is to be 100% against whatever is perceived as liberal. Resentment is the central thrust of the so called movement. To rally the troops for either votes or dollars, there needs to be a perceived enemy.

      It probably helps that Food Inc. agri-business conglomerates tend to fund GOP candidates. So people who resist the transformation from eating food to eating processed ingredients masquerading as food will be the enemy.

      Only Kenyan-Islamic-Terrorist-Socialists eat arugula, don’t you know?

  • jamesj

    I have to agree with the original poster and jerseychix. What could be more Conservative than the self-reliant qualities of supporting local food production and healthier eating habits? It seems like a no-brainer, until you turn on talk radio or Fox News.

  • heap

    Ya know, I don’t think I’ve ever had to summon the power of ideology to make a snack.

    Wonder if that means I’m doing it wrong, or something….

  • Raskolnik

    Twinkies are the only truly conservative food, didn’t you know?

  • Churl

    The conservative case for farmers’ markets is simply this:

    A farmer has something to sell and a consumer is willing to buy it at a price mutually agreeable to both parties.

    Good night.

  • ScoopAway

    Fresh, homegrown veggies became a liberal/conservative issue the moment Michelle Obama rototilled part of the WH lawn and turned it into a veggie garden.

    One of the first negative reactions to this was the fake image a Republican mayor sent out of watermelons growing on the WH lawn…

  • Iamm

    @Churl
    Great statement.

    I don’t know about where you all live, but the local farms sell their goods to the local supermarkets/grocery stores in my area. There are open markets around the harvest season too (shrinking though, may I add.)

    This online thing… Sounds like a good idea… but In my opinion, produce is readily available in a supermarket or grocery store and I still don’t buy it. I walk straight past to grab some easily prepared calories. Showcasing online or with a new trendy façade doesn’t make more appealing, not to me anyway. Unless it was delivered prepared and ready to consume. :) Also I see the overhead to be greater being online and mixed up with delivery, at this point in time anyway. It may be counter-intuitive but if it was economically sustainable, I feel, we would be doing this already. I’ve seen some online organic produce and wow talk about pricey.

    I think powdered greens, juices, enzymes and anti-oxidants derived from fresh organic produce is the way of the future for the lazy health conscience. Oh and what’s wrong with flash frozen fruits and veggies?

    As for the poverty aspect, most of the inexpensive junk foods contain heavily subsidized ingredients? Corn, et al. Maybe the choices made in that area has helped grow the situation we find ourselves in today.

    • zephae

      Yeah, Iamm, I’m lazy too. The bigger problem with farmers markets and the like is that people don’t know how to cook. I’m pretty bad when it comes to that arena, so I generally look for pre-prepared things or items that have zero prep time past popping it in the toaster oven (greatest appliance ever). I guess the crock pot’s an easy way to cheat, but at the end of the day, stuff like the service in this article isn’t going to appeal tome until I start cooking more, which I think is the same barrier a lot of people face.

      • JeninCT

        I recommend the Fannie Farmer cookbook. It has basic definitions of cooking terms, simple descriptions of every food ingredient, and excellent, time-tested recipes for everything from apple pie to baked beans and every vegetable under the sun. No fusion cuisine, no pretense, no frills…just the facts!

        Available in paperback :-)

  • sparse

    like others, i do not see the ideological component of this. and that is awesome. you are connecting your mother’s childhood with your children’s childhood through food. awesome, double awesome even. and it’s good for you? trifecta. but please rename the piece “a human case for farmers’ markets.”

  • talkradiosucks.com

    The article makes a lot of sense. It is many of today’s “conservatives” who do not.

    That said, a little context. First, many conservatives live in rural areas, and they don’t have to go seek out farmer’s markets. For them, fresh food — much of it grown themselves — is a way of life. It’s really the city dwellers that this piece is aimed at. And they are more liberal.

    Second, some conservatives who seem to “oppose” fresh food don’t really hate farmer’s markets. They hate *being told what to do*. There’s a difference, and frankly, they have at least some valid basis for complaint.

    ScoopAway: The watermelon incident wasn’t related to Michelle’s gardening, it was a poor Easter joke before she announced that initiative.

  • dante

    Ok, two points…

    1) Can we PLEASE get a decent definition of “conservative” these days? It seems to be a catch-all phrase for someone who is one (or more) of the following:
    a. A corporatist
    b. Smaller government at all costs
    c. Believes in lower taxes regardless of current spending
    d. Advocating a Taliban-style theocracy replacing current US government
    e. Pining for a 1950s “Leave it to Beaver” type of community
    f. Inserting US military forces into countries around the world to “spread democracy”
    g. Removing US military forces from countries around the world in a supreme act of isolationism
    h. Believing in whatever we spend on government must be equal to (or less) than what we take in in taxes

    The article above falls under the 1950s style Leave it to Beaver wistful thinking. It has nothing to do with any of the others, so a neo-conservative with an “Invade foreign countries” mantra isn’t going to necessarily agree with it. The corporatist (“Corporations are people and should control the country”) probably feels exactly the OPPOSITE since food at farmers markets are often more expensive than supermarket foods due to the lack of economy of scale. I know that this website is all about defining what “conservative” means, but it would be helpful if we could split “Conservative” into various sub-categories so that we know which one people are talking about.

    2) While this author makes a good case for why farmers markets are cheaper/faster than take-out pizza/burgers, they are *more* expensive than grocery store items. String beans at our local market are usually $3-4/lb, whereas you can buy frozen ones for ~$1.50/lb. What are you paying additional money for? Better quality, better working conditions for the worker, and a feeling that you are keeping your profit dollars in your community, ALL of which are anathema to modern “conservatives”. According to modern “conservative” doctrine you are supposed to get your string beans from China, grown by people making $1/day under questionable working standards and imported with zero government regulations/duty, while the local farmland gets bulldozed so that another Wal*Mart can go up because the closest one otherwise is almost 5 miles away. At least that’s what I was able to discern using a, b, c, and possibly f from my list above…

  • NRA Liberal

    Pet peeve here. The idea that farmer’s markets need a “conservative case” sums up everything annoying about the current state of politics. You know, like “cats are liberal, dogs are conservative”.

  • ScoopAway

    “ScoopAway: The watermelon incident wasn’t related to Michelle’s gardening, it was a poor Easter joke before she announced that initiative.”

    Opps…. Facts, smacts…. guess that makes me a good conservative. ;)

    I actually am conservative, but in the traditional not current political sense.

    edit: Found this tid-bit in an article at wikipedia – “Pesticide and fertilizer companies are very unhappy with the decision the Obamas have made in cultivating their vegetable garden entirely organic.”

    If there is any conservative/liberal conflict with home-grown, organic, or farmer’s market products, perhaps it’s this. Corporations are king with respect to conservatives.

  • JeninCT

    Great points everyone, especially Churl.

    I am bothered by the either/or comparison of breakfast cereal versus fast food. No one does all of one or the other.There’s alot to be said for fast food breakfast when you’re running late for baseball practice with a starving teenager in the car, and breakfast cereal serving sizes are a JOKE. What teen eats 3/4 cup of Cheerios? It’s more likely 3 cups with one cup milk.

    I looked at the price list Arganica and while a few of the prices are comparable to what I pay at the grocery store, most are way out of my league. The truth is, even my local farmer’s market is out of my league, so rather than spend money there, I shop at my local grocery store, where local farmers are featured. To some of us, price is matters more than politics, but then again, I go through 4 gallons of milk a week in my house…

    • jerseychix

      Our solution is to eat low on the processed food chain. But, with 2 toddlers, that means a lot of trips to Costco. But our shopping list is generally built around:

      25# of flour ( takes us 6-8 weeks to go through)
      at least 3 gallons of organic milk every time we go
      Fresh fruit
      Fresh veggies
      ginormous cuts of beef (we get local chicken and pork)
      frozen fish

      Even in the garden state, we don’t have great access to farmer’s markets. But, we do belong to a CSA and that is cheap cheap. We garden all summer, and I swear this year we are canning.

      Of all the things I do, this seems so conservative. ‘Cause I am conserving my money and maximizing the nutrient/$ spent.

      • JeninCT

        Same here, jerseychix, my most conservative behavior is my personal spending. I also bake bread, and I can’t believe how much fruit we go through!

  • _will_

    …and my god would you just look at all those freaking white people!!

  • Gramps

    Community Supported Agriculture [CSA]…

    Here are the basics: a farmer offers a certain number of “shares” to the public. Typically the share consists of a box of vegetables, but other farm products may be included. Interested consumers purchase a share (aka a “membership” or a “subscription”) and in return receive a box (bag, basket) of seasonal produce each week throughout the farming season. This arrangement creates several rewards for both the farmer and the consumer. In brief… ~~~ http://www.localharvest.org/csa/

    CSA’s aren’t a conservative or progressive “thingie” here in SW Wisconsin…it’s just plain, olde fashioned, common sense and very good [mostly organic] fresh food…same goes for the “farmer’s markets” that are open every week, during the spring, summer and fall.

    We’ll be buying fresh asparagus spears in just a couple weeks; new shoots, are breaking unfrozen ground on south facing slopes…!

  • nuser

    Funny! Dad being David Frum. Whatever happened to nosh in toronto?

  • Henry

    Im confused. Are conservative politicians proposing or making laws to make farmers markets illegal or something? If not, then why the discussion?

  • _will_

    farmer’s markets = elitist
    elitism = progressivism
    progressivism = ZOMG socialism!

    …next thing you know you’re living under Sharia law and being forced to get gay married.

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