In the sea of the coronavirus, I’ve made my bi-weekly pilgrimage to the Union Square farmers market in New York for fresh food. Whatever the many other negative aspects to the pandemic lockdown – I’m am the lightest weight I’ve been in 30 years. Yes, it’s the stress, but eating only at home, the fresh foods at the farmer’s market and daily exercise have made a difference.
In various other parts of the country farmers markets have been closed responding to the government requirements for social distancing. In LA the mayor shut down his city’s markets only to reopen some of them days later thanks to public protest. In Seattle, farmers’ markets were lumped with parades and public parties and shut down. Across the country the patchwork government impact over the local markets has been devastating to the small farmer already slammed with the wholesale closing of the restaurant market. The insecurity of unknown levels of access to customers, particularly when early summer crops are available, will ripple across the farmers markets dramatically.
The New York Case Study
The response to market restrictions in the NYC farmer’s markets has been interesting. Customers wait in line, physically distancing. Chalk marks the order for who’s next. Shoppers are asked not the touch the goods and point instead. In some cases, vegetables are pre-bagged ready to go at a fixed price. Almost all (90 percent) of transactions now done via credit card or other touchless methods. Facemasks are ubiquitous. And for many key vendors – the milk and cheese person, the fish monger, the turkey guy – sales have been significantly up (20 percent) over the past two months. Some categories selling out by mid-morning – like eggs. Transaction times are up as people even after waiting in line to be served want to talk to the vendors.
My first farmers market was in Warsaw, Poland in the fall of 1959. Halfway between our apartment in the University District and my father’s office at the American Embassy, the market was located in a muddy corner of a public square where the tram lines met. There were legions of thick-set, red-faced, kerchief-covered women with bright smiles and raucous laughter. Even with a language barrier, my mother had favorite vendors we returned to every week.
Across the country the patchwork government impact over the local markets has been devastating to the small farmer already slammed with the wholesale closing of the restaurant market. The insecurity of unknown levels of access to customers, particularly when early summer crops are available, will ripple across the farmers markets dramatically.
Rain or shine, snow or sleet, it was a happy place. The vegetables tended to be dirt covered – my eight-year-old brain processed this as positive reinforcement of fresh and close to the soil. The outer leaves of cabbages and leafy vegetables were trimmed before they were weighed – I watched the women wielding their knives seemingly without looking. I never saw blood, or a finger lost. It was as close to swordsmanship as I’d ever gotten. In 1959, there were still horse-drawn carts in the market as few farmers owned trucks. Even in the cooler fall weather there was smell of manure and flies — so 19th century and so real. The offerings were distinctly limited and seasonal. By contrast, everything in our kitchen that wasn’t bought in that market came from the embassy commissary and was flown in from Denmark.
Fifteen years later as a diplomat’s then-teenage son, I visited the farmers market in Seoul during kimchee making season; I remember the ground was a bright shade of green from the discarded vegetables that were trampled in the urban soil. Cabbage, red pepper, garlic, onions: just shopping the market made your eyes water.
Remembrances of Things Past
In both Poland and Korea, I experienced a sense of pure joy. The transactions and exchanges were honest, excited and cheerful. The act of buying food from the person who made it, grew it or just believed in it is one of shared magic. Many of us have experienced the street markets in Western European cities where much of the produce is from the wholesale market rather than directly from the farm. While there is some of the same joy and immediacy there, it’s not the same thing. When I buy salad makings from the street vendor at the corner of 12th Street and 7th Avenue, the vendor likes to pick out what he is selling me – and I buy from him based on that curated skill, the price and convenience – but never for the joy.
Farmers Markets 2020 and the Coronavirus
Fast-forward to the beginning of 2020. The American farmers market is alive and kicking – in some places. Thanks to Covid-19 in LA and Seattle, the markets have been shut down – with ensuing loud public outcry. Thanks to local governments and NGOs, the markets are now carefully curated to filter trusted farmers who get to sell. Yes, we know that Walmart is the largest buyer of organic products on the face of the earth. But we also know that the small family farm is economically viable even if not yet organically certified. The farmers market movement is often rooted in female-run organizations that inspect the farms and fields. Those non-profits have the challenge with their relationships to municipal government. When you interact with NGO and farmers market organizations, you will find many in management are passionate about good, healthy food.
The idea of locally owned and grown has taken on a different meaning. As global food and beverage companies struggle with trust issues and perceptions of unhealthy additives, our perception of the freshness, taste and joy in the experience of our weekly markets is palpable by contrast. That organic spinach at the grocery store probably came from California and was picked two maybe three weeks ago. The plant, transportation systems and storage have been well planned – but it’s not fresh. This morning in the midst of the second month of lockdown I bought spinach at the Union Square farmer’s market — at a fixed price, in a plastic bag, with no organic signage – but with the assurance it was picked yesterday. Given the choice, which would you want to eat?
Personal and Authentic
Unlike going to the grocery store, the farmers market is not a chore. We interact with vendors, we have our lists and we also buy on impulse – no, not Oreos but other good natural stuff. I’ve bought veggies and fruit from Mary at my NYC Abbington Square market for the past 30 years. She makes a suggestion; I take it almost without fail. I never look at my change as I trust her to do all the math in her head. She has a thick New Jersey accent and a commanding presence at her stand. The young Tibetan men that work for her see her as a demi-goddess – I can see it in their eyes! During the pandemic, the evolution has been interesting. We line up politely by the chalk marks on the sidewalk. Last Saturday morning the line for the dairy stand (milk, eggs, butter, yogurt, cheese) was six customers long. Each transaction was slow – gloved hands on wallets, fumbling with bags – but the wait was patient. My only frustration was that by 11:00 am all the yogurt was sold out.
A Clear and Present Threat
Just go to Union Square Market on any Saturday and see what is scaring the pants off global merchants and manufacturers. Beyond fruit and vegetables, you’ll find bread, cakes, pastry, granola, kimchee, honey, jams and jellies, tea, wine, whiskey, beer, vodka, ostrich meat, duck, chicken, pork, beef, turkey and fresh eggs in many colors. The vendors have learned that artisanal secondary products add to margin and extend their seasons. The orchard stand is selling dried apples and cider and the dairies have added a range of cheese and yogurt.
Before Covid-19, tastings drew in curious customers and typically guaranteed sales. The owner and her friend at the vodka stand cheerfully poured out samples. Watch out global premium brands: the artisanal distillers have beaten them in taste tests. They are connoisseurs and know the differences between grain and potato vodka, and on that quality front they are positively evangelical. Absolut, Belvedere, Grey Goose you have met your match. A hundred feet away the whiskey man is selling his craft, small-batch bourbon at $70 a bottle. Even the New York State wine that 20 years ago was known for its unsophisticated sweet taste now has a quality product that stands up to France, Italy and even an Argentinian Malbec. Although the tastings are on hold during this coronavirus time, they’ll be back!
What makes all of this possible? Part of answer is that tech is enabling the smaller merchant. They all have card readers; wireless Squares that make frictionless $70 mobile payments. The orchard farmer uses solar power to fuel his dryers and has sealed storage that extends the life of his apples for months. That same grower gets newly engineered apple seedlings from the Cornell Lab in upstate New York that are designed for his particular regional weather and soil conditions. The tech for making cheese and yogurt has evolved into a “small artisanal industry.” And for that potato farmer, going from selling spuds by the pound to selling high-end vodka and artisanal potato chips is not just a leap of faith.
Best of Both Worlds
The other side of the markets’ success is deep knowledge and great taste. Being local is not about being cheaper. It is not about comprise. It is about tasting the difference and sharing that passion with a supportive buyer right in front of you. No longer under the radar screen, the local farmers’ movement is making its mark and influencing the future of what we eat.
The cabal of big food, big booze and big retail is being challenged. National and regional chains have historically bought from vendors who can fulfill the size of the orders. However, the consumer is pushing back on the commoditization of food and beverages. We live in a bifurcated retail world: we shop Costco and Walmart for paper, laundry soap and commodities — but how often can we say everything we eat and drink each night comes from fewer than 100 miles from our homes?
Here’s a crazy idea post-Pandemic. What if there were a pick-up truck in the parking lot of the farmers market where someone would load my online purchases of soap and paper into the back my car to join my market purchases and we could completely skip going to that miserable strip mall in the first place.