Gone to market

Once an anachronism, farmers markets are returning our eating to its roots

During a busy weekday lunch hour, clusters of people pour into the street to buy groceries for dinner and catch up with co-workers and neighbors. But here there are no blue light specials or doubling coupons. Unlike the grocer down the block, the vendor can tell you everything about how the vegetables matured — because he nurtured the plant from a seed with his own calloused hands. He can tell you about how the veggie was grown completely naturally at his farm in Bardstown, Ky., and why it would make a terrific addition to your spaghetti dinner.

This is as local as it gets.

Farmers markets are abundant, part of an accelerating national movement toward the healthiest, most direct form of eating. If you live or work in the city, there is likely a farmers market within walking distance that convenes at least once a week. Local farmers and vendors gather to display a variety of organic products — everything from fresh vegetables, breads and meats to wildflowers and natural, organic cookies.

“You build relationships with [the farmer] and it helps you become assured that you’re getting high quality food,” says Steve Paradis of Riverfarm Organics in Goshen. “It creates community. It’s a much more wholesome way to obtain your groceries. You don’t have to be a sociologist to see it. It’s a casual yet fulfilling experience. It’s not like pushing a cart down a megamart; it’s a chance to bring families together. It’s a walking cocktail party without the cocktails.”

Locavores Tony and Carol Kemper have enough fresh produce, meat and cartons of eggs to warrant a shopping cart at the Gray Street market downtown. The couple lives in Georgetown, Ind., and frequents several markets in the area.

“We shop at farmers markets for the quality, flavor and nutrition for us and our kids,” Tony Kemper says. “The meats and eggs are extraordinarily more flavorful. The value is very good. There’s a big difference in taste. We also like to support local growers.”

Megan Alexander of Rattlesnake Hill Farm in Bloomfield, Ky., keeps a photo album featuring her family harvesting the heirloom tomatoes at her stand. The stunning cherry and walnut woods Phil Green uses to make his intricate pepper mills were carved from trees at his home in Oldham County. Eli Harned of Harned Ranch Beef Co. in New Haven knows the cattle weren’t injected with growth hormones because he’s not only the butcher — he raised them, too.

“They might say ‘locally grown’ — but what is their definition of locally grown?” asks Russ Gritton as he laughs with his wife Donna in their booth, surrounded by fresh veggies.

He’s talking, as people are wont to do at places like this, about corporate mega-farming and the marketing firms that try to convince people that an apple at Kroger is the same thing it is here.

“It might be ‘locally grown’ 500 miles away,” he says.

The existence of food deserts — places where fresh food is either unavailable or too expensive — and rising child obesity rates have officials in the Metro Department of Public Health and Wellness scrambling to make healthy options as accessible as possible and encourage residents to try farmers markets. Many of the markets accept vouchers from government nutrition programs such as food stamps.

“Residents can access locally grown food that they might not normally have and support Kentucky farmers,” says Josh Jennings of the Louisville Metro Center for Health Equity. “The city is coordinating to get more farmers markets and fresh food. They’re trying to connect more producers with different distribution channels and promote farmers markets, while making sure they don’t overlap with other markets.”

The downturn economy has inspired many consumers to support local establishments and keep as much money as possible in their hometown. Big-box stores are now imitating the mom-and-pop stores forced to close years ago in an attempt to cash in and redefine the term “local.” Now large banners declaring “local” and sometimes even “Farmers Market” are suspended above large cardboard containers of melons in Whole Foods, Kroger and even Walmart.

Demands for food safety and accessible local foods have made farmers markets increasingly popular. From 1994 to 2000, the number of farmers markets has grown 63 percent, according to the Department of Agriculture. As of 2008, there were 4,685 farmers markets operating in the United States.

Family farms are a rich part of Kentucky’s heritage, and it’s vital that we don’t let that tradition fall away, says Paradis. He points out that farming has always been an instrumental part of America’s heritage.

“Farmers are not doing this to get rich,” Paradis says. “They have passion, spirit and integrity that are completely missing when you go to a megamart where you get your tomatoes from Guatemala.”

When it comes to the difficult task of motivating a mainstream consumer base that is less responsive to intellectual or economic appeals that can seem esoteric, quality can make the everyday seem transcendent.

“Everything here tastes so much better,” Katie McBride says as she fills her reusable shopping bag with organic goods. “Supermarkets just carry what travels well. Here there’s a real community feeling, you can talk to the farmers. Food’s traveling all over the place, but you can grow it right here.”