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Hey Growers, Be Honest With Farmers Market Customers

These heirloom tomatoes purchased at a farmers market are meant to be eaten raw, not used for sauces. Credit: Sara Franklin

These heirloom tomatoes purchased at a farmers market are meant to be eaten raw, not used for sauces. Credit: Sara Franklin

It’s mid-August, and my local farmers markets here in New York City are bursting at the seams, groaning under the weight of sweet corn, peaches, carrots, onions and their seasonal brethren in the produce department.

It’s a buyer’s market!” columnist Mark Bittman recently proclaimed in The New York Times Magazine. Shoppers, myself included, scurry from stall to stall, overfilling bags and lugging home more than they can eat. It’s a terrifically good thing, and I’m heartened to see how many people — especially those who once  didn’t give a hoot about food or cooking — are faithfully turning out to support local agriculture.

With the windfall of choices this time of year, it’s a buyer’s market indeed. But recently, I’ve noticed a worrisome trend that makes me wonder whether the sellers at said markets — that is to say, the regional, small farmers we’ve elevated to the status of cultural heroes — aren’t taking a little advantage of their popularity.

See, for a couple of years right after college, I farmed for a living. I worked in a few different places with varying approaches; in each, the quality of the food we grew, and the pride with which we presented it to our customers, was paramount. The farm crew didn’t complain about the backache and rashes we accrued during days spent harvesting 1,000-plus pounds of tomatoes and carefully slicing young zucchini from their prickly stalks. After all, we were in the business of selling food. Good food.

Flowering basil. Credit: Sara Franklin

Flowering basil. Credit: Sara Franklin

So last summer, when I saw a “special” of flowering basil stalks at Union Square, I thought, this is a joke, right? I, and everyone I worked with, had been taught to pinch the tops off of basil plants before they came close to flowering, harvesting them in such a way so they would continue to produce and so the leaves we put on the stand were full of sweet, pure flavor. If a basil plant had just begun to flower, we’d pinch the buds off, leaving it to put its energy into growing leaves instead of flowers. If the plant were left to keep flowering, we knew the basil leaves would grow bitter.

I was hopeful the basil I saw that day would be marked down, “on sale” as it were, like milk about to expire in the supermarket. I was looking for a sign that said something like, “pinch off flowers, scatter over salads or float in cocktails, and use the leaves for pesto or ice cream.” But no. Instead, the basil was marked up, listed as “special” because of the attractive buds. I twisted my face into a scowl and wrote it off as a one-time error.

Then I saw it again, and worse this time. Flowering kale. Flowering arugula. It was spreading from market to market, farm to farm. Again, the greens were marked as “special,” priced above the “regular” kale, the “run-of-the-mill” arugula. At first, my annoyance had been with the gullibility of shoppers who were purchasing these products, but my frustration quickly turned toward the farm staff. Honest, hard-working, food-loving. Those were some of the words I used to describe the farmers I’ve known. But this? Who knew there would be deceit running rampant in our most wholesome arenas?

Trust is key to making farmers markets effective

More from Zester Daily:

» Changing farmers markets

» Buying local makes economic sense

» Let's take a moment to consider our farmers

Tips for shopping at farmers markets

1. For prime herbs and greens, look for stalks with broad, unmarred leaves and no flowers or buds. Avoid bolted greens, which often look elongated and have thickened center stalks. They will be bitter in taste.

2. Keep your eye out for flowering herbs and greens. If you can't wrangle a discount on these (you're not getting much bang for your buck, and they certainly shouldn't be marked as "special" or "gourmet"), take them home and use them for their flowers only. The leaves on flowered plants are bound to be too bitter to be true to taste since all the sugars have gone into producing flowers. Herbal flowers can be lovely in salads or cocktails, and flowers of leafy greens are nice as a bitter note on pizzas or in sandwiches.

3. Tomatoes can be tricky. With all the heirloom varieties popping up in farmers markets these days, identifying the varieties of tomatoes can be tough. As a general rule, rounded tomatoes (which tend to be very juicy and full of seeds) are best for raw eating or can be slow-roasted to develop a sweet flavor, while tomatoes that are elongated and tapered are paste tomatoes, which have less liquid and more pulp.

4. Deborah Madison's "Vegetable Literacy" (Ten Speed Press, 2013) is the most helpful cookbook I've come across to date in terms of learning to identify edible plants and herbs by sight and understanding the differences between varieties and various stages of life cycles. Websites and catalogs for seed companies such as Johnny's are also terrifically helpful. Keep a paper catalog on your bookshelf as a reference guide.

“The school” (if you can call informal apprenticeships a school) of farming in which I came up instilled in us greenhorns a firm commitment to knowledge. We believed ourselves part of a revolution (I know, I know. In my defense, I was 20 …) Saccharine as it may sound, we could, rightly, I believe, see that for Americans’ growing interest in local food to take hold firmly enough to shift toward any real change in the food system, a gap was going to have to be bridged — people who were unaccustomed to fresh produce or cooking for themselves were going to have to learn. And they were going to have to enjoy what they prepared enough to keep on doing it. For that to happen, two things were required: quality control on our end, and knowledge on our customers’.

On the matter of the first, we took full responsibility. We turned our greens back into the soil when they started to bolt or bud, and diligently topped our basil. Never did bolted spinach or flowering bok choy appear on our stands. It would have been dishonest, we felt, to pawn off a subpar crop on our loyal buyers. Per the second, while we had grown comfortable tossing around terms such as speckled trout (a romaine lettuce) and bull’s blood (a red beet variety), we knew those names wouldn’t mean a thing to our average customer. So we took it upon ourselves to act as translators. When setting up the farm stand, we’d carefully separate varieties, writing their names and descriptions on our board. When people asked, “What do you do with a fairy eggplant?” we gave them suggestions or pointed them toward a favorite cookbook or website for more advice.

We wanted them to be empowered enough to experiment in the kitchen while leaving growing and harvesting the best products possible in our reliable hands. Trust was key. It still is. The whole thing — this scheme of local food, farmers markets, community-supported agriculture groups and the like — hinges on trust. We bemoan a “lack of trust” in Big Food, decrying E. coli outbreaks and mislabeling of “natural” foods. Big, we reason, can’t be trusted. All it wants is to make a buck. But what happens if even the local farmers — who, by definition, are intertwined (and benefiting, for that matter) in this whole local food movement — aren’t keeping us in the loop?

Yes, part of the burden of knowledge falls on consumers. Part of it, too, I like to think, falls on the media. Thankfully, a bunch of fine cookbook authors, such as Deborah Madison and Joe Yonan, are answering the call. But farmers have to do their part to aid in transparency. Honest marketing that helps buyers understand the difference between a paste tomato (for cooking) and a beefsteak (for slicing) and why flowered greens are past their prime is imperative if we want people to take interest in, and control of, the food they purchase, cook and eat.

Farmers, give us the best you’ve got, and give it to us straight. You want those buyers to keep on buying? Remember, it turns on trust.

Top photo: These heirloom tomatoes purchased at a farmers market are meant to be eaten raw, not used for sauces. Credit: Sara Franklin

Zester Daily contributor Sara B. Franklin considers herself a storyteller and cook foremost. A graduate of the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies, she's farmed and worked as a writer, researcher, policy advocate, educator and baker in Massachusetts and New York. She's currently working on her first cookbook, an exploration of the foundations of Brazilian cuisine with Rio de Janeiro-based Teresa Corção,  and is a doctoral student in the food studies program at New York University.

  • annabelle lenderink 8·21·13

    This is interesting. As a farmer on the West Coast I have noticed the trend over the last decade or so of calling any brassica that has gone to a budding stage “Raab”, after Broccoli Raab. And though I have not joined that crowd I do believe that those broccoli like florets are edible and even nutricious and delicious. I do know that the white flowers of Arugula are very good to eat, sweet, surprisingly sweet, and still with that Arugula bite. It is really only the lettuce family that becomes bitter after developing a flowering stalk. As for herbs in flower, it has always been my understanding that the flowering stage is when they have their highest volatile oil content and that for medicinal herbs that is the time to harvest. Alice Waters has a recipe using Thyme flowers in one of her books. I recently tasted Cilantro flowers and was blown away by the amount of flavor. And ofcourse after the flowers come the seeds, also fantastic, and very sought after by the chefs I do business with.
    As someone who bears the costs of producing these crops I can fully understand why a fellow farmer would want to not waste any part of his crop that is in fact very good to eat, and so before turning under the Kale that has started to form buds they would pick it one more time.

      • annabelle lenderink 8·27·13

        Thanx Sara, I have a few more pennies here. First of all I don’t believe that the brassica family becomes bitter in the flowering stage, only the lettuces do. After all we eat many of them already, Cauliflower and Broccoli and Hon Tsai Tai. Spigariello is also meant to be eaten when in bud. I ofcourse do not know what your local farmers do as far as enlightening their customers but I know that in our markets there’s an enormous amount of conversation that happens in which we get to explain such things, and many others besides, to our customers.
        The more I thought about your article over the last few days the more I felt that it really was an attack. Starting with the headline accusing farmers of dishonesty. As someone who has been selling mostly in farmers markets for over 20 years I can tell you that I know it to be a true fact that our customers appreciate honesty and candor and good information. Anyone who does not recognize that will not be in business for long.
        As in every profession there will be the occasional bad apple but your headline addressing farmers in general makes it seem like this is an issue with all sellers in farmers markets and that the general public is being bamboozled on an ongoing basis. More than in most businesses we as producers literally stand behind our products. We are right there for you to ask questions of and give feedback to