Yes, We Have No Bananas
Spring has sprung and many regional farmers’ markets have re-opened from their winter hibernation. Everything is green, flowers have bloomed, herbs have returned, babies were born…. Visiting a farmers’ market, especially in spring, is a small glimpse at a larger re-birth. These tasty little plants are actually tiny little glimpses of the primordial goop that keeps us here on this spinning rock we’re gratefully glued to.
I love a farmers’ market at any time of year. They’re a great opportunity to check in with your surroundings. Each stall should tell you what the nearby landscape can produce. When I worked at farmers’ markets, customers would often approach in search and I’d cross my fingers hoping for the banana question: “Who here sells bananas?” they’d ask earnestly. With a smile creeping across my face, I’d bestow upon them the global sacrifice they’re making by shopping at the farmers’ market, “NONE OF THEM!” I’d say calmly concealing my excitement. “None of these farmers grow bananas. Bananas don’t grow commercially this side of the hemisphere.” Yes, my friends, it’s true; a fruit we think of as American as pizza is just another gift from a foreign land. The customer never was as grateful as I hoped they’d be, mostly just disappointed.
Now, if you see a banana at your farmers’ market and it looks just like the banana you’d see at the local Mega Mart, chances are it probably came from the local Mega Mart. As a consumer, it’s not always easy to tell what you’re looking at. Most farmers’ markets dictate who sells at their markets and enforce their own sets of rules. In California, the state offers a certification program where Certified Farmers’ Markets do their best to ensure that the produce available was actually grown by the farmers who are selling. Not every market upholds such values, so do make sure and ask where the produce comes from. State certified markets typically issue certificates via their county Agricultural Departments, who then inspect fields and production within their counties. Here are the links to some of the state-sponsored farmers’ market programs for Tennessee, North Carolina, Arizona, Texas and Nevada. They all aim to enforce their own unique sets of direct marketing regulations, some better than others. If you’re curious about how the market you’re patronizing works, just ask! Find the “Information Booth” and seek out a manager. Ask something like:
1) Are all the vendors farmers?
2) If so, are they required to grow only what they sell?
3) How does the market enforce such requirements, if there are any?
For the most part, farmers’ markets try to help local growers by providing a venue for direct marketing – in other words, a place where farmers can actually sell the produce they grow at retail value. This might answer another favorite question of mine, “Why are farmers’ markets so expensive?” The answer could be because your market deals with the people who actually know what it took to produce the damn thing. To quote a former President,
“The farmer is the only man in our economy who buys everything at retail, sells everything at wholesale, and pays the freight both ways.” –John F. Kennedy
…gets me every time.
Being able to talk to the farmers isn’t just a cute gimmick to sell you expensive corn. It’s an opportunity for that grower to see where his or her corn is going to end up, but mostly, it’s an opportunity to receive their compensation. It’s easy for people to go to the Mega Mart or the wholesale produce market, buy bananas on the cheap and sell them out of the backs of their trucks like they actually grew them in domestic soil. If your local farmers’ market has bananas or pineapple, ask why (You might have to ask a few times), then find out who the actual farmers are and give them your money instead.
Eating locally shines a light on our environment. You begin to see flowers where there weren’t any before and fruit where land was once bare. You won’t see bananas, but you’ll appreciate them a lot more.