Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Of Markets and Farmers

Some of you know that I started managing the Green Market at the Alliance for the Arts a while ago. It's something that I'm very proud to be doing, it gives me a lot of satisfaction and pleasure, and a few headaches too.
Being a bit of an oddball myself, a lot of the pleasure comes from working with so many wonderful characters. Very independent-minded people, very proud of their individuality, very hard working, original and creative members of our community. From the farmers to the musicians to the green entrepreneurs to the cooks, they are the grassroots making change happen.
Now, ours is a smallish outfit. We value quality over quantity. But not only that. We have a very clear idea of where we want to go with it. The main thing we're interested in is local production. Buying local is the solution to so many of our problems. Limiting carbon footprints? Check. Reducing dependence on foreign fossil fuels? Check. Stimulating the local economy, reducing unemployment close to home? Check, check.
Of course, we can't be 100% local. Not yet, anyway. We don't produce our coffee here in SW FL, for example. But there's one area where we are very clear we want local, and only local, and nothing but local: fresh farm produce, fresh eggs, fresh fish, fresh honey, fresh fruit. We don't make compromises there. And that's where some of the headaches I was talking about appear.
We Americans have grown accustomed to having what we want, when we want it, no questions asked. At a good price, too. Isn't this what globalization is all about? Well, it turns out globalization has a cost. There's a hidden cost to cheap tomatoes year round: you grow them in Mexico, using human shit for fertilizer and cheap child labor for picking, not caring too much for environmental regulations, and send them over here using cheap fossil fuels. Or you grow them in California, under slightly better conditions, using illegal immigrant labor and tons of chemicals, fertilizers and pesticides. In both cases the end result is the same: your local Big Mart has tomatoes that taste like cardboard and are probably not very good for you always available.
With dwindling oil supplies, the "cheap fuel" part of the equation is about to change pretty radically. The only reason we are not seeing the cost of a barrel of oil shooting through the roof is a widespread global recession that curbs demand. Yeah, there's alternatives to oil. But nothing that can bring strawberries from Chile to the produce aisle and Pacific tuna, whose populations are depleting rapidly anyway, to the sushi counter cheaply and efficiently.
There's more to creating wealth, it seems to me, than video game developers in Oakland hiring software engineers in Bangalore to create the latest shoot-'em-up to be manufactured in China and shipped to our malls just in time for Black Friday and the Holiday Season. That might be a part of it. But how about growing food near where we live? Outsourcing what we put on our table every night to giant agribusinesses thousands of miles away doesn't seem like a smart thing to do. I mean those guys hiccup, we go without dinner. Not to mention their stuff is not very good, really.
Our little Green Market, unlike other markets in this area, makes sure it is doing its part to stimulate local production, supporting local farmers and other food vendors, without false advertising. I'm tired of visiting other markets, and I won't name names here, and seeing the same iceberg lettuces that you can get at Big Mart, the same peaches from Georgia and apples from Argentina. During the summer months, very little can be grown in South Florida, everybody knows that, or should know that. I'm constantly explaining to visitors that our produce offerings are very limited during the summer. But that this is so for a reason. And that, marvel of marvels, people lived with this fact for many generations here in Florida, and in many parts of the world still do. There's mango season, and avocado season, there's some wonderful guys growing stuff in shade houses and hydroponically, there's great locally made pickles and jams and preserves, there's starfruit and fish and chickens... but some stuff is just not available. "You can't always get what you want", like Mick Jagger used to sing... maybe that's a good thing, working on the expectations side of it, not assuming everything has to be there all the time, getting a bit more educated about it. It also helps you enjoy those peppers and tomatoes and cucumbers when they finally show up, they taste delicious, nothing like the cardboard produce at the Big Mart...
So you can see that we are trying to educate the public about local food production, which is what I do with my Green Coaches project too - that's why I think the two jobs work so well together. As the cooler season nears (and it's been a brutally hot and unusually long summer), more produce vendors are joining us. And we make sure that when they say "local", they are local. Tomorrow morning I have to check out a farm, see what's on the ground, make sure it's the same stuff that will be at Market on Saturday. Make sure nobody's buying stuff from a wholesaler and unwrapping it and putting it in crates and boxes that look "rustic" and "just picked", if you catch my hint here. No way. Not us.
And going to farms, learning from farmers, has to be one of my favorite things in the world. Farmers have a great sense of humor. A bit coarse and down to earth, sometimes. Fart and manure jokes are not uncommon. But most farmers are great observers both of nature and of human nature, see right through the BS and tell it like it is.
I'll take farmers over advertising executives any day of the week.
There's this great German gentleman farmer I visited a while ago, with the biggest collection of VW's in the world, 5 cows, many hogs and turkeys and chickens and a pond full of tilapia - he insisted I take some home, fished them right out of the water (with a hook baited with bread) for me while we drank a couple of cold ones. He owns this great restaurant that is a vendor with us, and I'm trying to get him to do some killing in his herds and flocks and put them in sandwiches for our Market customers: "locally raised, locally killed, locally cooked and locally eaten", how about that for a tagline.
There's Ken with his microgreens and gourmet herbs and heirloom veggies, with his great sense of humor and attention to detail, and the encyclopedia-like amount of knowledge he has about his craft. There's Mike with his outsized island style sombrero, easygoing ways from the times he was a wanderer and bohemian in the Caribbean, his gingers and carambolas and yams. There's the women of Rabbit Run Farms with their great eggplants and hydro greens. There's Nick from Inyoni Organics joining us in a week or two, when his stuff is ready, and some others too.
And still, it's never enough in the summer. I always have to answer questions about us not having grapes or lettuce "like the other markets". And I answer them with a smile, as many times as necessary. I talk about all the stuff I just talked about here, and much more. With pleasure.
We have other vendors at the Green Market, with great products, natural homemade soaps and candles, eco-friendly cleaning products, plants and planters and fertilizers and flowers and breads and salsas and jams. We have some arts and crafts, and more want to join us all the time. We have some pretty cool stuff.
But farmers are our best friends. The original markets, back in the day, were by farmers, for farmers. You either bought from them, or sold to them. They were the economic engines of their communities, the people you could depend on to put food on your table.
And at our Green Market we recognize that, and we want to support them as much as we can. I think you should too. Summer's almost gone. Soon, there will be more local produce available. Take the time for a pleasant stroll outside of the Alliance for the Arts this Saturday and every Saturday, see what's just come out of the ground, the beehive, the tree, the Gulf. Check out the great crafts and delicious foods and green products. Let your local dollar stay where it belongs, here. In the end, it will make its way back to you.