Ok, this is probably a stupid question: why do we seek to improve our health? (And why the heck am I starting a blog post about farmers markets with this stupid question? . . . yeah I know – just bear with me). As far as I can see, there are three fundamental answers. We seek to improve our health 1) to reduce suffering, 2) to improve the quality of our lives and 3) to improve the length of our lives.
Obviously the types and quality of foods we eat have a big part to play in accomplishing these goals. We want foods that are fresh, tasty and full of beneficial nutrients. To sustain a health promoting diet over the long run we need a diet of healthy foods that we actually look forward to eating, not just those that we dutifully force down our throats because we know that “they are good for us”.
Farmers markets are a unique phenomenon in the landscape of food production and distribution and I think they can play a part in improving both our health and the quality of our lives (and who knows – maybe even the length of our lives). Here’s how:
Food from small, local, organic growers is generally healthier for us
The explosive growth of the organics industry in the last 25 years has brought larger and larger players into the game. As larger companies dominate organic food production, it runs the risk of devolving into just another business with more and more focus on profit margins and the bottom line. As an example, about 20 years ago the USDA, who oversees organic regulations, was lobbied heavily to change the organic standards to allow sewage sludge to be used as an organic fertilizer! In more recent years efforts have been made to include genetically modified foods (GMO’s) in the organic standards. Luckily, these efforts have not succeeded.
Organic regulations were set up to create standards that minimize toxic chemical residues in our food, which is, of course, a very worthy goal. There are no organic regulations, however, that address the nutrient content or health value of organic foods. In a food production environment driven by profit, it is quite possible to do the bare minimum and produce foods that are of very poor nutritional quality and yet still meet organic standards.
Unlike large companies whose primary concern is satisfying stockholders, small, organic farmers tend to bring a lot of passion and idealism to what they do. I can tell you that they didn’t get into it for the money, because there is not much money in small scale farming.
There are several reasons why passion, idealism and local production are important for the health value of foods.
The heart of good organic farming is building healthy soil that will grow healthy, disease-resistant plants. Good soil is much more than just dirt. It must have a broad spectrum of minerals in proper balance, not just the nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium used in commercial agriculture. In addition, it must have adequate organic matter and a complex matrix of beneficial microscopic and macroscopic organisms to make those nutrients available to the plants.
Most of the local organic farmers I have spoken with understand this and are working hard to achieve truly healthy soil. As stated above, healthy soil is rich in a broad spectrum of major and trace minerals such as calcium, magnesium, zinc and chromium. These nutrients are essential to our health and if they are not in the soil they cannot be in the plants. If they are not in the plants, they will not be in the animals who eat those plants. The levels of essential minerals in plants can increase by ten-fold or more if they are abundant in the soil. In addition, ample minerals in the soil increase the protein content of foods substantially.
Another important factor affecting nutritional quality of produce is the time from harvest to table. Most farmers selling at farmers markets pick their produce the day before, whereas produce in grocery stores was generally picked anywhere from 3 days to several weeks or more before showing up in the produce section. Indeed, a lot of produce sold out of season is shipped in from countries as far away as New Zealand. The longer the time from harvest to table, the more nutrient loss, and this can be dramatic. For more details on this see my earlier blog post Universal Diet Principle No. 4: Eat fresh, organic, locally grown foods.
Food from local, organic growers is generally tastier
Here’s a neat little fact: nutrient dense foods taste better. As minerals are concentrated in the plants the flavor increases, as does the sugar and protein content. In fact, it is becoming more popular among organic farmers and gardeners to use a device called a refractometer to measure the sugar content of their produce in order to assess its health and disease resistance. This is the same device used by winemakers to assess the sugar content of their grapes.
If you’ve been buying your produce at the local grocery store, a trip to the farmers market might really surprise you. Tomatoes, corn, peas, potatoes and even lettuce will probably taste much better than what you are used to. That added flavor makes these foods more desirable to eat, as well as representing increased nutritional value.
In addition, farmers who sell at farmers markets tend to be more adventuresome in terms of the varieties they grow. When you go to the grocery store you see the same three kinds of lettuce, the same three kinds of tomatoes, the same one or two kinds of cucumber over and over again. This is in part because particular varieties of produce are often developed for how well they ship or how well they store, not how good they taste or how nutritious they are. Of course, the better grocery stores are trying to increase their variety, but they are still limited by methods of mass production, transportation and storage. Local farmers who are transporting produce for short distances and selling it soon after harvest aren’t constrained by those considerations.
Farmers markets are full of varieties of produce you may have never seen before and farmers are often trying new things each year. It’s an adventure to go each week and see what’s available. Who knew that blue potatoes existed, or that they could be so delicious, or just how many varieties of tomatoes there are, each with a different flavor, color and texture?
Quality of Life
Finally, I want to address the quality of life that comes with frequenting your local farmer’s market.
When you go to the grocery store you are one of hundreds of people walking down isle after isle of food under fluorescent lights. For the most part you don’t know where that food came from or who grew it (or when). You stand in lines to check out and are confronted by racks of tempting but unhealthy snacks and tabloid newspapers announcing the latest tragedies (real or imagined) of assorted celebrities.
Now consider the farmer’s market experience. The canopies shading the vendor booths make the market look almost like an old time carnival. The sun is your light source and as you stop at each booth you can speak to and ask questions of the person who actually grew your food. You can ask them how a particular food tastes and often are offered a sample. You can ask them how to cook it and sometimes receive recipes. If they are not an organic grower you can ask them if the food was sprayed and when, or how it was fertilized.
And here’s another thing, the people around you are actually in a good mood. They are not rushing through to get their shopping done. They are stopping to talk to vendors and to friends they meet (yes, this happens at farmer’s markets). They’re tasting the produce or having a snack from one of the vendors of prepared foods (the Auburn Farmers Market has a vendor who bakes wood fired pizza on site – sorry gluten-free folks). There’s a guy with an emu who sometimes comes to the Auburn Farmers Market and is often surrounded by kids and their parents (an emu is kind of like a miniature ostrich if you’ve never seen one).
This is one of the things I love most about farmers markets: they ignore the hustle and bustle of modern life and place things back on a human scale. They are personal. When you hand a vendor a couple of dollars for a head of lettuce you are placing your money directly in the hand of the person who grew it. This is community in the real sense of the word. When you stop by the vendor who sells lamb and beef he might tell you that he’s tired today because it’s lambing season and he was up all night helping ewes deliver.
We live in a world that is perpetually speeding up and increasingly disconnected. Farmers markets are places where people and communities slow down and get reconnected. I promise you that this has a positive impact on our health.
Finally, if your image of a farmers market is a row of stalls with people selling lettuce and cabbage, think again. At the Auburn farmers market in addition to a great variety of produce, both organic and non-organic, there are vendors selling bread, cheese, local olive oil, locally grown rice, coffee, beef, lamb, pork, chicken, fresh seafood (actually caught that morning and trucked to Auburn from the coast), and a variety of prepared specialty foods.
Plus, there’s the guy with the emu . . .
For more information on farmers markets in Placer county visit www.placergrown.org/farmers-markets/