Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Trending Markets

Here in the heartland of agriculture, we’ve cultured something that grows great on four acres of parking lot: the farmers market.

A farmers market isn’t much of a market and there aren’t any farmers. Mostly it’s rows of big white tents anchored with sandbags in case farm weather shows up. With tie-dyed scarves and homemade herbal ointments, most farmers markets look like the merch tables at a Phish concert.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

The “farmers” are mostly handsome, fresh-looking kids in their twenties, decked in linen and trendy sunglasses. All have clean fingernails. None is wearing Key overalls. They’re bright and charming and I like them. I just don’t believe them.

I don’t believe them because they sell tomatoes in April. They sell corn-on-the-cob in May. They sell goat cheese even though nobody around here has seen a goat outside of a petting zoo.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

In fact,
I like these people better. The real farmers I know are too busy for a farmers market. They’re busy steering million-dollar, GPS-self-driving combines that harvest a 45-foot swath of genetically perfect corn to be delivered direct and fresh to an ethanol factory. They’re busy maintaining the machines that deliver a ton of hormonally enriched by-products from the other end of the ethanol plant to feed a thousand chickens who would be blinded by the bright daylight reflecting off the pearl-white skin of a farmers market vendor.

On a real farm, you browse pigs. I prefer browsing the small-batch cheeses, hand-crafted in a small town in Iowa, which is fairly near a farm. Each is lovingly hand-wrapped by a person who recently quit her executive vice president position at First Data.

I love avoiding the local wines. I love the smell of steaming funnel cakes, which look a lot like steaming farm-fresh cow pies.

I love the street music. (Well, c’mon—it’s not farm music.) Banjos and accordions and straw hats and zydeco, perfect music if your farmers are from Louisiana. I’m a little less enthusiastic about the prodigious three-year-old drummer kid they trot out occasionally. He’s a great drummer for a three-year-old, not so interesting otherwise, beyond being freakish. Not to mention his sad back-story: only somebody spiteful buys a three-year-old kid drums.

Customers are good about wearing the farmers market uniform: huge hats and sunglasses and tank tops and tented baby carriages and PBA-free water bottles. Once my wife had to walk the six blocks back to our car because she forgot and wore her bra.

And dogs. Why is it charming to bring along your boxer to endure an hour on a hot summer sidewalk, drooling on the flip-flop feet of every sympathetic bystander?

I go from booth to booth, figuring one vendor must be a better farmer than the others, with fatter onions, greener kale, and a better drawl. I get stressed when I can’t tell any difference. I eventually go to whomever is closest to the exit, then buy a pound of kale and radishes, promising myself I’ll eat healthy this week. When I get home I make room in the fridge by throwing away last week’s kale and radishes.

The one thing definitely local about our farmers market is that customers approach each booth politely, admiring the kiwi and leeks and whatever else doesn’t grow well in Nebraska, turning it over, asking a lot of questions (“What can you make with this?”), involving you in a long discussion about the organic, bio-ethnic, pro-biotic yogurt they prefer, while their kid wipes a booger on your lettuce. Then they set it all back down and move politely to the next booth without buying anything.

Now that’s Omaha-local. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.


Reprinted from Food & Spirits Magazine, Issue 20

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