Thursday, May 5, 2016

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 many farmers. Mostly it’s rows of big white tents anchored with sandbags in case farm weather shows up. With all the tie-dye scarves and homemade herbal ointments for sale, most farmers markets look like more a Phish concert merch table.

The “farmers” are mostly handsome, fresh-looking kids in their twenties, decked in natural linen shirts and Ray-Bans. All the vendors have clean fingernails and wear earbuds. None is wearing Key overalls. They’re all sunny and friendly. 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.

The real farmers I know don’t have time for a farmers market. They’re too busy manning million-dollar self-steering GPS-enabled combines that harvest a 45-foot swath of genetically perfect corn which will 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 that have never seen grass and would be blinded by the bright sunshine reflecting off the pearl-white skin of a farmers market vendor.

On a real farm, you browse pigs. My friend went with his young son to a real farm to buy a pig for a roast. “Which one do you like?” the farmer asked as they stood surrounded by the merchandise. My friend’s little son pointed at one, more or less randomly, and the farmer pulled out a pistol and shot the pig right in front of them. That’s a real farm.

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

There is always an opportunity to sample the local Nebraska wines, which I do to remind myself that there’s still something to like about California.

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

I love the street music. It’s not farmer music – these banjos and accordions and straw hats and zydeco are more like a Louisiana version of Hee Haw. I’m a little less enthusiastic about the prodigious three-year-old drummer kid they trot out occasionally to the main crossroads. He’s a great drummer for a three-year-old, which is to say not great. You know there is a sad back-story: only somebody mean and spiteful ex-spouse buys a three-year-old kid drums.

The customers are good about wearing their farmers market costumes: wide-brimmed 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 the dogs. Farmers market customers insist it is charming to bring along their boxer to endure an hour on a hot summer sidewalk, drooling on the flip-flop feet of every sympathetic bystander. What comes out of my mouth is “Can I say hi to your dog?” when I meant to say “Mind if I rat you out to the Humane Society?”

I stroll from booth to booth, figuring one vendor might be a better farmer than the rest: fatter onions, greener kale, a better drawl, Key overalls. I get stressed when I can’t tell a difference from one to the next. I eventually go to whoever is closest to the exit. I 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 truly local about our farmers markets is the way customers approach each booth politely, admiring the kiwi and leeks and whatever else doesn’t grow in Nebraska, turning it over, asking a lot of questions (“What can you make with this?” “Is this PBA-free?”), involving the vendor in a long discussion about the organic, bio-ethnic, pro-biotic yogurt they prefer, while their kid wipes a booger on the lettuce. Then they set it all back down and move politely to the next booth without buying anything.

It's not about the produce. It's a chance to stroll in the sun, see lots of people and feel a little better about ourselves. We're all in the market for that.

Reprinted from Food & Spirits Magazine