Apples and cherries, dropped in diamond disarray.
March 6, 2011 12:11 PM   Subscribe

I don't understand farmers' markets in my area.

I grew up in Rochester, NY, where there is a splendid farmers' market. It's big and open year-round; the produce is varied and cheap; there are specialty goods like honey and maple syrup; finally, trinket vendors, craftsmen, and haberdashers are kept to a minimum. So I'm totally sold on trading supermarkets for farmers' markets.

I went to university in Baltimore and now live in College Park, a Maryland suburb of DC. I keep trying to have the same relationship with the local farmers' markets, but I keep feeling disappointed.

The one I've been to most often has vendors who sell hand-made soap, specialty coffee, sausages, bulgogi, crêpes, donuts, potted herbs, pickles, and jam. One or two vendors each week come with expensive organic meats, and another two-three come with a very narrow selection of fruits and vegetables.

Since I'm trying to use the market for essential groceries, going seems to be a waste of time and money. At one point I was basically stalking the eggs-and-poultry vendor, only to overhear her say that she intentionally brought only 1-2 cartons each week because the shoppers are too cheap to pay the prices her eggs command in Silver Spring.

Other nearby farmers' markets aren't any better: very few vendors, very narrow selection, high prices, mostly prepared foods, specialty foods, and crafts. That's not what my weekly groceries list looks like.
  • Is my experience typical?
  • Which local markets fit my needs better?
  • Is it realistic to expect to be able to replace the basic shopping I do at the supermarket with grocery shopping from the public market, and also stay within the same price range?
posted by Nomyte to Shopping (32 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
I travel around a lot for work and check out the farmer's markets anytime I'm staying somewhere for more than a couple weeks. Your experience is unfortunately not especially unusual, there are a lot of places (especially the newer ones) that are just free riding on the explosion in popularity of farmer's markets. You need to shop around if possible, but I only found farmer's markets in warm weather locations (California, Florida) with actual nearby farms to be consistently higher quality than better grocery stores as far as fruits and vegetables. I still kinda enjoy the street-fair type, but they're mostly for amusement rather than a substitute for grocery stores. Check yelp or other similar sights for reviews.
posted by skewed at 12:24 PM on March 6, 2011

If you've only started going to this market recently, don't give up hope--it's pretty early in the year for a wide selection of produce to be available. Ask around to see if more growers bring their stuff in the summertime.

At my local farmers' market, some things are cheaper than in the store and some are more expensive; it depends on what's in season at the time. When I can swing it, I try to support the local businesses. But damn, there are definitely times when I cannot pay $4.50 for eggs, no matter how badly I want to.
posted by corey flood at 12:25 PM on March 6, 2011

What you have encountered are two completely different things both called farmer's markets.

Since at least the 1970s, if not earlier, we've had a farmer's market in the Weston neighbourhood in Toronto that was just like the one you had in Rochestor. It was held on Saturday mornings in a commutter parking lot, and consisted primarily of vegetable farmers selling their produce from stalls which were cheap folding tables and a truck. There was one egg farmer, who would sell eggs by the flat (24 eggs) if you wanted, and cheaper hairline crack eggs; tomatoes and apples could be bought by the bushel. There were no organic crops; the only heritage crops were some of the apples grown by our friends who also had tons of macs and empires. The only ready-made food available was Grandpa Ken's back bacon sandwiches. There was a bakery stall, but no soaps or crafts -- though in later years a flea-market developed on one row, selling cheap plastic gadgets and such.

it had never been a place for foodies -- it was a market for farmers to sell directly for a greater share of the profit to the working class and poor people who lived in and about Weston.

So I went to this market every week as a kid in the 80s -- only to recently read a reporter in the national paper claim that Toronto's first farmer's market had been started in something like 1989 or 1999 by a couple of chefs.

There are markets where farmers sell their products, which have existed since time immemorial. And then there are these strange, posh things which seem to want to capture the qualities of the former, but have forgotten that the reason for their existence had always been selling bulk food at good prices without a middle man.
posted by jb at 12:30 PM on March 6, 2011 [9 favorites]

I am not sure about the price range. That depends on the area and the time of the year (as corey flood says, it's way too early in the season to tell what's going on).

Other than that I'd say don't stalk but talk:
The vendors who might be interesting to you need to know that you are not another of those suburban bulgogi eaters and fancy pottery buyers, but actually interested in their stuff.
Ask the veggie vendors whether there's a chance that they bring a few other things along next time. Ask the eggs-and-poultry vendor what prices people actually pay in Silver Spring. If you don't get more nice food that way, you might at least strike up some nice contacts.
posted by Namlit at 12:31 PM on March 6, 2011

Your experience in very typical. Same thing with food co-ops. While it is nice to wake up on a lazy Saturday morning, walk out my front door, and get a crepe I really just want some fucking chard for the week. Most of the produce I have seen is also not local. I can see the boxes the farmers bring it in and those are the same boxes I saw when I was produce manager of a health food store.

I have had much greater success with farmshares. You can't beat the price or the quality and the money goes through as few hands as possible.
posted by munchingzombie at 12:32 PM on March 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

Maybe look into your local CSA program ,in my experience they are way better than crappy farmers markets, which are all too common. When you get your CSA box for the week you usually see a whole bunch of meals staring back at you, with only staples from the grocery store required.
posted by Keith Talent at 12:32 PM on March 6, 2011 [3 favorites]

Low supply, high demand. There is a lot more farmland per capita within driving distance of Rochester than there is in suburban Washington, and the median per-household income of Prince George's County is roughly 40% higher of that in Monroe.
posted by backupjesus at 12:34 PM on March 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

The Fairbanks, AK Farmer's Market is pretty similar. We now have a local-meats market with a store front, but there again, I can't get everything I need there most of the time. We have an Asian market too. I wish that everyone could just get together in one place for god's sake. There is apparently a co-op trying to establish itself, and I hope they manage to get enough funding to be viable and useful to the average shopper. The market seems to be demanding more and better markets, so maybe in a few years this kind of complaint will be obsolete.
posted by madred at 12:35 PM on March 6, 2011

I wish the markets that don't have farmers would simply not call themselves a "farmer's market". It's deceptive. It's only a farmer's market if you have farmers selling their produce directly. No farmers = no farmer's market. It's just an outdoor mall then.
posted by jb at 12:36 PM on March 6, 2011 [4 favorites]

To clarify: I've been going to these markets on and off for the last three years, and the conditions I'm describing are what it's like in the summer and fall.

Clearly, it would be silly to expect fresh, local, seasonal vegetables in DC in early March, and I obviously don't expect them. Also, the markets don't even open until April.

I am only shopping for one and have a very irregular schedule that leaves me with different amounts of free time each week. A CSA is not the answer, as much as I'd like it to be.
posted by Nomyte at 12:40 PM on March 6, 2011

I think the fact that you had a cheap farmers' market in the Northeast is unusual. A CSA is probably a better option. If you know that your local market has eggs that you want on a regular basis, you should talk directly to that vendor and make sure she brings some for you.

Additionally, this is about the worst time of year for a farmers' market, esp. if you are looking for fruit/veggies.
posted by maryr at 12:40 PM on March 6, 2011

i'm not sure this is an issue of typical or non-typical but a difference in classification. i think to really have a good farmer's market, you need to be located in an area that has enough local farming to sustain a successful market with actual farmer's coming in with their produce. as backupjesus pointed out, there is more farmland surrounding where you grew up in rochester than there is surrounding washington, dc.

in portland, where i live, we have wonderful farmer's markets because we have a lot of farmland in oregon and farmers do the rounds both in portland and other towns. they offer veggies, meats, cheeses, seafood (from the coast), eggs, bread, pastas and other produce, etc, as well as flowers from local growers. the markets also have food stands with local food purveyors if you want to grab a bite to eat there, including a woman from hood river who makes the best tarts, cakes, and pastries ever. the prices aren't necessarily cheaper

these farmer's markets are not to be confused with "the saturday market" which is a permanent outdoor market held downtown every saturday that sells candles, soaps, hemp clothing, bags, leather goods, tie-dyed tees, glass knick-knacks, hand-made goods, etc (as well as having food stalls)—the type of stuff you are describing in the "farmer's market" you currently attend. it's a totally different animal and i would not classify that kind of market as a farmer's market.
posted by violetk at 12:58 PM on March 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

Yeah, I agree with backupjesus - it's a supply-demand problem. I think the whole "locally sourced" movement has given the false impression that every place in the US actually has an abundance and variety of local farms. That's just not true. As a result, most places will have less supply and hence higher prices than, say, California.

What you might be able to find in most places that one market that does attract all the local farmers - in DC, that's the Dupont Circle market on Sundays. You'll find higher quality produce than in stores, but the prices will probably be higher for most items.

There is also another variety of outdoor produce markets where vendors sell the normal trucked in stuff that's distributed to area stores. Not local, not organic, but here is where you'll find the cheap stuff. I've seen them in Philly and New York, and I assume they exist somewhere in DC too.
posted by yarly at 1:09 PM on March 6, 2011

I think the fact that you had a cheap farmers' market in the Northeast is unusual.

I disagree with this. I've found affordable farmers markets in NYC, NJ, CT, MA, in cities and towns.

I don't know what's up with this whole "farmer's market that sells cute instead of farm produce" phenomenon. I haven't experienced it but can understand that it exists, and people sell nonsense that they think approximates a "farmers market aesthetic" to consumers who want to purchase the farmers market experience.

Presumably, farmers markets in your area have coordinators, and those coordinators are responsible for the "programming," as it were, of the markets. Get in touch with them and ask them to bring in farmers who have produce to sell at reasonable prices. If they think that their customers are people who only want to buy prepared foods, then they'll keep on finding vendors who only provide that.
posted by entropone at 1:22 PM on March 6, 2011

Here in San Francisco, we have the farmers market at the Ferry Building, which sounds a lot like your Rochester one - it has an indoor market, with permanent stalls and sellers of meat and shellfish and grocery items, and a weekly outdoor market, also with meat/cheese/seafood sellers, as well as seasonal/local fruits and veggies.

We also have the Alemany market, which is outdoors-only (but year-round, since it's coastal California). While there are a few stands selling things like raw meats, baked goods, and some prepared-food trucks, the focus is on fruits and vegetables. The sellers are largely Asian, from the Central Valley; the egg stand carries many duck eggs, which are clearly popular. You could probably do your weekly shopping at either, depending on what you wanted.

But when I lived in Takoma Park, our farmers market was teeny and 98% fruit/veg, because of a combination of what people wanted to buy from a farmers market and what the farmers had to sell. But if you want good, seasonal produce, try that one. Unless it's changed a lot in the last decade (always possible), it was intimate and yet had a wide range of produce. It used to be on Sundays, 10-2 pm.
posted by rtha at 1:34 PM on March 6, 2011

Yes, I'm afraid you're comparing the back-East Farmer's Market with the real thing. My own experience: the cornucopia of earthly delights available in the weekend Silicon Valley markets, in comparison to the pitiful offerings around Washington DC, the latter especially bleak in the winter months, when it seems only crafts and cookies are available.
posted by Rash at 1:49 PM on March 6, 2011

Have you tried all the markets, or are you willing to travel a little further? I found I had to shop around for a market I liked in DC. I totally get that trekking here from College Park might be out of the question, but since they're all Metro-accessible, I thought these links might be helpful, just in case.

Dupont is great, but too crowded for me. Mt. Pleasant's was good and all local, but I didn't make it there early enough to get anything good. I did think it was way better than the tiny one on 18th in Adams Morgan. (Note that last link lists many of the local markets; I don't think the AdMo one has a website.) I ended up settling on the one at 14th and U. There is a lot of produce, and I think you can tell what comes from local farms. I believe there's only one or two egg stands, one meat counter (the farm is in Maryland), and one cheese stand.

Yeah, I think farmers' markets in DC get a little too pricey in general, and you won't find nearly as much variety as you'd get in San Francisco for instance, but I buy from them anyway. I'm in a new neighborhood now and the local Bloomingdale market seems to be run by the same people as 14th and U and is supposed to be very good. It was a considered selling point for this neighborhood when I asked AskMe about moving here. I can't vouch for it yet but it I think they open in May like everyone else does.

There's a lot of chatter and reviews of all of these markets on Yelp and ChowHound, so you might want to peek around those forums for options that are closer to you, as well. I also think that the advice to have some friendly conversations with the vendors is a good idea.

(I'm sorry for the Facebook links. It looks like those pages are more actively updated than the website they list in their profile.)
posted by juliplease at 2:14 PM on March 6, 2011 [2 favorites]

Hey, I am your twin!! I grew up in Rochester spoiled on the amazing farmers market too...and your experience has been mine in the other places I've lived (Pittsburgh, Memphis). The two biggest things as you note are that the "fell off the truck" resold dollar store shit feeling merch is kept to a minimum in Rochester it doesn't seem to elsewhere, and that the whole point--really fresh high quality produce--gets taken away because farms seem to realize in their area demographics favor them giving that stuff to restaurants or elsewhere (other states) before you ever see it. That has been my experience to a T particularly in Memphis, and yeah, it blows (especially for all the talk of locavore this and that complete with branded consumer identity t-shirts and tote bags and whatnot, ugh). In Rochester it didn't feel like they made a huge fuss about the market and identifying yourself as "one who shops there" to make a buck; it simply was (that might've changed though; it's been a few years, and I do remember for a little while the crap merch was beginning to seep in, though someone told me they've tried to nip that in the bud). And best of all the whole point was it was as cheap or cheaper than shitty supermarket options. That has absolutely not been the case in Memphis for me--local farm-branded food is much, much more expensive (and frankly not as good as I remember stuff in Rochester being). Sucks. I guess all this ranty rambling is just to say no, you're not alone in your disappointed experience. Sigh.
posted by ifjuly at 2:20 PM on March 6, 2011

And FWIW Judith Jones had mentioned in passing a few times that she was shocked to discover that what we think of as America's Heartland--the Midwest, the South--often historically/culturally relies far more on canned or prepackaged produce etc. than other areas including the North, which she had a hard time wrapping her head around at first when she relocated. That has been my experience too and yeah, I totally don't get how it works exactly, but. It's almost as if there's just no individual consumer demand enough to get sellers providing the produce the Northeast and California/the Pacific Northwest are used to. I dunno.
posted by ifjuly at 2:24 PM on March 6, 2011

breadbasket/farmland rather, not heartland, oops!
posted by ifjuly at 2:24 PM on March 6, 2011

I didn't offer anything constructive though did I? Whoops. I guess I will begrudgingly say that ultimately here the CSA approach was the best we managed to do, combined with ethnic grocers around town. It's still no Rochester public market though, alas.
posted by ifjuly at 2:26 PM on March 6, 2011

Have you tried the USDA farmers' market at the agricultural library in Beltsville? I haven't been there in a while and I think they are closed until late spring/summer, but they used to be.

As mentioned up thread, the Dupont Circle market is one of the better ones in DC. If you're willing to go into the city, you might also try Eastern Market.
posted by chrisulonic at 2:29 PM on March 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

...used to be good.
posted by chrisulonic at 2:29 PM on March 6, 2011

ifjuly: I still shop there when I visit Rochester. The crap is filtering in, but it's kept in a distinct area. I think I'm just going to transition to shopping at the local Latino supermarket. Even the Asian grocer is too damn far.

Thanks, everyone else, for suggesting other area markets! I'll definitely check out Beltsville and Takoma Park. My problem with markets in the city proper is that I only go into the city for day trips. It's too time consuming for errands like groceries, and I'd hate to spend an afternoon in DC with a bag of wilting greens.
posted by Nomyte at 2:45 PM on March 6, 2011

Come to the one in Riverdale! The selection isn't really good until July, but they have real food, not just prepared. I've found the vendors to be really nice and friendly. Prices are cheaper than the grocery store for the plain food items.

You should also check out Glut food coop in Mt. Ranier.

We also joined the Lancaster Farm Fresh CSA.

Welcome to the area!
posted by frecklefaerie at 2:52 PM on March 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

There are farmer's markets near DC but the ones I'm familiar with are on the VA side where my sister lives. Check out this link to Local Harvest that gives you Farmer's Markets around the College Park area. It's a pretty big list and includes the DC area, so you'll probably want to skim through it for the ones that are closest to you.

Good luck!
posted by garnetgirl at 4:29 PM on March 6, 2011

In my short time here, I've also found that DC area farmers markets are hardly a garden of earthly delight. :)

I don't have anything to add to the many useful suggestions except to steer you away from Eastern Market: it's my neighborhood and I love it, but it's not a farmers market. Some of the stands outdoors on weekends sell some local produce, but you'll also see plenty of bananas and pineapples.
posted by Xalf at 5:25 PM on March 6, 2011

Go to Takoma Park's farmers market!! It is on the red line and not too far from College. Not sure how they are during the winter, but that is probably the best farmers market within 15-20 minutes of College Park

The downtown Silver Spring market only has a couple of vegetable seller during the off season it is much better once the spring starts. We belong to a CSA that delivers to Silver Spring starting in mid may (Spiral Path), which I have been pretty happy with.

I went to grad school in Madison, I was never big on the central farmers market that was a whole city block, but Takoma Park and Silver Sping are like the smaller 10-20 seller markets in Madison.
posted by akabobo at 6:07 PM on March 6, 2011

I had similar experiences on the west coast of Canada to you. Full-on farmer's markets generally mean very high prices, limited quantities and selection.

One thing I did find out in the Vancouver area and surrounding burbs were a couple of "chain" farm market stores, specifically Kin's Farm Market and Langley Farm Market. Each of these places has about a half dozen locations around the Vancouver area. What they are, are shops that focus on selling produce and a few staples, and I shop there for veg and fruit almost exclusively because I find their produce is very fresh compared to the grocery stores and their prices are frequently 50%-60% of grocery stores, sometimes less. An example, I picked up some heads of green and red leaf lettuce for .79 each, then saw the same at the grocery store (all wilted too) for $1.99/head. You might see if there's something similar in your area as an alternative to grocery stores or the farmer's markets.
posted by barc0001 at 9:47 PM on March 6, 2011

You might try the Crossroads Farmer's Market in Langley Park. It's not a big market, but it caters more to the middle/low-income neighborhood that surrounds it. It's truly local, though, and hence only open June-October. I think the Takoma Park market is better than Silver Spring, but you're still not going to save money over Safeway or Giant.

It's not completely clear to me is what your main goal is in replacing the grocery store with a trip to the farmer's market for your basic food ingredients. Simultaneously achieving "local" and "lower prices" in DC is hard to make happen. So I'm not sure if the following suggestions will meet your goals, but you might try visiting some of the non-chain ethnic grocery stores (again, Langley Park is close by and crawling with these), such as the Red Apple Farmers Market or Americana, as well as farm stands such as Spicknalls up on Old Gunpowder Road in Beltsville.
posted by SomeTrickPony at 4:28 AM on March 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

I've seen them in Philly and New York, and I assume they exist somewhere in DC too.

I assume you're talking about the wholesale market where (actual) farmers and food distributors go to sell their wares to restaurants, food stores, and the like?

In DC, that's the Capital City Market (also sometimes called the Florida Market) about 2 blocks northeast of the NY Avenue Metro stop. It's not for the faint of heart, but definitely worth visiting on the weekend at least once. You can get some great deals there, but it's definitely not a "Ye-olde cutesy New England Farmer's Market.'

Otherwise, you'll want to look for the smaller markets that pop up around town during the summer months, or look into a CSA or similar service. I used Washington's Green Grocer for about 4 months last year, and thought the service was fantastic -- they source locally whenever possible, and the quality of the produce was great. Unfortunately, the quantities were way too huge, and I ended up throwing tons of food out every week. I gave up on it out of guilt.
posted by schmod at 7:43 AM on March 7, 2011

Definitely the Florida Market or Eastern Market, since you're close to DC.

If you're up for the drive to Baltimore, the Waverly Market is on Saturday and the Downtown Market is on Sundays. Baltimore prices are almost always lower than DC.
posted by electroboy at 8:37 AM on March 7, 2011

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