This week is National Farmers Market Week. I work an indoor job now, but as a former GrowNYC Greenmarket manager, I’ve become a farmers market devotee for life. Why is that? During my five years at GrowNYC, I learned an incredible amount about how farmers markets are integrated into the NYC foodshed, and how the choices we make in the city go beyond our immediate surroundings. I befriended farmers, took trips to their farms, and saw how they make the magic happen. (Hint: it’s not magic, it’s incredibly hard work.)
I had a chance to visit some farms recently while tagging along with the Earth Institute Center for Environmental Sustainability’s summer program for undergraduates, SEE-U NYC, and got to hear firsthand from farmers why we should be supporting small local farms via farmers markets.
Allow me to share some of the many reasons to seek out these community spaces and make shopping at them a part of your routine.
Local food is better for the environment
The most basic argument for why local food is better for the environment is that it travels a shorter distance to get to you, so it produces fewer greenhouse emissions from truck exhaust or jet fuel. There are complexities to this argument, which we did a deep dive into a few years ago.
If you look beyond just location and consider the size of a farmers market vendor’s agricultural business, you can see even more positives compared to commercial agriculture. Large monocrop farms of the Midwest focus thousands of acres on just one crop. These commercial farms deplete nutrients from the soil with every planting, because they plant the same things again and again and don’t rotate their fields.
To balance out this depletion, commercial farms require tons of fertilizer just to give the plants the nutrients they need to survive. “Wherever there’s no fertilizer, nothing grows because the ground is dead,” says Guy Jones of Blooming Hill Farm, a small farm he started in the early 1980s and now runs with his two sons in Monroe, NY. This practice leaves commercial agriculture fields full of chemical fertilizers that run off into local water supplies, damaging other flora and fauna in the surrounding ecosystem.
By contrast, small farmers take care of their land. Karen Washington, a co-owner of Rise & Root Farm in Chester, NY says of farmland, “We are stewards of the land, we don’t own anything.” The land belongs to no one; the Rise & Root team is just taking care of it for now, and the same goes for every farmer.
Small farms like Washington’s, which is 3 acres, and Jones’s, 100 acres, usually work on a crop rotation schedule, growing different crops on different fields each year, and letting certain fields rest for a season if they have the space. This ensures that the soil doesn’t get depleted. Different plants have different effects on the ground, some helping to add nutrients like nitrogen to the soil and others removing it. By maintaining a rotation plan and monitoring their soil, small farmers can stay on their land for generations without requiring chemical fertilizers. Large monocrop farms lay waste to thousands of acres within a few years and then move to a new space.
Another advantage of small farms is that pest management can be integrated into the planning, reducing the need for pesticides and reducing crop loss. “Diversity is our strength,” says Jones of his farm; planting different species of crops next to each other ensures that a whole crop won’t get eaten or diseased at once, and crops can serve as buffers protecting each other from the spread of pests and funguses without chemical pesticides. Broadly, small farms tend to subscribe to the Integrated Pest Management method, the goal of which is to reduce agriculture’s impact on the ecosystem the farm inhabits.
At big commercial farms, they need to bulk up on pesticides to combat bugs and diseases. If one plant gets infested or diseased, the whole crop is in jeopardy. This means that not only are they using tons (literally) more pesticides than small farms, they are also at higher risk of wasting millions of dollars’ worth of food before it even gets to stores––and oftentimes this is taxpayer money, because huge commercial farms tend to be more heavily subsidized by the federal government than smaller farms are.
Farmers market produce tastes better
Food grown locally comes straight off the vine or out of the field to the market in your neighborhood, with at most a short night in a warehouse or a truck at the farm. Conventional produce that is found in the grocery store, by contrast, is likely from much farther away, traveling by air or by truck for days at a time. This is even more likely in the winter when crops can’t be grown in the Northeastern US. In order to ensure that commercial produce stays fresh long enough for us to enjoy, it’s picked long before it’s ripe. This means that the fruit or vegetable is not given time to fully mature on the vine or in soil, so it hasn’t reached its full potential in terms of flavor or nutrients.
Produce that travels from far away is also often genetically modified to travel better. Fruits might have thicker skins; tomatoes might be less juicy. These kinds of modifications reduce the risk of produce getting damaged during its journey across oceans and continents, but it also means these fruits and veggies are not engineered for flavor. Plus, because GMO seeds are proprietary, the system requires farmers to pay royalties to, and buy seeds every season from, the large GM seed producers who own the majority of the seed market, including Monsanto (now Bayer), Corteva, and ChemChina.
Local farmers, by contrast, are free to grow varieties that are bred (different from genetic modification) for flavor, grow as many different kinds as they want, and save their heirloom seeds for use the next year. They can do this without worrying that their varieties won’t last long enough to make it to the shelf—because the shelf is so much closer.
Eating seasonally is a byproduct of eating local in our region of the world; we do not have a year-round growing season in the Northeast and that means we can only get certain things at certain times of year. It’s hard to miss things when they’re available year-round, and it’s more than worth missing strawberries, for instance, for months on end in order to enjoy them seasonally. Once you get used to the flavor and quality of a local, in-season berry, it’s almost impossible to go back to the giant, watery berries of winter grocery store shelves.
Local farmers market = local community
When you shop your local farmers market, you’re directly supporting your community. In the case of New York City Greenmarkets, this means you’re supporting farmers, bakers, cheesemakers, fisheries, and vineyards in the NYC foodshed—from South Jersey and Pennsylvania to the Hudson Valley and the Finger Lakes. Rather than most of your money going to a middleman distributor or to a company across the ocean, it’s going directly to the farmer, because they’re able to get market price for their produce directly from customers.
“The farmers market is the way to do it for small businesses and farms. Every farm in the Hudson Valley was saved by the farmers market,” says Jones, who brought Blooming Hill’s produce to the Union Square Greenmarket during the early days of its existence in the 1980s.
Shopping at the market builds community in your immediate neighborhood as well. Many of the people working at the markets are from nearby, and you may bump into your neighbors dropping their compost off, or a chef from your favorite neighborhood restaurant when you go out to buy a bag of apples.
Farmers markets provide access to fresh food for city communities that might not otherwise have access. “Everybody knows the crappy food goes into the lower income neighborhoods,” says Washington of the inequalities in food access throughout New York City. With over 50 markets at locations in all five boroughs, Greenmarket has brought fresh, local food to high-traffic locations and urban food deserts alike, and other market organizers like Down to Earth and Harvest Home add around 30 more to that roster.
Many farmers markets also accept Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT, formerly known as food stamps), which keeps local food accessible for folks at all income levels. Plus, for customers using EBT, some markets offer extra $2 Health Bucks to spend on veggies and fruits for customers who make purchases with EBT cards.
Transparency is key
At farmers markets, the business owner is frequently present at their tent, so there’s greater accountability in terms of quality compared to large supermarkets. The owner is also able to answer almost any question about their produce you might have. You can ask, for instance, why are the prices so high on peaches this year? And they might say, we had an early warm period this spring, and then an unexpected frost, killing most of the premature tree buds. Or maybe in reply they’ll say, that money isn’t even going to me, that’s what I have to charge in order pay my workers living wages and provide healthcare.
This is a key difference between a market experience and a supermarket experience, says Washington; “Do you ever ask the manager at the grocery store if the workers are paid well or if it’s sprayed with pesticides?” The answer is probably no.
It’s also a great opportunity to learn about different agriculture practices, from conventional to organic to no-spray. How much more expensive is it to be certified organic? How does integrated pest management factor into the kale you’re buying? How many greenhouses does a farm need to maintain in order to provide plentiful tomatoes in April? How are they powering those greenhouses? What kind of composting system do they use on their farm?
Less plastic waste
As public concern for the amount of plastic we use is rising, so is the demand for bulk options and items packed in sustainably made packaging. The farmers market is a perfect place to detox your pantry and your fridge from all that grocery store plastic. Most of the items at the market aren’t packaged at all; you won’t find quartered watermelons wrapped in cling-wrap, or plastic tubs of fruit salad. There are of course exceptions, but many farmers are opting for paper, or for glass containers that they take back and reuse.
If you’re prepared to shop when you head to market, being zero waste will be a breeze. Bring totes and smaller produce bags that can be used for everything from swiss chard to apples to dried beans. It’s easy to find these types of bags online, plus you can re-purpose the cotton drawstring bags that shoes and bedsheets sometimes come in to supplement your supply. Even reusing plastic bags from other locations is a good solution; you’re still saving a bag from use and saving a farmer a few cents.
Another key trick is to bring old take-out containers or Tupperware to transport delicate berries and tomatoes safely. Once you transfer your produce to your container, you can give the box back to the farmer. This reduces their costs and your waste in one shot, plus it will protect your fragile cargo and allow you to stack items in your bag.
Here’s hoping these reasons—which only scratch the surface of the complex NYC food system—encourage you to shop the local market in your community.
Phebe Pierson is communications coordinator at the Earth Institute. She visits her friends across the street at the Columbia Greenmarket every Thursday.