You go to a farmers’ market for the freshest, best-tasting fruits and vegetables at the peak of the growing season. You’re hoping to avoid shady characters. Here are tips on getting the best bounty—with six ways to spot a fake farmer. (And tell us your stories!)
The town I grew up in had lots of farms, mostly dairy, but there were some truck farms too, that grew all kinds of vegetables for the city markets. Each one had its own farm stand where we could pick up whatever was in season for a reasonable price.
One family that lived right on the main highway did not have a farm, but they took advantage of the location by selling a few things they grew in their garden and many items that they did not grow. The dad worked at the racetrack in Boston and his wife and kids manned the stand during the week. (At that time, you could set up a stand without any kind of licensing or paying any vendor or business fees to the state if you had produced what you were selling.)
My father, ever the wiseguy, would always ask questions like, “Where are the trees these cherries came from?” or “How did you get such big watermelons to ripen in June?” But he never received more than a shrug in answer. He knew the dad was hitting the wholesale produce market in Boston to stock his stand. This fake farm stand was in business for years selling all manner of out-of-season produce until the day they started selling bananas. That was the last straw.
What is a Farmers’ Market
The idea of a farmers’ market is to have access to fruits and vegetables that are grown where you live, not hundreds of miles away or even in another country. You’re supporting local farmers in return for the most luscious, flavorful, freshest produce—often harvested that very morning.
One of the best things about good farmers’ markets are that they really do put a face on your food. A direct sale from farmer to consumer gives shoppers a chance to connect with the people who grow their food.
6 Ways to Spot a Fake Farmers’ Market
Real farmers work very hard and get up very early to bring their best produce to the farmers’ markets. But here and there, you’ll run into a farmers’ market stand that isn’t legit. They may wear the right clothes, but you’ll start to see produce that’s not at peak of season and other indicators. Here are 6 simple ways to spot a fake:
Do you know what grows where you live? Anyone selling produce that does not grow in your climate—like bananas or avocados in New England—are phonies. If you’re looking for a great deal, this may be your guy, but it’s not the farmer.
Do you know what’s in season where you live? If you see out-of-season items like corn in June—when everyone else’s corn is not even knee high—it’s definitely a phony farmer. True, some greenhouse growers can get a head-start on the season and have things like tomatoes or peppers way ahead of everyone else, but they will be happy to tell you all about their farming operation and may even invite you to visit if you are skeptical.
Beware the vendor who does not answer your questions. A couple questions that can’t be answered isn’t a good sign. Sure, there are always helpers at the cashier register but someone at the farm stand should know how the produce was grown, when it was picked, and everything else about their food. Stick with those vendors.
Fancy packaging? If you see labeled boxes of produce, plastic clamshells, PLU stickers, or other packaging, that’s another cue that it’s not grown on the farmers’ land that morning!
Perfect produce and just TOO pretty? If you’ve ever grown your own, you know that home-grown organic veggies have character and flavor; they aren’t perfect looking. If you want looks, go to the grocery store for that perfectly round, flawless, greenhouse, sprayed tomato (but don’t expect it to be red and savory inside!).
What is local? Be careful when you hear that food is “local” in a market. How far away is still considered local? Native to where? Most farmers’ markets have strict rules governing who can sell and guidelines about what can be sold. Ask the farmers’ market.
Two Fake Farmer Stories
My husband I have a small greenhouse business and also sell plants, cut flowers, and vegetables from local farmers’ markets. In a really small town market like ours, someone trying to pull a fast one is easily caught.
Over the years we have only had two people try. One guy who felt he was very clever to have thought of this was another Boston commuter. He would stock up at the wholesale market on Friday and haul all manner of out-of-season stuff into the farmers’ market on Saturday morning. When asked, he told us all about it as if to say, “See how smart I am, I don’t know why everyone doesn’t do this.” He was gravely disappointed when we explained that this is not how a farmers’ market works.
The second fellow was not as honest, telling us he really did grow those melons and perfect tomatoes that were ripe in June. Every week he would arrive in a big box truck with labeled boxes of produce. That alone was a big red flag! When the produce arrives in glitzy packaging you can be sure it did not come from a local farm. A search of his “farm” on the internet turned up the fact that he was a vegetable wholesaler, a middleman, who supplied restaurants and schools. He was bringing us the weekly leftovers after his order were filled. It was a struggle to oust him from our little market. Customers actually liked him and his produce, especially his cheap prices. But when we found that he had tried this same scam at other markets in the area and been asked to leave, he stopped coming.
Be on your toes and don’t hesitate to ask questions if something or someone doesn’t seem quite right. If you are trying to help farmers in your community and want to keep your food dollars local, be sure to vet the vendors you do business with, otherwise you could be purchasing vegetables and fruit grown on a large industrial farm many miles from where you live—the same produce as you get in the grocery store.
Do you shop at farmers’ markets? Please share your experiences!