BY JUDY FELDMAN
Whidbey Life Magazine Contributor
August 31, 2016
Wendell Berry, farmer, poet and cultural critic, has said: “Eating is an agricultural act.”
Perhaps nowhere is this more visible and visceral than at a Farmers Market. Wandering through table after table of produce that was harvested just the day before, talking with the people who grew it, sharing ideas for how to store it, prepare it, preserve it, offering feedback to the growers about what we like and don’t…it’s possible that we think more deeply about the quality and importance of our food while at a Market than at any other time in our busy lives.
Here on Whidbey, we’re fortunate to have many of these farmer-eater mashups. Langley, South Whidbey Tilth, Bayview, Clinton, Coupeville and Oak Harbor all boast lively markets that feature small-scale farmers, artisans, bakers, food vendors and music.
Folks who include Farmers Markets in their weekly shopping routine can rattle off a long list of why they do so: they like buying very fresh vegetables, they enjoy bringing visitors to a local experience, they want to support their farming neighbors, they appreciate being able to shop outside.
If you dig a little deeper though, you’re likely to discover that there is much more going on at a Farmers Market than an idyllic version of grocery shopping.
“Our family is here,” say Pam and Kelly Uhlig of Sonshine Farm. And by family, they mean not only the customers who buy their sustainably grown flowers, but the farmers they connect with in between transactions.” Britt Conn of Full Cycle Farm echoes this, saying “the Markets offer us an old-school version of social networking.”
Farmers, as small business owners, work hard. Their day to day tasks are obviously place-based, and are often driven by factors mostly out of their control…weather, water, soil, market demand, pollinators and other slippery elements. Keeping up with planting, weeding, irrigating, pest control, harvest schedules, washing and packaging takes a very large percentage of their waking time. They can become a bit isolated. And yet, sharing crop information and collectively making sense of the farming experience is important to them. Farmers Markets give them a platform for connection.
That connection extends beyond the network of farmers to their customers. “This is face time,” says Annie Jesperson of Deep Harvest Farm. “Here at the Market, we have the chance to really relate to each other as human beings with needs, challenges and celebrations.” Loren Imes of Quail’s Run Farm agrees. “It’s really fun for us to see people excited about the food we work so hard to grow…we get to watch as it transforms from produce on our table here to sustenance for them.”
Standing at a produce booth for 20 minutes can provide more insight as you listen to the stories shared back and forth between those who grew the food and those who will eat it. “I’m beating cancer,” says one woman. “And taking care to select good, whole, fresh food—grown by people who know me—is a huge part of my plan.” Another says “my kids say these tomatoes are better than candy!” Yet another holds up a bunch of beets, remarking “these always remind me of my mother.”
All of this is not to say that Farmers Markets are the be-all and end-all. “We’re so grateful to our community for coming out to buy from us,” says Stephen Williams, “and Market income makes up a significant portion of our farm revenue. But it’s hard won. While the customer traffic varies each weekend, depending on the weather and what else is going on here on the island, our harvest has to be consistent. Each step of getting here takes time—time to grow, time to harvest, time to stand here selling instead of working at my farm.”
Williams and others are quick to add that it’s an investment they happily make. “The connections we make here lead to some folks working with us on bulk purchases for food preservation,” says one farmer. Another chimes in, “we get booked for weddings and special events because people like what they see here at the Market.”
Over the seasons, customers learn a lot from “their farmers.” Arwen Norman of Sky Root Farm smiles proudly as she explains “we are not home gardeners…we are farmers. This is our job, our livelihood…we have seasons of experience and we have so much information we can share with those who come out to buy our food.”
It is this shared learning—between growers and eaters—that is generating more and more interest in locally sourced food here on Whidbey. In addition to the Markets, there are roadside stands, CSAs and even the occasional local item in our grocery stores. Hopefully, with efforts from agencies and non-profits like Goosefoot, which is interested in finding ways to support value-added, shelf-stable food projects, we may one day soon be able to enjoy the summer harvests even in the midst of our dark and damp winters.
We speak to our “rural character” and we say we love having new young farmers working in our communities. We mourn the loss of flavor in the tomatoes grown by industrial ag and celebrate the ripe, tangy flavors that burst from those grown on island soil. We sometimes even acknowledge the vulnerabilities associated with being an island, separated from the commercial food system that we do still rely on for most of our needs.
So, perhaps what Farmers Markets do best is allow us to recognize the capacity for a more resilient local food scene, one that can indeed expand—but only if eaters and farmers grow together.
There are still lots of Farmers Market days left in this summer. Most run through October and some farmers can offer a smaller selection of goods even beyond that if you ask. August and September often yield the most abundant harvests, which is very useful for those who love hot-weather crops like tomatoes, eggplants and peppers, or those who love to pickle and can.
Talk with that smiling, hard working farmer that hands you a bag of beans or carton of tomatoes. Ask how you can take the food experience just a little deeper. As Wendell Berry suggests, you’ll be engaging in agriculture… entering into a relationship of growing a community together.
Find your way to a Farmer’s Market or Farm Stand near you using this Whidbey Island Roadside Farm Stand Farm Store & Farmers Market Directory produced by Goosefoot.org.
Judy Feldman, E.D. of the Organic Farm School, is an observer of systems, a weaver of complexity, and a huge fan of farms and farmers.
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