Farmer’s Markets are Not Bullshit

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March 19, 2014 at 1:21 am

Editor’s Note: As part of our Greatest Hits Week/Post Good Food Fest Feeling Good, we’re digging up some of our favorite items from the root cellar.  Once, someone dared challenge the glory that is the farmer’s market.  We let him have it.  

Yes, I know I am preaching to the choir.  You Beetniks know the worth of farmer’s markets.  Nor do I have the heft of the Tribune’s listserv, contacting everyone else when this post goes up.  Besides, earnest defenses are just not as cool as snarky contrariness.  Yet, God, I cannot let a bunch of crap from some snob go unanswered.  He’s telling you farmer’s markets are bullshit, essentially telling you that you are a fool for shopping there.  Do you want to be called a fool?  No, that’s BS.

To this snob, if you go to markets you pay too much; you’re not getting very much; you’re forcing restaurants to charge too much (I think that’s one of the arguments), and you are buying into a false sense of obligation when shopping at a market.  The snob’s case falls apart from his own minimal research let alone his odd rhetoric.  It really falls apart if you apply thinking slightly less shallow.

Do You Pay too Much for Farm Food?

Yes!  There’s reasons you do, but before we get to those reasons let’s address whether you really pay more when shopping at farmer’s markets.  Snob throws up a chart attempting to show how the suckers get taken, and boy does the chart prove something.  It’s an odd chart, often making no account for objective differences.  For instance, when he throws out prices for NY strip steak, he does not differentiate between the grades of the meat.  Does that not account for some price difference.  Same for organic labeling.  Don’t you pay more for that regardless.  Without those points, the chart still proves little.  After all, the market shopper would pay $4 for blueberries but only $3.99 at Dominick’s!  That’s what his chart shows.  You fool paying $5 for a dozen eggs when you could pay over $8 at Whole Foods or $4 for strawberries when you can pay $5 at Dominick’s.  Woops.  Even in the cases where there’s a difference in price, the differences are minor.  If you pay fifty cents a pound more for something are you really getting rooked?

A guy who goes by Food Snob is probably also the kind of guy who will tell you that two buck chuck is as good as any other wine.  There is no accounting for taste.  Some of us pay a bit more for taste.  Or we pay more for things beyond taste.  We have seen Food Inc. or Fresh or read Pollan.  We know the threat of antibiotic resistant animals.  We want out of the industrial system.  We pay the real costs.  Now.  Who knows how many recalls, infections, diabetics, et al. later there will be to pay later.

Besides, we do not always pay the costs Snob says we pay.  He says you pay $4/lb for potatoes.  You can, for certain heirloom varieties or for certain freshly harvested potatoes, but even Nichol’s Farm does not sell all their potatoes for that price.  Likewise tomatoes can easily be found for $2/lb (or less!) at markets.  A savvy market shopper knows also how to get good deals.  In fact, here’s a couple of studies (granted not from Chicago) showing that local food is not more expensive: one/another.

There’s a Better Market in France

Snob makes an odd turn.  After trying to prove you pay too much at the market, he turns around and tells you that your market is no good anyways.  Hahahahaha.  Sucker.  If you only went with him to a small, random market in the South of France you’d get “fresh stroopwaffles, fresh spices, plethora of tapenades, and fresh bread.”  Right,  not just stroopwaffles, but fresh stroopwaffles.  Snob says this even though he went to Green City Market where one could get not waffles but at least crepes made to order (from genuine Frenchmen) and fresh bread to boot.  Of course, GCM, with strict standards does not allow tapenades as olives do not grow around here as they do in the south of France, but there are farmer’s markets in the Chicago area selling tapenade if that’s your thing.  We’ll concede spices, having to say walk a few blocks from GCM to the Spice House.

Frankly, I cannot see how Snob can say the market selections blow.  I could toss out anecdotal evidence from my Beet Reporter in Italy or from visitors from San Francisco, Minneapolis, Boston or San Francisco who raved about our markets compared to others, or that Alice Water’s own gardener felt highly about Green City Market (also put in a top 10 by CNN), yet I know its a logical fallacy to rely on such evidence.  After all, you could cite someone who’s been to Madison or Urbana, telling me about better, bigger markets than around here.  I do not need a rank to know our markets don’t blow.

Farmer’s market food is better.  Ignoring all that industrial food system stuff already mentioned, I can give you other reasons why markets don’t blow.  For instance, farmer’s bringing produce to markets can pick their products when they are ready to be picked not when they are ready to be shipped thousands of miles.  And they can grow varieties for deliciousness not for how many of them can be fit into a box.  Need more.  Well, do you know the standard recipe for corn–you set a pot a-boilin’, then go get yourself some corn.  For those of us without corn in the backyard, the farmer’s market is your next best bet.  By a mile.  Then, there’s all the varieties.  I saw about 25 types of apples at the Daley Plaza yesterday.  I’m not seeing anything that blows.  I see some markets with more than others, and I do know a few suspect markets, but overall to say  our markets are no good is more bull-crap.

Markets Drive Up Restaurant Costs

By the time we get to this argument, I wonder if Snob is simply being paid by the word.  His editors and Chicago Now wanted things a bit puffier.  So, he came up with this argument that the high prices of market food cause, may force the chef’s hand (Snob writes, “chefs want to emulate other chefs with notoriety and feel they need to keep up with the Joneses”).  Is this just another zag after zigging.  The selection blows but it blows so much that chefs have to use it simply to save face.  Maybe I can get Rick Bayless to address this one if, my my, it needs more addressing.  Let’s just leave this the way we’ve left some other points, some things are worth paying; some are willing to pay.

Don’t Shop on Pity

Snob wraps things up with, what I imagine he believes is his hidden ace.  All of you who willingly pay more, who pretend their markets are actually good, well Snob portends that you do it out of a sense of pity towards farmers.  And do you know what.  To crush your hopes and tell you how much BS you are putting up with, he tells you that not all markets take the LINK card and that farmer’s don’t give back as much as chefs.  In other words, these people are not worthy of pity.

The commentators in Snob’s Chicago Now post do a pretty good job or wrecking his Google research on LINK and farmer’s markets around the Chicago area.  Those readers, unlike Snob seem to understand that there are other markets besides Green City.  What Snob also did not know is a few things I happen to know.  I know that the Oak Park River Forest Food Pantry routinely does “food rescue” from unsold items at the Oak Park Market.  I know that the Forest Park Market requires a donation to their food pantry as a condition of selling at the market.  I know that vendors at the Hines Market support veterans.  I can go on about things like Farmer Vicki taking time to speak to kids at schools.  Does any of that matter?

Who takes pity on farmers.  Sure we recognize the difficulty of their endeavor.  We recognize how things are often skewed against them, subsidies and such.  Farming is not an easy plight.  I shop at farmer’s markets because I like farmers.  I like meeting them.  I like knowing the story behind my food.  I like knowing about my food.   I know it’s not a charity to shop at farmer’s markets, but I also know that knowing where my food comes from is worth it.  For me.  It’s all worth it.  What about you.  Do you find farmer’s markets bullshit?

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20 Comments

  1. Wendy Aeschlimann says:

    I know Chicago Now invited comment on their website, but I refuse to help increase page views on a site that admittedly blesses such deliberately lug-headed content by officially taking no responsibility for the poorly-written, researched and reasoned stuff like Food Snob’s article, in the hopes that anything – anything — will drive up page views, if only if they’re by angry readers. Isn’t that the Fox News model? For the same reasons, I don’t understand why people comment on the news sites that publish articles that are meant to offend.

    So, I’ll say this here, even though, yes, I suppose I’m preaching to the choir. The tone of that piece reads like some faux-tough guy from Fox who wants to “tell you the truth straight,” but really, he’s just clueless about the subject matter about which he’s supposedly telling it straight. In fact, he admits as much in his article by stating, “I don’t go to farmers markets enough to know if prices have been lowered.” As for the chart, which you rightly address as inadequate, the most noticeably missing objective factor upon which he attempts to base market-to-store comparisons is size. He gives no indication as to whether he’s comparing pints to pints or pints to quarts (except to say that the products he’s comparing are “similar”). Missing that basic criterion for price comparisons makes me wonder about his price-shopping abilities. The chart also does not take into account subjective factors that might appeal to the buyer, such as the desire to support a local business, or that the Target blueberries were shipped from Mexico, and sprayed within an inch of their lives with pesticides, or — best of all — taste; and that sampling a product before buying is something a farmer’s market will allow you to do, and Target and Wal-Mart won’t, lest they later charge you with shoplifting.

    Generally, I’m amused at how Food Snob attempts to lend “street cred” to his story by dropping the names of his “chef friends” or “cooking friends” who purportedly agree with him, but he does not refer to any of them by name, or quote them in his article. By referring to these allegedly knowledgeable, anonymous people, he attempts to lend heft and credence to his arguments that farmer’s markets are “Bull$%#@.” For instance, in an attempt to gain support in the “comments” section, he poses, “Would you pay $16 for a blueberry dessert from local blueberries? That’s what my chef friend would have to charge if he bought from a well known local farmer.” Not only does he not identify his chef friend, give specifics about this “blueberry dessert” (or even identify what “blueberry dessert” to which he refers) or state how his “chef friend” prices his desserts (maybe his “chef friend” is not a particularly adept baker, and it takes him or her four times what it would take an adept baker to make the same dessert). More than that, hasn’t he heard of wholesale pricing? Or is he aware that local blueberries have been featured in desserts all over the city, and are priced less than $16? Oh, right, those idiot chefs are subsidizing these desserts, and are eating the costs, because they pity the farmers. Yeah, right.

    Finally, as to his point that there are better markets somewhere else, who cares? There are better supermarkets elsewhere too, but does he advocate against shopping at Wal-Mart, because Meijer in Michigan is better? That the marketeers in Germany wear lederhosen, and sell sauerkraut in barrels made of wood culled from the Black Forest, and the GCM does not have lederhosen-clad kraut slingers, means nothing to me. Like Rob, I am very adamant that our Midwest markets do not need to be all things to all people. Yes, I’m sure the crêpes at Paris markets are better than ours. Big deal. I don’t care if our markets don’t sell tapenade, because we don’t grow olives here. But our markets certainly sell more than four items, as Food Snob alleges (albeit somewhat facetiously). His laundry list of items that the GCM or other Chicago markets do not have, but the Paris markets he saw in January do, such as snails, sea urchin, stroopwaffles, and tapenades, reads like someone who had no knowledge going in about the local French cuisine he was sampling. Who cares if Chicago doesn’t sell snails? Does he know anything about French food, and how escargot is integral to French local eating? Can Food Snob show me a French market that has beautiful, tasty ears of corn like we do? I’m waiting, Food Snob, I’m waiting.

  2. M says:

    Chicago Food Snob is Joe Campagna, former GM of Graham Elliot and an Elliot acolyte for years. He repeats the same uninformed and ignorant BS Elliot has about farmer’s markets. Elliot has never been a local or seasonal cook because he’d much prefer to make gourmet versions of cheap junk food items, like his Cheez-Its risotto, and not have to worry about anything but what he needs at that moment without having to do much work to source things from local farmers or investigate who might actually have better product out there. So for Campagna to make allegations about $16 blueberry desserts is ludicrous, since he’s never had to price out such things in his career.

    This blog obviously comes from a place of extreme and almost willful ignorance as to what actually goes on at farmer’s markets, and how they operate. From his Twitter account, @chifoodsnob, it’s clear he’s reveling in “stirring the pot” and is uninterested in the substance of the response to his ideas and his very poor writing. Pretty pathetic for someone who claims to be a “food snob” and makes his living in the industry to be so proud of such a fallacious essay. But again, not that he cares.

  3. Melissa Owens says:

    I do not understand, and probably never will, the argument that cheaper = better. Yes. Yes food can be gotten for ridiculously cheap prices nowadays. But it is also true that said food is ridiculously bankrupt in flavor or nutritional value, or worse – both. Also, the damage done to the environment to produce cheap food is ridiculously horrendous, and the wages paid to harvest/produce cheap food are ridiculously low. As an econ major, one would think he would know a thing or two about hidden costs.

    And what about those obscure economic principles of supply & demand and competition? Speaking from experience in the western suburbs, farmers markets 5 years ago paled in comparison to the markets now, both in number of markets and products available at the markets. This growth would not have happened if there wasn’t a demand, and there is no reason to believe that the trend won’t continue. Competition should and will weed out the vendors that overcharge based on market demand. How about encouraging people to shop at the markets, to become knowledgeable about local food supply, to strike up conversations with farmers about their food needs? Won’t that improve the quality, quantity and price across all the markets? Oh wait, that’s what this site does!

    This is about food, people. The thing that sustains us. Nourishes us. Keeps us alive. Working to improve the local food system, especially for those that for one reason or another outside that system, is much more helpful than recommending someone buy arugula (uh, rocket!) from 1000 miles away that tastes like tissue paper, just because it’s cheaper.

  4. Lee says:

    As a self proclaimed economics major, should Food Snob not know something about external costs and that someone eventually has to pay the tap for a degraded environment and food related illnesses?

  5. JoeC says:

    Rob
    Thanks for the article on the Local Beet. Just a quick hi and some thoughts on your article if that’s ok.
    - the food pricing was like items in my chart. Potato’s were fingerlings.I’m not the guy fudging math on global warming to prove my point. I realized writing the article that I would get hammered. The $8 eggs from whole foods were the super omega 3 sold individually the other eggs were cage free.
    - I promise you I don’t drink two buck chuck and last time on the radio called out pinot grigio as safety wine.
    - the link card is accepted at 13 out of 41 markets on the city of chicago list and only 25 statewide. http://www.dhs.state.il.us/page.aspx?item=44172
    - I’ll agree variety and choice is probably a agree to disagree point. I went to college in Madison and was spoiled with how great that market is.
    - Wendy — I’m not calling out my friends and when i asked if i could use their names they declined considering the tone of the comments. With what little trust you have my friend doesn’t need 4 attempts to make a dessert. He got charged $50 for a flat from one farmer when he could have gotten it for $30 from another. He’s begun ordering less and not making a stink. If you know much about the margins in restaurants its not an easy business.
    - I said walmart was good if that’s the only option in a food desert. If they’re one of the few business to open a store in those neighborhoods I would rather they open and give highly at risk individuals a chance at food then to say no. The “Love” empire, the only black grocer in illinois, is opening a grocery store in a food desert and thats awesome.
    - M – I worked for Trotter to but I like Foie Gras. I can make up my own mind and not be brainwashed.
    - melissa – I never said cheaper was better. I only want to know how it costs so much more to get like organic items at a farmers market then at whole foods which has a perception of being expensive to begin with.
    - as to nutritional value – no study shows organic food has more nutrition than conventionally farmer foods – mayo clinic website and the american cancer society said so. http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/organic-food/NU00255/NSECTIONGROUP=2
    - People should be able to shop where they want. I just don’t think they need to feel bad for not shopping there. It seems like if you don’t shop at a FM or drive a hybrid you’re out to kill the planet.
    - I’m all for competition in the marketplace and I think the best model to change our food supply is Stoneyfield Farms.

    Couple of interesting facts you can all hate me more for – organic farms are more profitable then conventional farms and in todays NYT there was an interesting op-ed about being a locavore might not be the environmental choice people have claimed.

    Rob you failed to mention I’ve actually invested in a farm and have friends in the business. Not sure that gets me a merit badge for the LB. I hope you all have a good weekend and read my second part coming out next week. I’ve emailed the GCM twice with no response for information. If you know lyle please tell him to check his inbox.

    If you hate the format or the grammar its a Friday after a long week and I apologize for hurting your eyes.
    Joe

  6. M says:

    Joe, I really don’t think you have the background or knowledge to address this issue appropriately, outside your clearly admitted notion of stirring the pot and hoping to cause trouble. I discussed your background with GE to bring up the fact that you spent much time in an environment that disparaged the value of local/seasonal food and farmer’s markets, and did not spend time working with them to learn about what it is they do. I never said you were “brainwashed,” but I do think that you haven’t ever taken the time to really learn about working with local farmers, how farmer’s markets work, and what is offered there, or else there is no way you could have ever written that blog.

    Your so-called “chart” was cherry-picked data used to support your so-called “point.” Did you use the lowest, or highest prices at the market you could find? Prices are extremely variable within each market, not to mention throughout the city from store to store, even from one Jewel to the next. Prices are higher at GCM because it is the flagship. Farms that sell at GCM often sell product at other markets for less, and definitely for less in lower income neighborhoods. And I’m really confused by your so-called “chef friend” who supposedly would have to charge $16 for a blueberry dessert because he got “ripped off” at a market. Our restaurant buys produce from, for example, Nichols Farm, a presence at several markets across the area each week (including GCM). Our blueberry dessert is $7. Its food cost is within normal parameters. Restaurants do not pay the retail prices charged at the actual markets by the farms. I wonder if your “friend” identified himself as a representative of his restaurant, or if the restaurant for which he works has had a previously poor relationship with the farmer. Or maybe your friend himself pissed off the farm. This one hearsay anecdote cannot serve as a factual basis for your argument that high farmer’s market prices drive restaurant prices up. Chefs do choose to pay a premium for the best product they can find, and that’s often from farms who sell at farmer’s markets, but usually buying directly from said farms costs them less.

    I also wonder how you’ve come to this erroneous conclusion that farmer’s markets’ products always cost more than at other outlets. In my experience shopping at farmer’s markets, I was pleasantly surprised to find many products that were the same price or even cheaper than in a regular grocery store. Things at farmer’s markets do not always cost more than Whole Foods; in fact, prices are very comparable, and, again, often cheaper. As far as organic items go, Whole Foods can offer cheaper prices on some items because they are getting their organics from organic factory farms like Earthbound and Stonyfield. The economics of scale are almost always cheaper than small scale farming. You put Stonyfield on a pedestal in your response; well, here’s an article on Stonyfield highlighting how organic farms can be factory farms and how such farms lose their way once they become too big for their own business: http://www.businessweek.com/magazine/content/06_42/b4005001.htm

    You say “organic farms are more profitable than conventional farms.” I’d like to see your source on that. Profitability of organic farms varies widely across the globe and the results as seen in studies have been mixed. Organic farms can be more profitable than conventional farms because they do not use costly pesticides and fertilizers and because they charge a premium for not doing so. They often have lower profitability than conventional farms because their yields range from 5%-over 50% lower than conventional farms and because their labor cost is much higher. Without the premiums organic farmers charge for their product, they would definitely be far less profitable than their conventional counterparts.

    No one has said that organic food is more nutritious than conventional food, so that point is a straw man. The value of organic/sustainable food lies in its lack of added chemicals (pesticides & fertilizers) that can lead to poor health and especially cancer in humans. Many people feel that products grown without such chemicals taste much better as a result. Using chemicals in farming also degrades the environment around a farm, from the soil to the water supply. Runoff from antibiotics excreted from conventionally raised animals into the water supply is a huge reason antibiotic-resistant superbugs like the flesh eating virus have been proliferating over the past few decades. Concentration of fecal matter in factory farms is also a large contributor to the recent explosion of food borne illness. There are over 400 “dead zones” in bodies of water around the world due to farm runoff. These are enormous public health dangers. These are the damages to the environment people are talking about. The NYT OpEd you discuss has already been ripped apart on many points, including false statistics: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/kerry-trueman/the-myth-of-the-rabid-loc_b_689591.html But either way, reasonable people know that there are many things to consider with regards to energy consumption and food. Local, yes, may not always be better as far as that goes, but it is usually better.

    I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone condemning someone for not shopping at farmer’s markets, and I’ve been working in local/seasonal food, surrounded by the “elites” you condemn, for decades. This is another straw man argument. As has been mentioned above, no one does all their shopping at farmer’s markets – it is a supplement to other outlets, and as with anything, you have to shop around to get the best prices. I’ve also never heard anyone making someone feel “bad” for where they shop, except for Walmart, because of the way they exploit their labor, refuse to pay them all their wages, and take out insurance policies on their employees, hoping to benefit from their deaths, along with many other bad practices, for which they’ve been sued many times. Walmart in a poor community of Chicago is a very complex issue that goes way beyond the simple availability of food – it goes to how they will treat and exploit that community over time, and how their very presence will prevent other potential food stores from entering the area (because that’s what they do). I think all your commentary in this regard stems from some basic guilt or insecurity. I really can’t think of an appropriate reason for you (or anyone) to spend this kind of time attacking something that is bringing good things to the community and helping local farmers make a living. You make a point of mentioning you’re “invested in a farm.” I take it this means (as you’ve said elsewhere) you own 8 cows on a friend’s farm. I’ve got to tell you, Joe, this means absolutely nothing as to how a farm works and what it truly costs to bring a product to market, especially when you’re growing that product organically or sustainably (which I am definitely sure your cows are not). It’s the same as an investor who owns 1% of a restaurant claiming he’s an “owner” and intimately involved in the business, when really he only comes in once a year, to eat, and tries to throw his weight around despite knowing absolutely nothing about what’s really going on in the restaurant. You need to take a trip to Genesis, or Shooting Star, or Nichols, or Prairie Fruits, or Dietzler Farms, and see what it really takes to run a small farm that sells to chefs and at farmer’s markets (and maybe CSAs) before you can even begin to criticize what they do, the quality of their product, and the cost. (I would also get a writer friend to proofread and edit your next blog before you publish, as you are not a natural writer, and this seriously undermines any argument you try to make.)

  7. Rob Gardner says:

    JoeC thanks for contributing and M thanks especially for your passionate response. Like M, I’m not ready to shut up. My family and I started eating local because we found it was the best way to ensure we had the most delicious food. After going local, we realized that local food matters a lot more than just taste. What we really realized is that local food is not the goal but the means. The means to get what we value, not just on the table but in the greater environment. So, when people try to push off this path, I like to push back.

    Believe me, I know all sorts of problems associated with eating local. If you choose to go year round you need to put-up and find a root cellar and chase winter markets. Even those only enjoying our robust harvest have to deal with the most basic of quandaries. That local food must be cooked, and not just cooked but peeled and chopped and such, and all that cooking produces waste that should probably be composted. Let’s not get into the difficulty of finding local meat not frozen or just having more accessible markets. It’s not always an easy path.

    It does not mean that it’s not a good path. Those looking to dissuade generally try two tactics. They scare or they demotivate. Now, JoeC, I see no connection between you and BigAg, nor do I see you resorting to those scare tactics, so I’m not trying to attribute those to you. There are others though, who will tell you: if you do not keep on doing things the our way, with our chemicals and our gmo seeds, well you won’t have enough food to feed the world. How this makes sense given the amount of land devoted not to food but to ethanol and high fructose corn syrup and soy lecithin, I have no idea. Moreover, given that hunger issues stem not from supply but from inability to pay mostly and then from distribution issues, I also wonder how saying boo works. Don’t be scared.

    Then, try demotivating them. Give people excuses to get their confined hen eggs and CAFO meats and “vine-ripened” tomatoes. JoeC you fall into this camp. Yes, let’s call bullshit when we see bullshit right. And besides, let’s stand up for the little guy who cannot pay $40 for a restaurant entree. “Organic farms are more profitable” you say, or as you said, I believe on Twitter, that you are stirring up the pot. Who cares which facts stand up to scrutiny, let’s just rile people against the dirty hippie farmers. Then, we can feel good not expending the effort that eating local requires.

    Anyway, let me pivot slightly. JoeC you attack the nutritional benefits of organic food, and M noted that no one’s mentioned the nutritional benefits of organic. Tis true, no one’s mentioned it. Yet. I’ll say it now. Organic foods are more nutritious. Beyond the fact that they do not possess residues that may be harmful to you (and beyond the fact that there are other good results from being organic), many studies have shown that food grown organically DO contain more nutrients. See here for instance: http://www.foodmag.com.au/news/organic-is-more-nutritious-according-to-the-french I’m not going to dig up the cites (I can), but studies of the same plants grown side by side, using organic vs. conventional, show more nutrients in the organic. I do not think you’re gonna win this one either.

    Listen, I understand the issues of food costs. I’ve written on the Local Beet how we passed on a CSA this year because of cost issues. I’m sensitive in more ways than you know. I’m still fighting the good fight for local food, for getting more to eat local. I believe it gets people the best food, and I believe it gets the best from our food.

  8. Melissa Owens says:

    Hi Joe – to clarify, I did not say that an organic apple, for example, is nutritionally better than a conventionally farmed apple (although I would argue strongly that the taste is many cases is better). What I do mean to say is that you can very cheaply buy frozen fish sticks at the grocery store, or a filet-of-fish sandwich from the big chain fast food joint, and those two things will be nutritionally bankrupt when compared to the sustainably raised (but incidentally, not organically certified) rainbow trout that I can by at the farmers market I frequent. Now, that trout is expensive, and so it is not a weekly meal for my family. We simply eat a little less than we could if we were to buy the fish sticks – that is the choice we make.

    And with all due respect, by displaying a chart with a clear bias towards higher prices at a farmers market, under the subtitle “High Prices” no less, it did appear that you were insinuating that cheaper prices were indeed preferable. Obviously, for any one product at any one point in time, the price at a farmers market may be higher than the price at Target. But there is such a wide variation in prices at markets, depending on the day, that throwing a chart up like the one in your column is fairly disingenuous. Today, I saw bulk tomato prices going for as high as $2.00/lb. I bought roughly 10 pounds worth for $4.00. I would not have been able to do that in July. I know that at the end of August, I will be making my tomato sauce for the winter because I can expect the lowest prices when everyone is overloaded with tomatoes.

    I’m glad that we agree on the benefits of competition, and I also agree that people should be able to shop where they want. To be fair, you were implying that those of us who advocate farmers markets had drunk the kool-aid, and you were the one who called *my* shopping destinations bullshit. I made no such claims about you or your shopping habits. I just don’t find that kind of approach conducive to changing something that you find lacking.

    Cheers.

  9. JoeC says:

    Happy Saturday,
    M, who are you? I find it personally amusing you can call me out by name and say where I’ve worked and yet hide yourself behind a moniker and vagaries to the restaurant you work in. Come in to the light!
    Regardless, my chart was derived when I went around on the same weekend and tried my best to find like products and the prices charged – order of places Target, Dominick’s, Whole Foods, Stanley’s. I looked for items I knew I would be able to find at various place. Target was a total lark since when I walked in I realized that they had just completed their grocery section. Being a snob trust me I’m not shopping here for my produce regardless of price.
    My “chef friend” was an ardent support that now feels burned. When I asked if I could quote him directly, after reading comments, he asked me kindly not to. I don’t blame him but at the same time as I started this out you mock me for not naming names and my hypocrisy but I don’t even know your name or what restaurant you work in. For what it’s worth he bought direct from the farmer.
    On the radio this morning and from emails directly to me, I’ve heard more than one story or non-farmers selling at markets and selling for a large premium. One gentleman this morning called in saying he could sell his apples he grew to the local store for $1.86 a bag or $6 at the farmers market. I don’t blame anyone for selling where they do and if the simple reason they charge what they do is because they can get it great. For me it feels like the cable pricing model – based on zip code we’ll charge a premium for the same exact service or item. When farmers travel throughout the area charging various prices for the same item on the same weekend can’t you see where some anger might come from?
    As to Stonyfield, I don’t know if they’ve lost their way like you claim in the article it seems they are faced with mounting challenges of demand and ever reducing local supply. Would you rather them produce less and charge more? Here’s my source on the organic farms profitability – http://www.farmingmagazine.com/article.php?id=39
    We at least seem to agree on the nutrition vs. environmental effect, although Rob ruins it by pulling out a French study from 2001. If you all keep telling me I’m an ignorant fool with a big mouth, explain when I look at the Mayo Clinic, American Cancer Society and Harvard they all tell me there is no scientific research to show nutritional value or the harm of pesticides? I realize I’m baiting a bit here but I have a brain and can use it – are you asking me to accept that the government conspiracy and big business has all of these places in line to say what they want?
    Now we get to the food deserts…hypothetical: if you had a family and couldn’t move and you had little to no access to fresh produce what would you do? If a scary evil company wanted to come and sell better food what would you do? Would you shop at Walgreens for your produce? Why are there no markets in these areas? One crank on my sight warned of the security issue and he scares me to.
    I never criticized the farms or how they run their farm I just asked how they justify their prices.
    Rob do you eat local year round? Thanks for saying I’m not out to scare. I’m also not trying to demotivate anyone and give them excuse to buy from other places. I’d just like to know how they justify the prices you all claim I fudged. If anything I’m asking for more distribution for people who need it. Can you justify two farmers markets in Lincoln Park ¾ of a mile apart? I walked the HS one on the day I did the pricing and left in 30 seconds taking no data, promise. But are you telling me that market has real value?
    I’m stirring the pot because I believe there is a serious discussion to be had here. I’m not trying to make you angry or trying to change your way of thinking and living. I’m no missionary. I also never called the farmers dirty hippies – I think they live in Wicker Park aka skinny jeans land.
    I’m glad you’re sensitive on cost and that’s exactly my point – do you think the farmers are? Is there a premium a farmer could charge that would make you say no even if you knew his name? If the answer is no then I fear we will continue to agree to disagree.
    Melissa illustrates a point a few people emailed me on…why is in season produce that much more expensive? It’s in season, a 2-3 hour drive away, and NO middle man. You could have paid $20 for those tomatoes but instead paid $4 – btw what kind did you buy for $4?
    I did imply and still imply that you’ve drunk the kool-aid. You believe ardently in a way of life I mentioned earlier that no one is going to change. I think it’s wonderful you have the opportunity to do just that, but a large part of this city doesn’t have that opportunity and probably never will.
    Melissa you wrote about other shopping destinations – Yes food can be gotten for ridiculously cheap prices nowadays. But it is also true that said food is ridiculously bankrupt in flavor or nutritional value, or worse – both. Also, the damage done to the environment to produce cheap food is ridiculously horrendous, and the wages paid to harvest/produce cheap food are ridiculously low. – I called yours BS outright and you believe the other ones are killing the planet and hurting the workers.
    I’d ask a couple ways to possibly find some common ground over a coffee and entertaining Saturday morning. Rob, M(whoever you are) and Melissa – we walk the GCM you pick 3 items and I pick 3 items – we find the lowest price offered. I’ll drive us to Whole Foods – carpool! – and we price the same exact items. I’d ask we wander the market as a newbie not making conversation or asking to barter for better prices. A simple stroll recording prices among friends. Oh and M has to say her name and place of work on the Local Beet, fair is fair.
    If you want, we could do another Saturday a week or so later to see if the variability someone mentioned exists.
    Joe
    PS M since you’re the English major how was my writing? If the formattign is off I blame the upload.

  10. JoeC says:

    Hey – realized I also had another study on the profitability: http://www.theprairiestar.com/articles/2006/07/26/ag_news/updates/update34.txt

    M I deeply apologize for misspelling formatting.
    Joe

  11. Rob Gardner says:

    Ah, Joe, Joe, Joe. First of all, thanks for taking the time to register so you can respond without a Beet editor’s approval. Second, forgive me if I do not respond to all of your points, ’cause, well, frankly I’m getting kinda lost as to what your points are besides you seem to feel strongly aggrieved by farmer’s markets, yet to paraphrase a religion not my own, you love the farmer not the market, right?

    Of course I keep on getting pissed when you say things like “no scientific research to show nutritional value or the harm of pesticides.” Look at what I linked. It’s from 2009 by the way not 2001, and it’s chock full of scientific studies analyzing the differences between organic and conventional foods.

    I’m not really sure where the serious discussion is. You ask, “Do you think the farmers are? Is there a premium a farmer could charge that would make you say no even if you knew his name?” That’s serious? C’mon. I expect everyone’s like me. We constantly make decisions on what’s worth it. For instance, as much as I like local meat, I rarely feel I can afford the market prices. (Instead I’ve bought my local meat in sides). There may be a week where I splurge on the freshly dug potatoes, but there’s also weeks where I’m finding $50 lbs of Wisconsin potatoes for less than $10. I know the markets where they sell the fruit for $5 a quart and I know the ones where they sell for $4. I also like vintage champagne, but I know not to buy that too often.

    I’d be happy to shop a market with you some time. Maybe what we take home will cost more than Stanley’s or Whole Foods (maybe), but I bet it’ll taste a whole lot better, and I bet it will be more meaningful in other ways too.

  12. JoeC says:

    Rob

    Nice religious paraphrase but not sure I love either to be honest. I just don’t disrespect them as much as some people are making it out to be.

    Ok, I’m very dim apparently because the link you have talks about a study begun in 2001 finished in 2003. The posting was from 2009. I didn’t see the multiple studies you mentioned. Regardless, it seems everyone has a study to prove a point which I think is a huge part of the problem. How is anyone supposed to know what is right or wrong?

    I’m glad to know you won’t just buy to buy. In my opinion, I feel like from what I’ve heard and read that the market will bear the prices people will pay. If sellers can get more, they will. I guess I’m just happy I don’t live in the North Shore with their pricing issues. If the same fruit has a 20% price difference, aren’t the markets out for as much profit as they can get? You know where to shop most people don’t, i.e. me.

    I won’t argue flavor or taste. I hope the freshness comes through. There is a video from Penn & Teller video I know you’ll hate. If you want the link let me know but in the spirit of détente, I’ll leave it be.

    Regardless, I promise not to run and hide from the argument or the things I write. I appreciate that you don’t hide behind some moniker and that you actually live in the city. You know where to find me if you want to shop and maybe we can come to an agreement on cost.

  13. M says:

    Joe, wow, think I touched a nerve.

    I’m not putting my name or restaurant on a publicly available website, as I’m not speaking for them – I’m speaking only for myself. I don’t need to be held up to ridicule on some radio program or some blog and my restaurant certainly doesn’t need that kind of publicity. You, on the other hand, put yourself out there as a public figure, and Google is but a keystroke away as to your resume. There’s a big difference there.

    Much of your response seems to be completely avoiding the points I made and the questions I asked of you. You seem very concerned with people in food deserts and high prices at farmer’s markets, and yet you’re only willing to do the bare minimum of research yourself about such issues. You base your information on one market, the GCM, the most expensive market in the city. You haven’t even gone to any other markets to check prices, or attempted to verify that there are indeed markets in low income neighborhoods and some food deserts, that accept food stamps and charge lower prices appropriate to the community. Farmer’s markets charge what they need to charge to cover costs and they charge what the market will bear. Sometimes that leads to higher prices at certain markets; often it leads to lower prices than grocery stores, as Melissa described re the tomatoes. But you’ll never know this if you don’t shop around yourself.

    The studies you link regarding profitability are a story about one farm’s journey to organic, that discusses some local statistics. The other study is limited to a small area and contains staple crops like soy and corn. Only one of the links is an actual study, and it is irrelevant to the products we’re discussing here. You also attempt to extrapolate the claims you made about nutritious value to include pesticide effects, which were not included in the studies you reference.

    You make accusations of us “drinking the Kool-Aid.” You seem to harp on this. We have all made points that farmer’s markets serve as a supplement to people’s shopping and that it hardly ever makes up the bulk of any one person’s food needs. Why are you so insistent upon pegging us as “elite” or making outsized claims regarding our income and ability to shop at farmer’s markets? I work at a restaurant. By definition, I make very little money. In fact, I made so little money this year that I qualified for food stamps. I shop mostly at Aldi. But I know there are some things I can get at a farmer’s market at low cost, and I try to take advantage. I even considered doing a CSA for the season, as the cost drawn out over the months of the CSA is less than purchasing produce at Jewel or Stanley’s in many cases (couldn’t get it together in time). I am very aware of the problem of food deserts, far more than you know (and definitely more involved in the issue than you are), and it takes a lot more than taking cheap shots at the most expensive market in the city to understand how difficult it is to bring fresh food at low cost to such areas. Just because I questioned the wisdom of bringing Walmart to such an area doesn’t mean that I think Walgreens or Target in such areas selling produce now is a bad idea, the exact opposite, in fact. You seem to have a hard time wrapping your head around complexities and subtleties in arguments, favoring the “me good, you bad” approach.

    I asked that you spend some time with the farmers who sell at the markets so that you would see with your own eyes why they charge the prices they do. I don’t think if you were privy to their everyday work load, their costs, and their balance sheets, that you would know exactly how they can justify the prices they charge. Lots of these guys are just hanging on. The way you are framing your argument is a serious insult to these farmers and how they operate. You say something about them being Wicker Park skinny jean people? WTF? You act as if they’re all raking in the money and getting rich. Seriously, that’s pretty damn offensive. You also speak as if the farmer’s market system has been entrenched forever and is set in stone, when in fact, markets in the city (as they exist now) are a relatively new phenomenon and are growing each year. More markets open each season, and more steps are being taken to service lower income people. This is still a process. You’re acting as if they’ve done nothing, when in fact, they’re doing a lot and much more is planned.

    You talk of having a “serious discussion.” Well, I for one don’t think you’re taking this discussion seriously at all. You repeatedly admit to baiting, but you want us to respond to you as if you’re making legitimate points? That’s crazy. You ask about your writing – well, honestly, your writing is so incoherent that it’s impossible to decipher exactly what you mean throughout most of your post. I don’t know what you’re really trying to say. I do know that what I can figure out still makes no sense to me. You’re not even attempting to see any nuance of argument here, that we’re not blindly defending anything, and that there is a middle ground we’re trying to pull you to. As it stands, your argument is an ignorant attack on farmers, based on nothing other than your personal opinion and admittedly shallow research. I don’t know how you can miss why we’d have a problem with that, but clearly, that’s exactly what you’re doing.

  14. MrBrownThumb says:

    “His editors and Chicago Now wanted things a bit puffier.”

    I’m a ChicagoNow blogger that has been with the website since it launched. In my time I’ve have not encountered an editor. Nobody has ever edited a piece, suggested what to write or how to write something. As a blogger I’ve always had free reign to write about what I want without interference from anyone at ChicagoNow. Maybe it is different for some bloggers but as far as I know nobody has a say in what a blogger writes.

  15. Melissa Owens says:

    My way of life, Joe, is about safeguarding the health and well being of my family, and about being a responsible consumer. Shopping at farmers markets is certainly a means to those ends, but it is certainly not the only one. I’m not above running to Target (my nearest grocery store) for limes if the need arises, or for onions when I find myself short. I do not frequent farmers markets as a display of wealth or as a proclamation of social status.

    And here I will confess to swooning when those first ears of corn show up at the markets, or those first tomatoes. If that qualifies me as having “drunk the kool-aid” in your mind, then so be it. Color me drunk. I can blame my parents for spoiling me with a garden and fresh vegetables every summer, and I’ll have to remember thank my mom for causing me to be one of those “elites”.

    After re-reading the comments and after reading your follow-up post, the thing that really aggravates me still is the idea that the market farmers are raking in the money, are willfully cutting out people in the lower income brackets, and that those of us who shop at the markets are complicit in the whole conspiracy. Your assertion that small scale organic and/or sustainable farms are profitable is almost laughable. The small window-dressing piece about one dairy farm converting to organic and becoming profitable is anecdotal and does nothing to prove whether small scale organic dairy farms as a whole industry are profitable. And, citing another “profitability study” stating that corn/soybean farms in Minnesota *could be* profitable if converted to organic under a given set of conditions is a far cry from saying that corn/soybean farms *have been* or *would be* profitable.

    I certainly don’t begrudge a farmer for making a profit. I hope that they do; otherwise, they won’t be around much longer. But I do think your anger in this regard is misplaced. I can’t think of anything that illustrates this better than the current situation behind Wright County Egg. I haven’t looked to see whether public records are available for the company behind the egg recall, but I can only imagine the profit the DeCoster family has raked in given the millions of dollars they have paid out in the last decade in fines (http://bit.ly/bG9RE3). And it seems clear that those dollars were born on the backs of underpaid, underprivileged workers and about a bazillion miserable hens. There ought to be some serious outrage over that, wouldn’t you agree?

    Also, why do you seem to feel that farmers should bear the responsibility of bringing produce into food deserts? The study you link to demonstrates the lack of grocers in low income and/or African-American communities. If farmers should be forced by the city to sell in underserved communities, shouldn’t grocers be similarly forced? Should the fast food chains be forced out in order to come closer to a balance? Shouldn’t the schools be forced to provide better food, since oftentimes they are the only source of a substantial meal for some children? The issues revolving around food deserts are extremely varied and complex; any potential for a successful farmers market is but a tiny component of the entire picture. To say that farmers need to fix a problem that is generations in the making (the study you cite is itself four years old) is ludicrous.

    In answer to your question regarding the tomatoes I purchased, they were “second” quality. For the most part, this meant they were either slightly cracked, or very ripe and needed to be dealt with immediately. In short, they looked like the tomatoes from my own small garden, and tasted the same. Why another farmer was selling field tomatoes for $2.00/lb is unknown to me. Perhaps his price was lowered as the day progressed.

  16. Mark Mendez says:

    I feel like I am late to the party here. As a chef that uses a lot of produce from small farms I felt the need to say something here. To be honest, I don’t look at statistics much, or pay too close attention to studies, I sort go with my feelings when it comes to local food. First, the price issue. Yes, sometimes local food is more expensive. I do not begrudge a chef or consumer for making decisions based on this, if you want to buy Jewel blueberries by all means. If you can’t afford an all natural chicken, then buy Tyson or Purdue, the important thing is to feed your family or customers with what you can afford. But, and this is a very bit but(joke), I have found that will there is a will there is a way. Take that $16 dessert, that is total bullshit. Just because something costs you more doesn’t mean you necessarily have to charge more. Yes, that’s what I said. Many chefs have a hard time looking at a bigger picture, they think food costs is the end all or be all to their business, this is not simply the case. Being fiscally responsible is extremely important don’t get me wrong but let’s look at it from a wider angle. If I use quality ingredients and keep my prices reasonable won’t I be busier than the restaurant that charges up the yang? Would you rather have a busy restaurant with a slightly higher food cost or a half filled restaurant with a great food cost? Treat your products and customers with respect and you’ll be amazed at the results. It can be a fine line between making money and just getting by, the restaurant business is brutal and you will never make everyone happy no matter what you do but I would rather err on the side of the customer, without them you have no business.

    Second, buying from local farmers has been an extremely rewarding experience for me. Let’s be honest, there are bad farmers just like there are bad lawyers, truck drivers, accountants, etc. But when you make a connection with a special one that is trying to do the right thing, takes pride in what they do, puts love and care in what they so it is hard to not want to support this person as much as you can. I don’t think knowing where your food comes from can ever be a bad thing. I don’t think engaging another person and learning about his/her way of life is ever a bad thing. If I went to Jewel or Dominicks and had that same experience maybe I would go there too, but I don’t. A farmer’s market is more than a farmer’s market. It’s a community. I have met so many people at farmer’s markets, people in the business,long time customers, wannabe customers, food journalists, you name it. I love food, I love preparing it , buying it, talking about it, shopping for it, arguing about it, blogging about it, thinking about it, reading about it, and even eating food. I want to engage people who share those same passions, it so happens many of them I see at the market.

  17. JoeC says:

    MBT – Thanks.

    Melissa – I refer to the kool-aid as believing that farmers markets are the only place to get healthy, fresh food. I spoke with one of the farmers today and what confuses me is that they charge a premium but make no money – what business model is run this way? It has me asking myself are we as consumers expected to pay higher prices to keep a unprofitable business in business? I don’t know the answer to that. I own a small business and struggle like everyone else with profitability. I don’t know if the markets are cutting them out but they’re not located where the large portion of under-privileged people live.

    I showed those studies to say it IS possible to be organic and be profitable.

    This egg debacle is another post entirely – HOW THE F do you fine these people for this long and are they still in business? I think that argument comes down to the USDA and Congress growing a pair and putting in the same type of regulation they did on the banking industry. You’ll get no argument from me on this. I personally think the subsidized products are too much but food is VERY affordable for a lot of people because of it.

    I never said farmers should be the only responsible ones on the food desert issue. But they’re a mobile seller that can be in and out. Your argument of forcing others in kind of goes to my walmart point. If they’re the only ones willing to go are we to tell them no? Some will argue but they get so many tax breaks. How much did Boeing get? It happens across all industries. I think the farmers could be a great first step.

    Chef M – Are you honestly telling me you would put a $16 dessert on the menu if that’s what it cost if it was with perfect ingredients? I understand menu mix but you know even with that mix something might get bumped. Your servers would have to be selling machines to move that if the typical dessert only cost say $9. If it didn’t sell would you keep it on the menu? Will you be doing this in your next project?

    I won’t disagree the market is a community unto itself. I just wish the community was a little more affordable and everyone had the chance to go.

    Good luck and look forward to your next move.

  18. Mark Mendez says:

    Joe, what I am saying is I would not charge $16 for that dessert but rather $8 or $9 and deal with the higher food cost. Of course I couldn’t do this for the entire menu but a few things, why not. I have many things on the menu that are over 45% food cost but we balance it out with other things. In all my years at Carnivale we rarely had issues with food costs. There are many things at work here though and the issue is a complex one. There are no easy or pat answers. I know that to get what you want you have to be a better shopper and be a little determined. If that’s not up your alley that’s fine. But I feel it is worth it and to be honest some of the prices are not reasonable. They’re farmers, they look at what the other farmers are charging and go from there. I have found a few that sell great food and are usually less expensive than everybody else. The farmers market is just like anything else, a little skepticism is fine, but if you look hard the bargains and quality are there. This is a good read, http://www.grist.org/article/food-fight-do-locavores-really-need-math-lessons/#mcwilliams

  19. JoeC says:

    Chef – saw that article the other day and the immediate responses. That is another can of worms in itself. The freakonomics duo has done some posting on the locavore movement as well. Lots to think about and when it comes down to local farming, no easy answer.

  20. Thank you so much Melissa for this story by Rob Gardner.
    It gives me a lot of talking points for issues that concern
    all Farmers’ Market devotees.

    I have launched a year long Campaign to Educate Washington on Real Food Safety
    and I am going to mobilize our local Hillcrest Farmers’ Market here in
    San Diego as a model for some of the education I want to inspire.

    We both have the beet gene it sounds like, Melissa!

    I have been following you on Twitter. Good to make a comment here
    and for so much good food for thought.

    Leslie Goldman
    Your Enchanted Gardener
    and Keep The Beet Media Star
    the World’s First Talking Beet Plant

    PLANT YOUR DREAM BLOG
    CUREZONE.Com

    KEEP THE BEET MEDIA STAR
    in THE SPACE OF LOVE MAGAZINE
    http://www.spaceoflovemagazine.com/article_3_5.htm

    SEE ARTICLE ON HUFFINGTON POST
    CHEWING ON FOOD SAFETY:
    A NATIONAL CONVERSATION IS NEEDED
    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/lesliex/chewing-on-food-safety-a-_b_750967.html

    HERE IS ANOTHER ONE OF MINE YOU MIGHT ENJOY

    STATUS OF #S-510 Food Safety Modernization
    http://curezone.com/blogs/fm.asp?i=1733594

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