|Farmers markets that sell fresh produce like these strawberries can make for good local environment stories, whether related to organic growing practices or locavore movements. Photo: Fairfax County
TipSheet: Farmers Markets Offer Baskets of Fresh Story Ideas
As the cold gray of winter is replaced by the warm sun of spring, fresh produce is being offered for sale across the United States … by the growers themselves, in markets both old-fashioned and newfangled.
These farmers markets and their tastier crops, like fresh local strawberries, are one of the rewards of a local food movement that has changed environmental awareness in recent decades.
Not only that — the farmers, their customers and the food itself are the source of great local and regional stories for environmental journalists.
Of course farmers markets are not new. The Lancaster Central Market in Pennsylvania, for instance, has been running since 1730.
The ‘locavore’ theory is that food
not transported long distances is
fresher, more healthful and less
harmful to the environment.
But they have become newly fashionable — and profitable — in recent decades as food purity and authenticity grew into something consumers worry about (although it’s never safe to assume; whether the food you are buying is indeed pure and authentic is something to talk about with the vendor at every stall).
Is it local, organic?
You have probably heard more than you want about the “locavore” movement. It began a little more than a decade ago. The theory is that food not transported long distances is fresher, more healthful and less harmful (because of lower vehicle emissions) to the environment.
Food produced and bought locally is less likely to be “processed” or “industrial.” The food in most farmers markets is seasonal (strawberries in June, corn in July, tomatoes in August, etc.)
Very often this is so. But not always. One way you can tell is by talking to the vendors, who often helped grow the food. You can look them in the eye, ask questions and gauge the answers with your innate journalist’s (or consumer’s) skepticism.
Is it “organic”? If the food is too pretty, they may be using pesticides. If they spray, they will probably tell you what and how and when. If they are selling peaches in May, they are probably not local. If they are selling bananas, they probably did not grow them.
At farmers markets, you get to know the vendors, because you see them week after week. If you talk to them, you may get their story. And their family’s story. If they are really local, you may be able to visit their farm and learn more about how organic growing practices have environmental impacts.
If you are lucky, there may be several farmers markets near you, perhaps on different days, possibly with different specialties. You can help your audience of market-goers by exploring as many as possible and reporting on them.
Markets may be traditional, trendy or social
Nowadays, there are often regional market groups (like this one) or enterprises with multiple locations. Find out what’s near you. Are there rules, structures and fees charged for vending space? It matters. Are there rules about only selling what you grow? About pesticides? About farm-to-market distance?
Some markets are quite old and traditional — perhaps hosted by a municipality. The “Bethesda Farm Women’s Cooperative” in Maryland suburbs of D.C. goes back to the New Deal, when families sometimes subsisted on egg money, and when women’s entrepreneurship was a new kind of empowerment.
Other markets are new, trendy, pricey and not restricted to produce or even food — selling baked goods, prepared treats, pickles, flowers and knife-sharpening services. Some are ramshackle flea markets selling … er, junk.
The best markets are social — sometimes communities in themselves and often the center of a wider community.
People go to talk and connect with neighbors. They bring their kids (who may learn that food does not come from packages) and dogs (who may learn doggy social etiquette). Chefs demonstrate recipes. Musicians play for tips. Politicians hand out flyers. Some markets take food stamps. Food trucks gather.
Resources for markets are sources for journalists
In recent years, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has been doing more to support farmers markets. An example is the “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food” program launched in 2012, with a cool publication. The USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service offers a searchable online Farmers Market Directory.
Many state Agriculture Departments have their own farmers market support sites, including directories, descriptions, maps, cookbooks and charts of produce seasonality. The USDA even has its own farmers market near its headquarters in downtown D.C.
One good resource in many areas may be the outfit called Edible Communities Publications, which is a network of more than 90 franchised foodie magazines and websites serving many “foodsheds” across the United States and Canada.
Find the ones near you (scroll to bottom of homepage and click on “Edibles Near You”). Your local franchise publication is likely to offer a viewport on your local farmers market scene.
Other information resources include the Farmers Market Coalition (which has its own list of farmers market organizations), your local cooperative extension office, your local land-grant university and the Slow Food organization with its many local chapters. Very often there are state-level federations of farmers markets.
Bottom line? Start by going to a few markets and talking to people. Ask the customers why they come and what they like. Ask the vendors how they grow their products and why they choose to sell this way. And be sure to try the free samples, especially of those tasty local strawberries!
* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 3, No. 23. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.