A Trip to the Farmer’s Market

St. Stephen’s Farmer’s Market

22 Dec

The walk back to nature, back to health is quiet and serene in the silence of a Saturday morning sunrise. Sleepy houses, beautifully landscaped residential mansions line the road to the farmers market. Your every breath, your every step becomes deeply entwined in every essence of nature. Smells of fresh dew and mowed grass emanate from the earth.  Yesterday’s humidity has dissolved and the empty cool breeze carries the chills and false hope of fall.

Just around the corner, Grove Avenue awakens the silence of the sleeping world. People are alive and energized. Runners, bikers, and coffee shop diners flood the sidewalks beyond the cobble stone walls of St. Stephen’s church, its high-rising steeple is eloquently adorned with flashes and sparkles from the morning’s sky. A friendly neon-vested man ushers in cars and people walking by with a wide-stretched smile and the promise of fresh, delicious produce. Lively folk music harmonizes with the songs of morning birds, people’s laughter and chitchat chirp with crickets and frogs. Parents, children, healthy couples and community members flock to each tent’s venue, their athletic shoes and Birkenstocks clouded with dust as they make their way down the rows and columns on the dirt lot. Farmers and merchants muster up the energy to answer questions about their products, which they had carefully loaded into their trucks as early as 4:30 that morning.

Under the tents of 25-to-30 stations, you can find locally produced seasonal vegetables, fruits, herbs, poultry, beef, pork, flowers,  cheeses, pastas, wines, roasted coffee and crafts of many artisans. Every Saturday morning from 8 a.m. to noon, St. Stephen’s Farmers market offers a healthy venue where local residents can gather and stay connected to their food, food sources, and farmers.

“People come because of the local experience,” Pierson Geyer, an employee and the son of Team Agriberry’s owners, explained. “It allows them to feel connected to the food, to learn information about their food directly from the farmer, which is something you can’t find at the grocery store.”

“Compared to other farmer’s markets in the Richmond area, St. Stephen’s is much smaller and family oriented. But it makes it that much more inviting,” Geyer said.

St. Stephen’s market has recently been ranked the No. 5 medium size farmer’s market in the nation in the American Favorite Farmer’s Market contest, and eight other markets in Virginia made the top 20 out of 6,132 competing markets, the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services reported on Thursday.

But, farmers markets provide much more than a popular site for communities to gather—they also protect the economy, the environment, the farmers, and the health of the consumers.

“They have great economic, social, and health benefits,” said a member of Slow Food Nation’s ecogastronomic grassroots volunteer movement. “A big part of our philosophy is that good, clean, fair food is a right of everyone, but it is also a responsibility.  We have to take care of our community, the land, and local farms, support biodiversity and protect the heritage of diverse breeds of produce and livestock. And with genetic modification meat and produce, it’s really important. Right now, food is putting us all at risk.”

PROTECTING THE FARMERS AND LOCAL ECONOMY

Familiarity fills the air as consumers and farmers converse about this week’s featured products. The “regulars” greet each other by first names and farmers instinctively pack recycledbags with their customers’ favorite goods. Special requests emailed to their farmers are packed and ready for pick up hours before the customer’s arrival.

It is this type of consumer loyalty that strengthens the local economy.

Farmers markets provide a place for farmers to connect with urban and suburban communities to develop personal relationships with their customers. In the past five years, farmers markets in Virginia have grown from 80 to 200 different sites, which gives a more hopeful future to farmers.

Agriculture in Virginia is a staple to the economy, yielding $55 billion dollars annually and more than 357,000 jobs in the Commonwealth area, according to the 2007 consensus of the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. There are more than 47,000 farms within the state, 90 percent of which are owned and operated by individuals and families.

“Farmers markets support local agriculture and the economy,” Cindy Clarke, owner of Greenway beef said. “We make about 25-30 sales at St. Stephens, and about 40-50 sales at the West End and Lakeside markets. It provides a means for my family and cuts out the middle man so there’s a direct transfer of money from the consumer to our farm.”

Team Agriberry is another family owned and operated farm inVirginia. Pierson Geyer, son of the owners Anne and Charles Geyer, has been working at farmer’s markets since he was in sixth grade. He is now a senior at VCU working towards his Bachelors in English, where he wrote his thesis paper on the costs and benefits of local, organic, and wholesale food. He explained how markets and local produce help protect against negative effects of mass marketing.

“Farms set up for the mass production of wholesale goods may be good for specific products, like huge corn farms sell wholesale to companies to make corn syrup. But, if you just want to eat cooked corn for dinner, its better to shop local, and if not local, be aware of what’s in your food and where it came from.”

One thing some people feel wary about are the prices at markets and how they vary from year to year, Geyer continued to explain. Local farms don’t have the luxury to buy and sell wholesale like grocery stores, which cut their costs dramatically.

“It may be more expensive, but remember, your supporting a local business, your community and you’re getting a better quality product,” Geyer said.

PROTECTING THE CONSUMER

A captive audience of women in tennis skirts and visors gather around Team Agriberry’s table, trying to intently listen while their children pull and tug at their arms. How can you tell that a peach is ripe, Geyer rhetorically questions his middle-aged onlookers. It is a common misconception to judge peaches by their texture, to squeeze it between your fingertips and inspect every inch for bruises, he explains. The women look down to the peaches they had been fingering and sheepishly return them to the table. The best way to tell if a peach is ripe is to make sure the stem is completely brown. He picks up two peaches and compares the green stem to the brown one, handing the ripe one to a woman to hold.

“And when you try to ‘feel’ if the peach is ripe, the correct way is to squeeze it with the palm of your hand so you don’t damage the produce,” Geyer explained.

The women reintroduce themselves to their peaches and mimic his gestures, all smiles. They thank him, and walk away with a pound and a half each.

A big part of farmers markets is the education and knowledge that the consumer receives, which provides them with a unique and different experience than at the grocery store. Restaurants like Bako Tako and Jazzbos Rollin Gumbo set up stands for dishes like gumbo, jambalaya, gazpacho. Wine tasting, apple sauce samplesand  marmalade spreads are given out for the consumer to fall in love with. People learn where, when, and how their food is grown and made, and the best ways to cook it. They share recipe ideas and everyone asks questions. They learn the difference between a rib eye steak and a porter house cut, the best temperatures to store their food at, and why natural and organic produce is better than conventional.

The federal government and USDA recognizes the importance of consumer education, and launched a program “Know your Farmer, Know your Food” this year.

Although the produce lacks the fake façade as grocery stores’ perfectly rounded and waxed produce, the appealing aesthetic of artificially colored bright red meat, the food at local markets are fresher and better tasting. They don’t have additives to prolong their shelf life, they avoid or reduce the use of chemicals, pesticides, hormones, and genetic modification.

Most of the products you find at farmers markets are natural or organic, meaning they are not processed with chemicals or pesticides.

“We practice sustainable methods, using minimum pesticides as possible. We may need to spray things like berries during the flowering stage to keep the fruit protected from pests. We use as many organic processes as possible, but it’s harder with fruits than veggies. Especially, berries because they mold in the humid climate. Some fruits needs minimal amounts of chemicals to grow in certain locations,” Geyer says.

All of these artificial additives injected into our food presents serious risks to our health and is probably linked to the high rise in cancer, Rebekah Fredrowitz, a nutrition specialist and owner of Tailor Made Health and Wellness explains.

Chemicals, preservatives, additives, and pesticides are all carcinogenic substances. When carcinogen enters your body, it alters and damages the DNA of your cells. The toxins act as free radicals that attack the cell causing it to mutate. Often, this mutation causes the cell to start to multiply uncontrollably, leading to precancerous growths and ending with cancer developments. It then spreads to other parts of the body—a process called Metastasis.

“When testing the effects of processed foods on cats, it took three generations for it to really take effect. What is scary is that us, humans, we are now in that 3rd generation of processed food consumption. If we don’t reduce our consumption, the problem will only get worse,” Fedrowitz said.

“People have to resist the temptation to gravitate to what is most aesthetically pleasing and immediately rewarding. They need to start focusing on long-term health concerns. And even the costs of natural meat is much higher than processed, it is the most important to start substituting.”

Clark of Greenway Beef also highlighted the health benefits of choosing her beef over grocery store products.

“Our beef is locally raised, antibiotic and hormone free, no corn, 100% grass-fed. People choose our meat for the health benefits, that is, it has less fat and higher levels good fatty acid for heart. It is more expensive, but you must be willing to insure the cost to get the benefits. In grocery store meat is processed in mass, you hear a lot in the news about recall and contaminated product,” Clark of Greenway says.

When meats, eggs, dairies, and produce are produced in mass amounts it increases the risk for recalls on contaminated and tainted food. Recalls of lettuce, peanuts, spinach, and eggs for ecoli and salmonellahave become more frequent over the past ten years.  Foods from the farmer’s market may cost more money in the short run, but may prevent you from future expenses. There are 76 million food born illnesses every year, 300,000 hospitalizations and 5,000 deaths, costing the government  $152 billion dollars annually on medical costs and lost productivity, according to produce safety at Georgetown.

Farmers are very careful to store their products at the proper temperatures to ensure fresh and safe quality. Meats are packed in coolers, sensitive vegetables and fruits are refrigerated or placed in the shade. Inspectors frequently visit the farm’s facilities and stands to ensure that the USDA guidelines are properly followed in the carrying, processing, and selling of food.

PROTECTING THE ENVIRONMENT

The trucks at the farmers markets are downsized from 14-wheeler to just four wheels. Farmers markets mean less transportation and fewer emissions because the food is no longer shipped long distances or across countries and continents, but rather across city and county lines.

The farms practices are mostly sustainable and use natural energy at venue, unlike the mass amounts of energy needed to maintain a grocery store refrigerators, freezers, special lights, and check out counters. Thirty-two percent of Virginia’s total land area is farmland, as reported by the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. Although the popularity of farmers markets have increased, the farmland acreage has decreased, increasing the need to support farms so they are not expelled from their land by commercial development. The Department of Agriculture also estimated that 13 million more acres of farmland are needed in order to produce enough vegetables and fruits to meet the minimum recommended servings.

Farmers markets, like St. Stephens, are about getting back to nature and reconnecting with high quality food and the dedicated hard-working farmers who supply it. It reminds the community of the important traditions and heritage of homegrown American food that has been lost in the industrialized economy. It is a place to remember the local artisans, bakers, chefs and to pay tribute to the unique variety of foods like bison, lamb, rabbit, and star fruits. The community takes great pleasure in tasting food and enjoying it with the community. It is about slowing down the fast food and fast life of our nation to take time to pick what food with which you fuel your body. Back to nature. Back to tradition. Back to the reign of farmers markets.

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