COVER STORY: BITE BY BITE: Second Helping

FRESH FROM THE FARM

The offerings at some farmers markets may not be as local or as fresh as they seem

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On market day, the average farmer wakes up at the buttcrack of dawn, packs a month’s worth of his work into a truck, and hauls it to a market.

At St. Augustine’s two major farmers markets, they set up next to crafters, prepared-food vendors and produce resellers who offer everything from North Carolina apples to Guatemalan melons. To the average shopper who skipped the lines at Publix in favor of what they might think is the more community-conscious option, it can be difficult to tell the difference between a farmer and a reseller.

Some farmers say it’s tough to compete with the produce resellers who haven’t spent months toiling over fields of kale, instead just buying at a terminal market and showing up at a farmers market, capitalizing on the same semiconscious consumers who went out of their way to shop “local.”

“We’re there every week, even if the weather is bad, whereas a reseller, if it looks bad, can just decide not to go to a terminal market to buy. We grew our food. We’ve got 100 percent invested in our food. We’ll be there rain or shine,” says Amy Van Scoik, farmer and co-owner of Frog Song Organics in Alachua County, which has a stand every Saturday at Old City Farmers Market at the St. Augustine Amphitheatre.

She says a little information from the market itself could go a long way to level the playing field.

“It would be nice for [vendors] to have signs saying ‘producer’ or ‘reseller.’ Being able to ID that for people is important,” she says.

“We advertise pretty heavily that we’re producer only. This is different than a flea market. But some are selling apples and bananas; it’s pretty clear they are resellers. Some still have stickers on the fruit. They’re not really trying to hide it,” she says.

The typical consumer might not realize that there’s a difference between the two designations.

At the Amphitheatre market, Frog Song is one of just a handful of local farms selling produce among more than 100 vendors selling art, crafts, baked goods, clothes, plants, prepared food like tea, empanadas and pickles, and out-of-state produce.

On a recent visit to the market, Folio Weekly Magazine counted two local organic farms, including Frog Song and St. Johns County’s KYV Organics, a strawberry farmer from Lawtey, and several resellers — including a vendor selling citrus from multiple farms in Lake County and a produce vendor who sources farms from as far away as Homestead, apples from North Carolina, and tropical fruits from South America.

Van Scoik and others familiar with how markets work say it’s disingenuous to sell foreign supermarket-style fruit at a farmers market.

“Vendors who grow the food they bring to market have it hard to explain why they don’t have broccoli in July when the guy across the aisle does, because they bought it. It’s almost unfair to the farmers,” says Beaches Green Market Manager Devon Ritch.

Van Scoik agrees.

“It’s important as a farmer for people to understand why they can’t get a tomato in January. It’s important to know that what you see is going to change week to week. It’s not a grocery store,” she says.

For Old City Farmers Market Manager Carey Del Rey, it’s about having produce at market year-round. She says that without the produce resellers, there would be nothing to offer in the summer months, and she couldn’t run her market.

Nico Recore, market manager at the St. Augustine Beach Wednesday Local Farmers/Arts & Crafts Market, has a similar approach, and the resellers at her market are vital to keeping a consistent supply of produce, she says.

“There’s only so much produce that Florida can actually come up with,” Del Rey says. “We have to have produce year round. I have to have produce to keep the market alive in the summer. You can do that [switch to produce only] if you want a market for six months. You wouldn’t do it to have a venue year round.”

Florida ranks second in the U.S. for value of vegetable production and first in production value of oranges, tomatoes, watermelons, grapefruit, snap beans, cucumbers and squash; and second in a handful of other fruits and vegetables, according to the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

All but 15 percent of that produce leaves the state, says Katie Delaney, Farmer’s Liaison for Jacksonville’s Riverside Arts Market and Fresh Access Bucks Coordinator for Florida Organic Growers.

“I’d like to see more of that fresh produce stay in the state,” she says. “Markets can help facilitate that.”

FARMERS RELY ON MARKET INCOME

In a profession that typically demands 16-hour days or more, many farmers, especially at small-to-medium-size farms, rely heavily on markets to pay their bills. Market prices are much higher than the prices farms must give wholesalers or restaurants.

“Farmers markets brings in a good third to half of what we do, profit-wise,” says Van Scoik. “Markets are extremely important to our bottom line. When people don’t come, because of rain, or heavy traffic, it does impact the farm. Farmers markets are the bread and butter to pay your bills.”

Lauren Titus, editor of the recently launched food magazine Edible Northeast Florida, says markets play a vital role in supporting farmers and connecting them with their customers.

“Markets are the ones providing a meeting place. For farmers that are smaller, it’s harder to sell to bigger stores, so they use the markets to distribute their product. It’s important for markets to support that.”

Northeast Florida is seeing a slight uptick in new farms and young farmers, though the overall number of people practicing agriculture is trending down, Delaney says.

But Titus and Delaney are hopeful that an increased demand in local food, facilitated by the markets, will lead to an increase in local farmers, which, in turn, will lead to an increase in fresh local produce.

PRODUCER-ONLY HELPS FARMS AND CUSTOMERS

Conventional wisdom might suggest that increased competition from local produce at one market would negatively impact sales of competing farms.

But Van Scoik says that’s not the case.

Compared to Old City Farmers Market, where Frog Song is one of only two organic produce farms selling its goods, there’s always at least one vendor selling trucked-in produce, like apples or out-of-season tomatoes, the Gainesville markets they attend are producer-only.

That, Van Scoik says, means more educated customers.

“Gainesville markets have a lot more producers. What we can expect in Gainesville is a lot more competition, but actually it is better for everybody. Customers are more informed. People care if it’s locally grown; they don’t want resold produce,” she says.

At Beaches Green Market in Neptune Beach, the first market in the area to go producer-only, Ritch says customers are focused shoppers who know what they want, and know what is in season, leading to regular sales from returning customers week after week.

“We want to support local farmers, which supports the future of the local food system. Plus, the less food has to travel from farm to market to plate, the fresher and more nutritious it is. So much tastier,” Ritch says.

Titus says the benefits of a producer-only market are threefold for consumers and the community.

First, it educates consumers on what farmers must go through to produce food.

“For instance, [last] year we had a very wet late summer and early fall, and area farmers were having trouble getting seeds started. That meant it took longer for plants to develop and there was less produce available,” Titus says.

“Customers at [producer-only] markets understand that we can’t just assume the food is going to be there. There are variables we can’t always control to getting food on our tables.”

Second, a true farmers-only market illustrates the seasonality of food, she says.

“People can understand that in fall, there are no strawberries, because it’s not really the season. But come spring, we’ll see an abundance of strawberries. It’s great for me to have people understand that we should be eating things harvested in the season they should be harvested.”

Third, allowing only farmers into the market weeds out faraway trucks that can’t afford to make the long drive from a distant farm, which makes the products that are able to get to the market fresher and supports a truly local economy, and the environment.

RAM TRANSITIONS

In St. Augustine, market managers Del Rey and Recore say they can’t run a market year-round without diverse produce vendors, but Riverside Arts Market just completed its first full year as a producer-only market with its Farmers’ Row.

Delaney admits that there was some summer lag in produce. There were days with no produce vendors at all, and attendance initially dipped a little bit, although there’s no way to be sure whether it was because of the change on Farmers’ Row, or for other reasons.

“People said we were going to ruin this market. [They would ask], ‘Why are you making such drastic changes?’” Delaney says.

Without the large resell vendors there, Delaney admits Farmers’ Row initially looked a little sparse. But she believes that the switch was necessary, not only to support local farmers and provide the freshest produce, but to match Farmers’ Row with best practices of the rest of the market.

“By allowing resellers, it goes against the goal of the market in general,” Delaney says.

In an effort to eliminate comparisons with flea markets, RAM, like Old City and the St. Augustine Beach pier market, allows only handcrafted arts and crafts items to be sold by the producer.

“Why would we not require that of Farmers’ Row?” Delaney asks.

After the switch, as RAM shoppers started getting used to the new Farmers’ Row, Delaney says, numbers increased. And once farmers saw RAM was “sticking to its guns,” word spread.

“We’ve had a really good response from farmers. They know this is an equitable space for them. This is where they make their money. Customers can really trust the produce here is local. We’re very transparent about that, and they respond to that.”

RAM has also added educational materials to Farmers’ Row, and holds workshops during the market to teach people how they can use unfamiliar vegetables, like rutabaga, in the kitchen. Plus, RAM is one of four markets in Duval County, including Beaches Green Market, that accepts Fresh Access Bucks. For every SNAP/EBT dollar spent, RAM gives shoppers an extra dollar to spend on produce from local farms.

“We know the additional revenue is going directly back to our farms,” Delaney says.

Delaney is optimistic that numbers will pick up even more in the future. At last count, she says RAM has accepted about 28 regular farms.

“It was a big leap of faith for [RAM], and I’m really encouraged with how they’ve done,” Titus says.

ST. AUGUSTINE

In St. Augustine, Del Rey and Recore say they have no plans to make their markets producer-only.

Recore says she’s more focused on the heavy tourist traffic at the beach, and selling arts and crafts that visitors can take home with them.

Del Rey says she just wants a vibrant market, and the dependability of the resell produce vendors fills the produce hole, which she sees as a tiny part of her farmers market. She says she thinks she has too many produce vendors already, and, with a waiting list numbering about 182 vendors, it’s unlikely she’ll let any more in anytime soon.

Titus says that while a producer-only market is better for farmers and those wanting the freshest produce, maybe there’s a place for markets like Del Rey’s and Recore’s.

“I’m just a big believer in farmers markets and having people gain experience in buying things. It may not be any different than buying from the store, but people are hungry for that relationship in the community. Even at [resale] markets, people are interacting, people are interacting with what they’re buying. Hopefully, interest in local food will encourage more farmers to start up in a very difficult profession and support local farmers to continue.”

In St. Augustine, those new local farmers will have to compete with the big boys, even at their own market.

Editor's note: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that SNAP/EBT customers would be able to purchase meat, dairy and eggs with funds received under the Fresh Access Bucks program

2 comments on this story | Add your comment
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AmyVanScoik

Thank you for covering the important topic of where food comes from! I am the co-owner of Frog Song Organics. We love the Old City Farmers Market at the St. Augustine Amphitheater. We have a lot of regular customers there, and it is one of our best markets. While resale can present some challenges as described by Devon Ritch in the article, it really depends on how the items are presented and marketed. If labeling, signage and verbal marketing are accurate and honest, then shoppers can decide for themselves. It's our job as farmers to help educate shoppers as to why local and certified organic benefit the shopper and the community at large. The market manager's job is to make sure customers have a good experience at the market so they want to come back. The most important feature of a farmers market (from our vendor perspective) is good attendance. With high regular attendance, each vendor can find their own niche and develop a successful business. Carey Del Rey has been very supportive of our farm and has helped us to grow a successful market in St. Augustine.

Sunday, April 3, 2016|Report this

AmyRupertSecol

As a California native, where organic farmers bring their fresh harvest to market complete with dirt on the potatoes and the occasional caterpillar nestled in an ear or corn, its shocking to find such a drastic difference in Florida markets! The name Farmer's Market indicates that you will be encountering actual Farmers marketing their goods. The melange of conventional hotdogs, crafts and South American fruit does not have anything to do with a Farmer's Market. As a Real Food eater and local shopper I am offended at the misleading terminology used to promote a street fair under the guise of a Farmer's Market. Good for you Farmer's Row for taking a chance and being Real and even better that you found your leap to be successful! Real Farmers in Florida like Frog Song Organics who give everything they've got to recover our stance as a national leader in agriculture and ever better they're doing it organically, should be recognized appropriately. We need to show these Real Farmers the respect they deserve and not lump them in with a reseller who picked up a few crates of produce at a distribution warehouse. Market managers, show the Real Farmers priority at the market and require proper signage defining practices (like they do in California). Yes, it is the producer's responsibility to promote their product, but it is the market managers responsibility to create an honorable and reputable shopping environment. Tuesday, April 5, 2016|Report this