Farmer’s markets are all about choice.

Photo: Pete Ashton, Flickr creative commons.

Photo: Pete Ashton, Flickr creative commons.

The long, cold February days have me aching for summer. The lakeshore bike rides, fresh watermelons, and cold beer on a patio will all make it into my repertoire this year. But what I miss most of all is my Saturday morning farmer’s market.

I miss the early morning bustle of shoppers and sleepy children and pets. I miss the woman in a bright blue smock who dips a ladle into the sizzling vat in front of her and asks “The usual, honey?” before pushing a bowl full of hot apple fritters towards me. I look forward to this space every week; the jewel tones of the fruit and my favourite marketplace vendors, and the impromptu cooking lessons.

Luckily for me, the local food movement (and with it, farmer’s markets) is making a comeback, evolving over the course of the past century from what used to be a standard way of life, to a hippies-only option, and finally, to a renaissance of sorts thanks to the works of writers such as Michael Pollan, Barbara Kingsolver, and Alisa Smith.

As waves of bankruptcies decimated small and mid-sized farms in North America during the 50’s and 60’s, more and more farmers turned to food co-ops, farm-to-table restaurants and selling directly to customers to stay in business. Due to a growing mistrust of the “anonymous food” movement in the 80s, and rising concerns about food safety, pesticides and antibiotics in the 90s, urban food and community supported agriculture has skyrocketed in the past few decades.

Many shoppers believe that choosing organic is enough. While I am grateful for improved choices in the organic and “health food” section of my grocery store, the rise of the industrial organic complex has reduced many of these food choices to over-processed garbage (hint: if you’re shopping for organic all-natural Jell-o, you’re doing it wrong). Additionally, organic food is often shipped cross country to meet customer demands and has a higher carbon footprint in total. After considering the premium one often pays for organic produce, my choice is clear - I’ll pick affordable local produce, if the alternative is $12 organic lettuce shipped from California in the dead of winter.

In his best-selling work The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Michael Pollan describes our current farming catastrophe, in which more than a quarter of the products in an average grocery store start from a single crop - corn. This monopoly, combined with devastating economic policies has wreaked havoc on local ecosystems, small farmers, and the nation’s waistlines.

In another recent read, Barbara Kingsolver’s memoir of A Year of Food Life demonstrates just how much of our food culture we have lost through the industrial farming. Demanding strawberries in January, asparagus year round, and factory farmed meat on demand have led to deep cultural erosions and disconnect from our food. Fore me, one of the most groundbreaking parts of Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, was learning just how much of an impact local food can have. According to Kingsolver (who lives in a rural farm community in Virginia and details a year of committing to eating within her own community), if everyone ate a single local meal a week, we could cut oil consumption by 1.1 million barrels a week.

A 2009 Report by Farmer’s Markets Ontario revealed some interesting trends about the local food movement. With over a hundred and fifty locations scattered throughout the province, and almost fifteen million shopper visits annually, farmers markets have a strong presence in many communities. Over 77% of vendors are primary producers of their produce, and for many farm stalls are their primary source of income. Here you can literally meet the people who grow your food, ask them about their ethical practices, pesticide uses, and discover the distance travelled from their farm to your plate. Most shoppers stated that their primary reason for choosing a farmer’s market was seasonal produce and the vast majority state a propensity towards local food choices. However, many cite that lack of access (including inconvenient operational hours, parking concerns and lack of awareness) are primary barriers to shopping at farmer’s markets.

Transportation, packaging, and retailing account for almost 20% of the total energy used in the food system. Farmer’s markets eliminate a significant portion of this energy consumption, and by being selective towards farmers who grow ethical and sustainable produce, it is possible to cut down drastically on our food’s carbon footprint while actually saving money on groceries. At this point in my life, it is impractical for me to give up driving or never use any electronics. But it is incredibly easy, and in fact, enjoyable to commit to buying most of my groceries from farms less than 100km away, and to eat seasonally as far as possible.

I am certain that local food and ethical agriculture will play a key role in sustainable development policies in the future. Farmer’s markets tether communities together; and while I will happily champion their (many) environmental and economic benefits, I would be lying if I didn’t admit that for me the local food movement is deeply personal. The market is always my first stop in a city; it’s how I know if I’ll feel at home there or not. It’s where I sought solace in my first few lonely weeks during an exchange program in France. It’s where I spent many mornings during a recent backpacking trip through Italy, awkwardly sounding out the words for different types of pasta and sampling fresh cantaloupes. It was my only condition for choosing my new neighborhood during a recent move. Superstores everywhere - you can keep your shiny, plastic wrapped “garden tomatoes” in the middle of February. I’ll pick real food every time.