Q: My farmers market is pretty expensive. What’s the benefit to paying so much more for organic fruit and vegetables?
A: I balked at paying $6 for a dozen eggs at my neighborhood farmers market, but didn’t blink an eye when shelling out top dollar for a pair of designer shoes. My lovely peep-toe pumps ended up tattered and shredded by my precocious pup, but those eggs! I treasured each and every one of them, planning my recipes carefully so that each went to good use. No scrambled eggs for my wayward pooch that week!
It’s unfortunate that we hesitate to pay top dollar for the food that keeps us healthy, while freely shelling out cash for other items. But the tide is turning, thanks to dedicated, independent farmers like Margaret Liebman, 22, owner of South Paw Farm in of Unity, Maine. She’s part of a new generation of farmers who embrace organic practices and welcome the opportunity to educate customers about the value of their produce.
Liebman grows everything from celeriac to winter squash and sells it at local markets and through community supported agriculture (CSA). The money she earns goes back into paying the bills and reinvesting in the land.
“Food at the farmers market — whether you are talking about dollars or not — is higher in value. We harvest the day before, everything is so fresh,” she said. “The price is a very authentic price because it is the real value of the food.”
As Liebman said, the real value of produce goes far beyond economics. A French study on the quality and safety of organic food found that organic produce may contain higher amounts of iron and magnesium, as well as polyphenols, which have powerful antioxidant properties.
“Other than the nutritional aspects, it may be necessary to consider the 'costs' excluded from market value,” said Jessica Avasthi, community health dietitian for Project Open Hand in Atlanta. “These costs can include a number of things, including the dependence on pesticides and insecticides, the environmental impacts of nitrogen-based fertilizers as well as the treatment of laborers on farms. In other words, there are health, environmental and social responsibilities to consider.”
While it may not be possible — financially or logistically — to go 100 percent organic, Avasthi said we should learn more about the food we put into our bodies. Connect with local farmers and learn about local organic organizations through sites like Local Harvest, which also is available on Facebook and Twitter. Or consider buying a share in a CSA.
“Through these efforts, you'll learn what fits your idea of 'better' food for you and your family,” she said.
Here are some tips to cut costs on farmers market produce:
You better shop around: Check out the Local Harvest website to find markets in your neighborhood, then do a little window shopping. Liebman said farmers collectively set prices for their goods, so vendor prices won’t vary too much between booths. Since location is a factor, it pays to avoid markets that cater to a wealthier demographic.
Buy in bulk: Farmers are more likely to cut a deal if you buy a crate of apples vs. one or two.
Shop late: Shoppers who arrive around closing time can negotiate better deals with farmers who prefer to return home with full pockets and empty carts.
Forget looks: Ask the farmer for B-grade produce, Liebman said. That’s a good way to get a deal. B-grade produce has minor dents or glitches, but these veggies still make great pies, side dishes or snacks.
Join a CSA: Buying a “share” of the farmers’ produce reaps multiple dividends. “I have the most expenses in the spring, when I have the least money,” said Liebman, who offers $100 shares and uses the money for seed, fertilizer and other supplies. “In exchange, our CSA members get a little more — 10 percent. We just pack a huge bag of produce every week for 10 weeks in the summer. That helps us out.” Many CSAs also offer half shares; it’s a good way to try new produce. Another benefit? Fresh food doesn’t need to be doused with sour cream, cheese or panko breadcrumbs.
Urban Cannibals, a new bodega in my neighborhood, offers full and half shares of produce from Destiny Organics in Forest Park, Ga., so I decided to check out the CSA action. For $38, I got a box filled with three squash, two large heads of green leaf lettuce, three onions, a pint of heirloom grape tomatoes, three sweet potatoes, two ears of corn, a package of mushrooms and a generous bundle of flat leaf parsley, as well an e-mail with recipes. I’ll have plenty of healthy salads this week, stretch my dog’s food with the addition of roasted skin-on sweet potatoes and puree the squash for my baby nephew. When I run out of ideas, there’s always Liebman’s fail-safe approach to cooking veggies.
“The easiest recipe is to take a vegetable and add salt, pepper and curry powder. Lay flat on a pan, roast and stir,” Liebman said. “It works for anything.”