South Park Magazine

Fed up with fake farmers' markets

I was at a gardening club meeting on seed saving this past weekend, sitting with a group of folks as we removed tiny black seeds from dried basil, when I heard someone say it:

I got there early last week and saw them take produce out of commercial boxes and repackage it. I'm done.

"The Regional Farmers' Market? On Yorkmont?" I blurted.


"They have vendors there who only sell local produce," someone else said.

"That's who I saw doing this," the first guy said.

"Thank you," I said. "I've seen it too."

And I'm also done with going back.

I wrote last year about a blatantly not-totally-local farmers' market near me, the Kings Drive market in Charlotte, which does have some local produce, but also sells a whole lot of ... pineapple. Avocados. Mangoes. Things that (I wish I could say this with a great drawl) aren't from around here, are you? And it's hard not to notice the piles of Del Monte boxes stashed in the backs of trucks or under the table.

It's easy to sound snotty about this stuff, but here's the deal. I'm not one of Them -- the people who probably make passing stuff off as "farm fresh" so profitable, you almost can't blame the sellers for pulling a fast one. Almost.

I wasn't going to farmers' markets to feel fuzzy/superior/magic, listen to gravel crunch under my feet, to stroll the aisles while reflecting on life (with a 10 month old in tow, all errands have become ... you can guess) or because the taste difference is so spectacular.

I'm trying my best to eat locally-grown food primarily for environmental reasons. I can't recommend the book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver enough if you're interested in a funny and thoughtful examination of agricultural life in the U.S. and how what we eat impacts the earth. In a nutshell, our expectation that all foods always be in season whenever we want them -- and relying heavily on foods grown several states or countries away because of it -- is a modern habit fueled by big businesses who are wrecking the ecosystem for profit.

So I was excited when I saw the Charlotte Regional Farmers' Market, although full of many folks who sell grocery store surplus, started letting local farmers hang banners reflecting their participation in a state department of agriculture program called "Got to be N.C." Perfect, I thought. An easy way to see who the real local farmers are. Then this summer, I watched one of those "Got to be N.C." farmers dump strawberries from 1-pint plastic grocery store containers into 1-pint blue felted paper boxes. You know, the boxes that say farmers' market. It'd bothered me, but I hoped it was an aberration. But at the garden club meet up, two other folks said they've seen "Got to be N.C." farmers at Yorkmont do something similiar.

Some states (like California) have certified farmers' markets, but we don't herel; the "Got to be N.C." program doesn't appear to be something subject to real enforcement or regulation. I suspect some of the local farmers are doing this just to help their bottom line, which makes sense.

But I don't want to buy something I don't want -- food grown elsewhere -- in the name of "supporting" them. I don't want to buy California-grown lettuce from a perfectly nice N.C. farmer any more than I'm going to "support" a local weaver who keeps selling me a tablecloth when I ask for a rug.

If you're in the Charlotte area:

I can personally recommend the Atherton Market, where I know some of the folks and have been to their farms/gardens.

Folks I know who are really into local food vouch for the Davidson Farmers' Market.

I've still given up on going to local markets, though. I get everything I need -- eggs, goat cheese, butter, veggies, some poultry -- through Know Your Farms, a CSA (community-supported agriculture). I've been to some of their farms, and they're the real deal.

If you're wondering whether you're being fleeced, the best thing to do is read up a bit on what grows in your area and during what times of the year. For example, if you're buying blueberries in August at an N.C. farmers' market, they're not actually from N.C. This is a helpful link to learn what's in season in your state: