Secrets of the Farmers' Market

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Photo by Gardiner Lapham


Strolling through the farmers' market used to be my Sunday ritual. Crops, neighbors, a busker or two; it all felt timeless. Now I like to say that I went one day and never came back--just got on a truck back to a farm.

That's more or less true, but I do go back--to the other side of the market stall. Our farm sells at two weekly markets in Washington, D.C.: Sunday morning in Dupont Circle and Thursday afternoon in Penn Quarter. And let me tell you, going as a grower is a far cry from my old slide-on-the-flip-flops-and-scuff-down-Q-Street.

We start harvesting two days in advance, filling crates in the field, stacking them in the back of a pickup, and trucking them a half-mile to our farm center. There we wash and count and pack our produce into blue-and-gray plastic storage boxes, labeling them, for example, "Carrots, 20, Dupont." The stickers signal not only what we've got but how hard we have to hoist; root vegetables require more oomph than, say, lettuce. And forget the flip flops.

Prices do shift, I discovered. Cucumbers may go up if someone else is charging more; squash might fall.

On Sundays we're up by 4:30 a.m. to haul boxes out of two walk-in coolers and a storage room into our refrigerated box truck. Two or three of us sit across the cab as we roll down our gravel driveway onto asphalt. It's still dark setting off, but headed east, we see the sun rise.

The goal is to start setting up an hour and a half before the opening bell, maybe the only thing our market shares with that other one in New York. We line up our boxes along the curb, raise our tents and tables, and pile our harvest high. Layouts prompt much discussion and debate. What looks best? Features our marquee items? Lets customers flow through the stand? We weigh the relative merits of L shapes, T's, and U's; aisles, islands, and second tiers. Market design is about artistry and efficiency. And showing off.

Our farm's and others' bountiful displays--diminished by the time I used to arrive--still amaze me. Prices don't. As a customer, I sometimes balked at expensive arugula or leeks, either passing them by or invoking Michael Pollan's "hidden costs" of cheap food as I broke another 20. Now I look at string beans and remember how long it took me to pick them, in the rain; dry them on wire racks so they wouldn't rust; and mix green, purple, and yellow varieties. Not to mention seeding, weeding, and releasing wasps to prey on the beetles that devour the plants' leaves and dangling beans. $5 a quart? Bargain.

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Photo by Gardiner Lapham

Prices do shift, I discovered. Just before we open, farmers surreptitiously scramble, eying one another's signs. Cucumbers may go up if someone else is charging more; squash might fall. We add quickly in our heads as customers gather. The early bird regulars have been standing there since 8:55, their beets and blackberries packed, crisp bills in outstretched hands as they wait for the bell.

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Sara Lipka is a journalist with a local food habit. Since 2003 she has written about college students for The Chronicle of Higher Education, in Washington, D.C. Last year she lived and worked on a farm in Virginia, and this year she is starting a school garden in Maryland. More

Sara Lipka is a journalist with a local food habit. Since 2003 she has written about college students as a staff reporter for The Chronicle of Higher Education, in Washington, D.C. Last year she was an intern for The Farm at Sunnyside, in Washington, Virginia, and this year she is starting a vegetable garden at the Bullis School in Potomac, Maryland.

Sara formerly interned at The Atlantic and has since interviewed authors about Roe v. Wade, libido, and settling. She graduated from Duke University summa cum laude in 2001, then spent a year in Chile as a Fulbright fellow, researching political theater.

An avid cook, Sara usually travels with a tiny bottle of truffle salt and keeps trying to concoct new combinations of ingredients. She has worked as a papergirl, camp counselor, umpire, and cashier at the Cosmic Cantina, in Durham, North Carolina, where she never got sick of the guacamole.

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