Secrets of the Farmers' Market

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.


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.

Chatting with customers makes my day. A smiling elderly woman who always comes during the week also showed up one Sunday. "I already ate all the peas I bought!" she said. "I won't be able to last till Thursday." Another woman once approached me and whispered, "There's a very large spider on the chard." Other customers share tips, like crushing sweet stevia leaves with mint in mojitos. And sometimes a question starts a conversation. One woman asked if we had lemons. A man held up a sweet white onion, greens still attached, and asked if you could eat the bulb.

Chefs also wander by in their monogrammed jackets, scanning our spread. I'm always excited to see Nghi Tieu, the pastry chef at Café Atlantico, a few steps from our Thursday market. On Fridays the restaurant offers a farmers' market dinner, and Tieu not only shares her deliciously creative ideas, but brings us leftovers to taste. Recently she featured our carrots, in carrot cake with cream cheese foam, carrot-kumquat ice cream, and carrot-ginger croquants; and beets, in beet ice cream with chocolate crème fraîche and citrus beet soil. A bite like that can keep me on my feet for another few hours.

We nibble Tieu's desserts along with our own fruit, which customers ask to do, too. One day two men in Metro maintenance uniforms came over and tasted several cherries. But they didn't buy any, shaking their heads at the price of the pints. For all the thrills of the market--and my defense of the labor of each harvest--I worry about limited access to local food.

So does Freshfarm, the organization that runs our markets. With its help, our farm applied to accept "get fresh" checks from the federal Farmers' Market Nutrition Program for low-income women, infants, and children. Freshfarm also issues coupons to senior citizens through the Commodity Supplemental Food Program, and at two of the group's eight markets, customers can now pay with food stamps.

As each market ends and the final bell rings, gleaners stop by to take some of our remaining produce to shelters and food banks. On Sundays, the same homeless man always appears with his cart, grinning, nodding, and pointing at a head of lettuce or a bunch of chard. When I pick and pack for markets, I wonder who will end up eating each thing. It's nice to know it could be anyone.