I was just at one of the local New Orleans farmers’ markets, to be specific the Mid-City Green Market that’s every Thursday in Mid-City. I’m trying to buy local more often, and support small farmers… those that have survived anyway after the assaults of agri-business and large supermarkets.
I was a little early and everyone was still setting up their tents and putting out their crates, baskets and baked goods in the brutal heat.
Having just come back from Western North Carolina, where I consumed some delicious peaches from the farmer’s market there, I went to the peach stand first and bought some peaches. The lady told me they were from Alabama, which seemed reasonable enough. I remember getting peaches from her before, and she telling me they drove in from Alabama.
Next I went to look for tomatoes, and there was a couple of guys—looked like a father and son team—putting out a remarkable assortment of vegetables. Tomatoes, corn, squash, cucumbers, peppers—a variety of vegetables that all looked beautiful, where most other vendors usually just had one or two varieties of produce. I had been under the impression from these markets in the past that either not too much grew in Louisiana, or that it was difficult to produce many varieties for small farmers, but these guys looked to have diversity and quantity, and from a superficial glance, quality. Maybe they had some really magic soil on their farm?
They asked what I needed and I said tomatoes, so they pulled some crates out and started filling the table.
“Where are these from?” I asked. “They grown in Louisiana?”
“Folsom,” the older guy replied.
“Good. I’ll take a handful.”
“Get him a bag,” the older guy said to the kid, who looked to be about fourteen.
The kid pulled out a plastic grocery store bag, and I started looking at the tomatoes. They all looked good, but something was amiss. None of them looked bad, and none of them looked great. It was like looking at produce at the grocery store, and I started to wonder if these were hothouse tomatoes. The best tomatoes I’d had usually were less evenly colored, even less red in parts. I was about to ask, wondering if they had their own private hothouse on the farm, when my question was answered by a tomato.
Or rather a sticker on the tomato.
“Vine Grown in Arkansas” it read, complete with a supermarket PLU code.
It took me about 5 seconds to calculate the (un)likelihood that a supermarket sticker accidentally stuck itself to a farm-grown tomato, or that a tomato from a passing grocery store truck had bounced out on the highway and into their pick-up.
The kid came back over to see if I had made my selection.
“This one says it was grown in Arkansas,” I mentioned.
The kid snatched the tomato from me and looked at it, then quickly turned around and peeled off the sticker with his back to me as if I couldn’t see him and put it back in the crates. He then turned back towards me as if nothing had happened and his removing the evidence had returned the tomato to its farm-grown local status. Heck, it might have even been organic at that point!
He then nonchalantly (sort of) turned over a few more tomatoes to make sure the whole batch wasn’t spoiled then casually sauntered over to the older guy, who was unloading more crates at the truck. He looked back and I pretended to be still selecting tomatoes, then I looked up and I saw him whispering briefly to the older guy.
“Goddamn son of a bitch!” the older guy exclaimed under his breath but probably not at all as quietly as he wanted to. I suspect it was the kid’s job, or maybe his brother or sister’s, to remove the stickers after the dad bought them at Sam’s Club, and that the dad had told them repeatedly how important it was to remove all the stickers.
The whole thing, especially their reaction to my finding the sticker, was like a couple of small time crooks that got busted for heisting the March of Dimes jar, and I don’t want to make too much of it, but at the same time, I do want to support local farmers and the local economy, and if I can’t do this at the farmers’ market, then Wal-mart has already won.
In retrospect, I should have taken a photo with my iPhone, but I was too flabbergasted to think. There’s a part of me that thinks, maybe these guys are hard on their luck in this economy and they are just doing what it takes to get by. But at the same time, one of the main reasons we’re in this situation is people have put all their eggs in one basket (so to speak), and in the food world, we can break the cycle by buying local and breaking the chain with global food conglomorates who will ship you blueberries from Chile when they are growing in your neighbor’s yard, consuming more oil in transportation, working against diversification, encouraging large-scale use of pesticides, and many other reasons. I’ve seen the trailer for Food, Inc. and it looks like it will blow a lot of minds…