Day 178–Peevish at the Market

I headed out today to the new-ish Downtown Cary Farmers Market, excited that I have a market I can ride my bike to. How cool is that??? Well, not so cool as it turns out. The market does have one meat/egg vendor, a honey producer and mushrooms–that is great, especially the mushrooms.

Otherwise, the vendor section is pretty limited compared to other farmers markets (about 12 vendors with roughly 1/2 farmers and 1/2 crafts). Still, it’s new so that’s ok! What is absolutely NOT Ok are all the dogs. I love dogs and have one in my family, but I know better than to take her to an open market. Even one of the farmers has a large doberman at his stall. This is not only against best practice for markets, it was also a bit intimidating to a couple of older ladies shopping.

So what’s the problem with dogs at the market?

I found a vendor with heirloom tomatoes and waited my turn behind a woman with a large dog. The dog proceeded to sniff and lick potatoes and tomatoes. Gross. Not only did the dog lady not curb her dog, she spoke to it in baby talk, “Does that smell goooood?” I moved on, picked up a few tomatoes at another stall and left. I’ll be sending a letter this week, since I couldn’t find a market manager.

Most farmers markets in our area ban dogs from the tented vendor areas where food is on display and sold. I thought this was a Health Dept issue, but maybe that is not correct. With food safety such an issue, what’s up with the Downtown Cary Farmers Market??? I’m glad I tried it, but I’ll stick to the markets who use healthier food protocol. Still skeeved out.

Day 168 B–What’s Fresh at the Market

This may be the first day of summer, but from the looks of our farmers markets, summer is already in high gear! This is what my brain sounds like while I’m walking through the market:

Ohhh, look at those tomatoes…tomatoes are on my list and…

Wait! Eggplant! Not on my list, but it looks so…

Blackberries! Gotta have some! Would make really good jam and…

Is that OKRA??? Hmmm, would be great with tomatoes…

Wait–where are the tomatoes again???

Yeah, it takes me a looooong time to get through the market. I’ve been to the State Farmer’s Market and the Downtown Raleigh Farmer’s Market this week and here is what I’ve found:

  • Blueberries
  • Blackberries
  • Raspberries
  • Peaches
  • Summer squash
  • Patty pan squash
  • Zucchini
  • Onions
  • Carrots
  • Kale
  • Swiss Chard
  • Lettuce
  • Beets
  • Okra
  • Tomatoes (heirloom tomatoes are ready!!!)
  • Cucumbers (all kinds)
  • Green beans
  • Wax beans
  • Butter beans
  • Eggplant
  • Herbs (all kinds–can’t keep up)
  • Potatoes (red, white and blue!)
  • Celery
  • Green peppers

I’m sure there is more that I’m forgetting! This time of year, it is hard for me to stick within my budget because everything is sooooo tempting! And distracting. And lovely. Happy shopping!

Day 127–The Inside Scoop of Product Pricing at the Farmer’s Market

I came across this wonderful article on the Western Wake Farmer’s Market website. Thanks to Madison Whitley for giving me permission to reprint it here. I think it does an excellent job of describing why prices for fresh, locally grown food differs from what is charged at the grocery. For additional insight into why prices differ (and why they are worth it), watch Food, Inc. It’s available on Netflix and is really an amazing documentary.

The Inside Scoop of Product Pricing at the Farmer’s Market

by Madison Whitley and Juliann Zoetmulder

Ever wonder why farmers’ market eggs cost $4 a dozen? Are you curious about why meat and produce cost double what it costs in the grocery store? These are valid questions that are on many customers’ minds as they shop the farmers’ market. With a little explanation, you may come to find that what you get for your money is really worth it.

Comparing farm fresh eggs and industrial big-box eggs is not an apples-to-apples comparison. You have to lift the veil a bit to understand what you miss from industrial, “cheap” eggs. You may pay more for farm fresh eggs; however, you get more value for the price. In a 2007 testing project, Mother Earth News compared farm fresh eggs taken from hens raised on a pasture to the nutritional data designated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) for commercially produced eggs. In this test, it was found that the farm fresh eggs contain one-third less cholesterol, one-quarter less saturated fat and two times more omega-3 fatty acids. Furthermore, the farm fresh egg contains two-thirds more vitamin A and three times more vitamin E. Beta carotene, an immune booster, is found in seven times greater proportion than the egg off the big-box store shelf. In general, the eggs from hens that roam around a pasture are richer in nutrients than typical supermarket eggs.

Even if the science does not “wow” you, look at the deep orange color of the farm fresh egg and taste its creaminess compared to an industrial egg. It tastes better and is more nutrient dense. For $2 extra dollars per dozen, you get exponentially more health and taste benefits. That’s sixteen cents more per egg or thirty-three cents more for your 2 egg breakfast that will sustain your body much longer than an industrial egg.

Despite these known benefits, customers are still hesitant to purchase their weekly grocery list at the farmers’ market because prices cannot compete with the low prices found at the grocery store. So why is the food at the farmers’ market more expensive? In actuality, it is the cheapest and healthiest food available. Sustainable agriculture does not rely on government subsidies from the Farm Bill and it does not have the huge environmental costs (transportation, for example) that industrial agriculture incurs. Finally, sustainable agriculture is not laden with chemicals, antibiotics, pesticides, and GMO’s. On the flip side, think about what we would be adding to our future health care bill by eating cheap meat, for instance.

Grass-fed beef has a number of compelling health benefits and since America is eating more meat than ever, we need to pay attention. According to a 2009 study by the USDA and Clemson University in South Carolina, grass-fed beef, often sold at farmers’ markets, is lower in total fat, saturated fat and calories compared to commercially produced beef. Grass-fed beef has higher amounts of total omega-3 fatty acids and a better ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids. Grass-fed beef also has higher vitamin A and E (alpha-tocopherol), higher levels of antioxidants, 7 times more beta-carotene, higher amounts of B-vitamins thiamin and riboflavin, and higher amounts of minerals calcium, magnesium and potassium. The research also indicates higher levels of CLA (cis-9-trans-11), a potential cancer fighter, in grass-fed beef and higher amounts of vaccenic acid (which can be transformed into CLA). Don’t forget that animals raised on small family farms are often treated more humanely than animals in commercial production facilities.

The nutrient density of products found at the farmers’ market is much higher, producing a much healthier product, which means that you don’t have to eat as much to get the same health benefits. So next time you are at the farmers’ market, don’t think about how expensive the products are and how much money you could save at the grocery store. Think about the quality of product you are getting, how many more nutrients are present in the food and what you are getting for you money.

As someone who has a monthly budget for food, I suggest purchasing the items that are at the front-and-center of your meal at the farmers’ market. You can always supplement your grocery list with items at the big-box grocery store. You will notice a difference in the taste and quality of your food, but not in your wallet. I promise.

Day 77–A Farmer’s Market Conundrum

I don’t mean to be grouchy, but Poole’s Diner, will you quit buying all the organic broccoli at the Farmer’s Market? For the second week in a row, I’ve headed out to the state farmer’s market and made a beeline for the only organic farmer out there on weekdays. Both weeks, I have arrived just after the buyer from a local restaurant has cleaned them out of organic broccoli and swiss chard. UGH!!! And GRRRR!!!

Now, as a responsible adult, I know that really, all the broccoli and chard is for sale and that’s life, right? Snooze, you lose. A farmer has to make his/her living and chefs have people to feed. But shopping ettiquete would dictate that you don’t show up and take everything, especially when you could make an arrangement with the farmer for a commercial purchase. And selling ettiquete would seem to be that you don’t sell your entire stock of a popular item to one buyer, leaving your regular customers with…beets. Now I loves me some beets, but not in place of broccoli.

This wouldn’t be a big deal, but apparently no one else at the market has broccoli or swiss chard, organic or otherwise, leaving me here, whining and bereft of spring veggies. Hopefully the Western Wake Farmer’s Market can do me a solid today. ‘Cause I really can’t stand my own whining and it could be a long week.

Some of you who read this blog are farmers and some of you are farmer’s market shoppers. So what do YOU think? Is the ettiquete rule silly? Do I need to take my lunch hour at 9:00 a.m. so I can secure the coveted vegetables? As the demand for organic, local vegetables increases, I can definitely see this kind of thing becomming an issue.

So be prepared for some competition if you’re headed out to the farmer’s market this morning. As for me, I’ll be tying on my track shoes and putting a Ben Hur spike on my recycled shopping bag. Get outta mama’s way, peoples. I’m in it for the broccoli…

Day 61–Coon Rock Farm

Lately I have been buying produce and eggs from Coon Rock Farm, a family owned farm on the Eno River in Hillsborough. From Harukai turnips to fresh carrots and tatsoi greens, everything I’ve purchased has been delicious. At the Western Wake Farmer’s Market a few weeks ago, I tried a sample of their chorizo (it is impossible to pass their tent without trying it since you can smell it cooking and for “some reason” I am always hungry). It was amazing. I keep forgetting to add it to our rotation, but maybe next week.

Coon Rock Farm (www.coonrockfarm.com) is the epitome of “farm to fork”. The Holcomb family not only operates the farm (which dates back to the 1800s), they also operate two highly reputable restaurants, Zely & Ritz in Raleigh and Piedmont Restaurant in Durham. Both restaurants feature the vegetables, fruit, eggs, lamb, beef, pork and eggs produced on the farm.

According to the Holcombs, farm produce is all organic and mostly heirloom varieties (which explains why my carrots were unbelievably “carrot-y” in flavor). All animals are pasture-raised and grass-fed, with no hormones or antibiotics. I love that this is a family all working together to bring us good food while nurturing the young farmers who will continue to feed us into the future.

Coon Rock Farm sells at three local farmer’s markets–Midtown Farmer’s Market at North Hills, Western Wake Farmer’s Market in Cary and the Chapel Hill Farmer’s Market. They also have a CSA which you can read about on their website.

As for the name? Apparently, the name Coon Rock Farm comes from a large rock that juts into the Eno River and has the historical name of “Coon Rock”.  Regardless, the food produced by this family is wonderful, sustainable, healthy food, and I for one am looking forward to some chorizo on Saturday!

Day 46–Escazu Chocolate and Gorilla Bars

A cacao tree with fruit pods in various stages...

Did you get enough chocolate yesterday? Are you laughing at the mere thought of having “enough” chocolate? Yeah, me, too. I thought I might have to go without chocolate during our journey to eat local and sustainable (or at least sneak it when no one was watching). But lo and behold, I have found a local chocolate source at last! My research never ends, I tell you. You’re welcome.

Escazu Artisan Chocolates in Raleigh is conveniently located next door to Market Restaurant on Blount Street. They make all of their chocolates and bars from the cacao bean itself. They source the beans, sort them, roast them and turn them into chocolate using small batches and a level of hand crafting that is impressive. My only other experience with chocolate making was the Chocolate World tour at Hershey Park. In case you’re wondering, this was waayyy better. Escazu doesn’t have dancing M&Ms, but they do have a small group of artisans who care deeply about making beautiful chocolates. And now that I’m over 10, that’s more important.

The chocolates they make come in a wide variety of sophisticated and fun flavors like bacon, rosemary and sea salt, white chocolate and cardamom, goat’s milk ganache, NC strawberry and balsamic, piaroa chili, coffee, mint, passion fruit and sour cream and vanilla. They also sell chocolate by the bar with chili flavor, sea salt and chocolate with cacao nibs.

Cocoa nibs are the pieces of roasted, deshelled and cracked cocoa bean before it is ground and turned into the paste or liquor that becomes most chocolate. Because the nibs are straight from the cocoa tree, they are very high in theobromine, a natural chemical used to reduce high blood pressure and alleviate circulatory problems. Cocoa nibs are crunchy, slightly bitter and a wonderful addition to baked goods! Good and good for you!

I purchased a bag of organic cocoa nibs at Escazu and used them in this delicious Gorilla Bar recipe from Creative Noshing. We made these the other night and they are not only tasty and high in protein, they were a great way to use up our remaining pecans, peanut butter and banana.

So if you haven’t had “enough” chocolate, check out Escazu, and eat lunch at Market. Then go home and make Gorilla Bars. A win-win kind of day!

Day 33–Are You Joining a CSA?

CSA Haul the First

Today is 70 degrees and definitely doesn’t feel like February. But here we are in winter, dreaming of all the wonderful fruits and vegetables yet to come in the next few months.

For CSA (community-supported agriculture) organizations, this is the end of the sign up season. We have just renewed our membership in The Produce Box, which is a modified version of a CSA. I love the concept of the CSA, but the pickup idea just wasn’t working for our schedules (or my memory). Wondering about getting your local veggies this spring and summer? Here are some good options.

CSA

CSAs are membership “clubs” typically organized between a farmer and individual members of the public. In the winter, members purchase  “shares” in the farms future bounty and pay anywhere from $400-$500 up-front. This fee gives the farmer funds to purchase seeds, upgrade equipment and get ready for the busy season. Once the farm is producing, each member receives a weekly box or other amount of whatever is harvested that week and this goes on throughout the growing season. The benefits to the farmer are great–he or she knows has money to invest in the farm upfront and has a ready-made customer base (although members don’t pay for the weekly boxes, there are usually opportunities to purchase other items). The benefits to members include a steady supply of fresh fruits and vegetables and having a connection to a community farm. If you want all-organic produce, you can work specifically with an organic farmer. This all works really well unless the weather is bad or there is a blight and farm production is reduced. In that case, it is a good learning experience about the gamble of farming.

Modified CSA

Modified CSAs are membership clubs that work with a select group of farmers, rather than just one and they tend to offer a greater variety of products. Like traditional CSAs, there is usually some up-front or membership fee and after that, they vary widely. Some provide one standard box of produce each week, others give members varying degrees of choice in what is in their box.

Benefits to the farms are the same as a traditional CSA, and include also that the farmer does not have to run a separate business. Benefits to members include a wider variety of produce and a small safety net in case one farmer has trouble producing.

Because modified CSAs are run by a third-party, members should ask a lot of questions, including how much of the weekly or annual payment goes directly to the farmer. Other questions to ask might include:

  • Who are the farmers? Where are their farms located?
  • Can I visit the farms? How can I contact the farmer?
  • How are farmers chosen for participation?
  • How sustainable are the farms in the group? What are their farming protocols?
  • How much of the membership fees/payments are used for overhead (management, marketing)?
  • Can I see the most recent annual financial statement?
  • If all fees are paid in advance, how are these funds managed? Is there a board or is this an individual? Who has authorization to spend the funds and how is the risk of fraud addressed?

I know that last question sounds harsh and it might be hard to ask, but some modified CSAs charge an annual fee of up to $500. That’s a lot of money for a family and if the farmer isn’t in charge of the money, you need to know who is. Just sayin’.

Farmer’s Market

The farmer’s market is still a great way to get the widest variety of locally produced vegetables quickly after harvest. Farmer’s markets are springing up everywhere these days, which is great for consumers. To find a farmer’s market in your area you can go to www.sustainabletable.org and search by zip code.

Benefits to farmers include one-stop delivery of their products and a direct connection with customers. The downside to farmers is that farmer’s markets are a lot of work and their customer base is heavily dependent on the weather that day. Benefits to consumers include the ability to price shop among vendors, ask questions to the farmers themselves (or their family members), and see the amazing variety of seasonal products available in your area.

Farmer’s market caveat: make sure the market where you shop requires vendors to a) grow the food themselves and b) farm within 100 miles or less of your market. This prevents commercial food vendors from selling you the same veggies they are delivering to the supermarket, which often come from another state or country.

Grow Yer Own

Ok, this probably should have been first on the list. Growing your own vegetables or fruits is an incredibly fulfilling task. From my experience, I can say that walking out to your own backyard and picking vegetables for dinner is tremendously satisfying. You can’t get any fresher or more local than that! With a sunny patch and a little know-how, you can produce wonderful results for your family.

Gardening in your yard does have a few requirements: sun, consistent water and patience. My yard lacks adequate sun and once the mosquitoes turn out in force, it’s really hard to make myself water every other night, which is what we have to do when the weather turns hot. So, raising veggies has not really worked for me (more on that in another post this week!), but I do have plans…

The only downside to growing your own vegetables is that if you aren’t successful, you pay for the seeds/plants and still end up buying vegetables elsewhere. That’s where I am and why we joined the flexible CSA.

No matter what your resources, there are options for fresh vegetables coming soon! How will YOU get your veggies this year?

Day 24–“Wildly Affordable Organic”

English: A hand reaching for organic tomatoes ...

I recently came across a great resource for staying on a budget while eating organic and thought I would share it. Although our goal isn’t specifically to eat “organic,” it is a part of our overall goal to eat sustainably and to reduce our household toxin load, and organic foods are a big part of that.

The resource is a book, website and blog titled “Wildly Affordable Organic” (www.cookforgood.com). Author Linda Watson (of Raleigh!) claims to have the secrets to living on $5 a day or less while eating organic (and vegetarian). In flipping through a borrowed copy of the book, there are some good tips for frugal living and some good tips for eating organic. The vegetarian and vegan recipes online look good enough that I might go ahead and purchase the book.

While the frugal tips are good, eating “organic” and eating “sustainably” are not necessarily the same thing. Buying organic produce does lessen the world’s pesticide load, but buying organic tomatoes from Mexico when you live in Maine does little to alleviate the carbon footprint of your food–especially if you can get minimally treated tomatoes or organic tomatoes locally at a slightly higher price. And are organic tomatoes from another country sustainable if the “farm” is a large agribusiness and laborers are not paid a fair wage? And are “organic” canned beans packaged in a can with a liner that uses BPA really worth the price if you’re getting a packaging toxin along with your healthy beans? You can only imagine the dilemmas swirling around my mind…

At some point, though, you have to stop and actually eat. Philosophical foodway issues aside, this seems like a good reference book for beginners on how to purchase organic foods without breaking your budget and how to make low cost, vegetarian dishes. Check out the website and see for yourself. Any day I can learn a few new tricks is a good day!

Day 13–Wrapping My Brain Around A New Way of Grocery Shopping

English: An Italian shopping list for groceries.

When we undertook this challenge to eat locally and sustainably, I knew there would be changes–changes in the food we eat, the way we cook and where we buy our food. But I hadn’t adjusted my process for shopping. So, today, I ran into the first of what I will assume to be many errors.

My grocery shopping strategy usually involves coming up with a weekly menu of dinners. Not only does this help me make sure our week has a good balance of proteins and vegetables, but it helps everyone in the family contribute to selections and alleviates the nagging “What’s for dinner?” question. From that weekly menu, I develop a shopping list of foods I need. And here we have the problem. My process, you see, is backwards.

I developed my menu and list based on what I found in the farmer’s market LAST week. In the meantime, we’ve had several freezes. So I found myself at the farmer’s market with 30 minutes left of my lunch hour and a list that was only partially achievable. What to do? I could have bolted and headed for the nearest Trader Joes, but no. That would be wrong. And then I’d have to tell you about it.

In this case, I made a blind stab at what I thought might work. And it will work, because, well, it has to.  It will be interesting to see what comes out of this. And so, I have learned a lesson: when eating seasonally, buy what is fresh and good, but be flexible.

I’m trying to figure out how this will work next week, but we’ll see! Any ideas?

Day 5–No Local Veggies at the Local Grocery

Example of an American grocery store aisle.

Although the area of North Carolina where we live is primarily high-tech and business/government oriented, most of our state remains agricultural. It makes me happy that I can drive 20 minutes outside of Cary and find family run farms that still produce vegetables and livestock. In fact, North Carolina is a primary regional producer of sweet potatoes, strawberries, peaches, corn and tomatoes. North Carolina is also home to two regional grocery store chains–Lowe’s Foods and Harris Teeter. It’s not a huge leap to think that our NC grocery stores would carry NC products, right?  

With our new dietary challenges in mind, I recently visited our local Lowe’s Foods grocery store to see if in fact I could find locally produced vegetables, meat and agricultural products. I was hoping to find that I could purchase at least some local food products at my local grocery.

As I wandered through the produce section I wondered why Lowes sells collard greens from South Carolina when we produce them here? Same for sweet potatoes. In the produce aisle, I did not find one item produced in our state, but I found several produced in Mexico or Peru. I gave up on the meat section, which has no source information at all. I did find some agricultural products (grits, corn meal) and processed food products (barbecue sauce, hot sauce), but other than that, I came up empty-handed.

So, I asked a Lowes employee who looked official (wearing a tie and carrying a clipboard), why that is. He explained that the company as a whole has contracts with specific producers that ensure they have a “good selection at an affordable price.” So where do all the products we produce go? He also mentioned that some stores, including one in a nearby town, have displays of locally produced products, but that the manager of my particular Lowes had not chosen to do that. Then, very interestingly, he also mentioned that his family doesn’t buy their vegetables at Lowes or any other grocery store. They use a produce co-op hybrid called The Produce Box, which sources only from NC farms that use sustainable and/or organic farming practices. Hmmmm. Curious.

My plan this week is to write to Lowes and ask them to consider contracting with local, sustainable farms or to at least put a state symbol or some other marking so consumers can find what local products there are more easily. For a grocery chain that plays up its home town roots in advertising, this shouldn’t be a huge stretch. We’ll see…