Photo Illustration by Wes Martin

This summer, along with our shopping bags and ice packs, we started bringing a vase to the Farmers’ Market. It eliminated the need for yet another plastic bag and, plain and simple, it was a more efficient way of getting our flowers home in good shape. But it really struck a chord with some of the purveyors we frequent who seemed delighted by the novelty. “That’s so smart,” they’d say, and we’d all laugh. Farmers’ markets are, among other things, conducive to sharing. There’s a creativity to buying from the growers, side by side in their stalls, that’s the antithesis of “going shopping” with a shopping cart at the supermarket. In part it’s the diversity, young and old, ever more culturally mixed, drivers and bikers and walkers, with their reusable bags and returnable glass bottles, leisurely meandering from here to there. But it’s also the sharing, a community supporting itself and feeding itself. There’s a sense of trust inherent in that relationship. A farmers’ market is one of those rare places in our modern world where you feel you can let your guard down. But trust is as fragile as it is valuable.

One of the main reasons more and more consumers are placing an importance on buying local is that sense of trust. Local has become a brand, and as with so many products or ideas that have a certain cachet, it has the potential to attract money. The challenge is to protect the brand from becoming a commodity, susceptible to adulteration and fraud. Unfortunately we’re seeing examples of such abuse already. A couple of stories have received national attention recently. The renowned Greenmarket in New York City suspended a meat farmer for selling chicken and beef he hadn’t raised himself and had bought from other farmers. The issue drew attention to the ten-page document with rules for the market, rules that essentially defined what is local, but that some thought too restrictive or confusing. A couple of weeks later two high school students found a number of New York restaurants and markets were selling fish and sushi that were not what they claimed to be. That certainly captured the attention of one of the world’s most competitive food cities.

But we’ve had some troubling experiences here as well. In one case, in an effort to make a product with all local ingredients, we bought all the rhubarb a local farmer had at his farmer’s market stall and then said we’d buy several hundred pounds more. Despite, or perhaps because of, the security of a guaranteed market for his product the grower actually charged more for the succeeding batch of rhubarb than he charged for the first—without telling us. And earlier this year a mushroom grower at our favorite farmers’ market was downright condescending when we asked if he used chemicals when growing his mushrooms. He was flip and dismissive and it was an uncomfortable and disconcerting experience. It seems to us neither of these people thought about, or cared about, the damage their actions caused and how difficult it is to regain that trust. We were alarmed at the news that Organic Valley had started buying milk from outside its co-op, clearly violating the consumers’ trust in its regional nature. But to its credit, Organic Valley reversed course in the face of the criticism and is once again using only locally produced milk.

Last month, a well-known socially responsible mutual fund was found to have bought shares of companies producing tobacco products and military supplies. It was a clear violation of a compact. Buyers of that fund were clearly making more than a financial investment; they were also investing in their values. So too is investing in local a similar compact. It’s a compact based on trust. It’s an expectation of shared values. It’s what enables you to go to a farmers’ market with a flower vase in your canvas bag—and your guard down.

Nancy Christy is the former owner of the Wilson Street Grill. She now runs the consulting firm Meaningful People, Places and Food. Neil Heinen is, among other things, her hungry husband. Comments? Questions? Please write to genuinearticles@madisonmagazine.com.

Madison Magazine - October 2008


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