29 June 2011

Farmer's Market

The idea of purchasing from a farmers' market has come around in conversation many times, mostly in the context of Tyson recollecting amazing fresh produce at a market he used to frequent in London. To be honest I wasn't that enamoured with the whole concept. Recently, though, I read Barbara Kingsolver's book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle (which really deserves a post all its own, and one day might get one) and among other things it inspired me to look for a farmers' market in our area. 

A tiny letter to the editor in a brochure about local services led us to the Farmer Market on Manning, which opened in December 2009 about 5km from us. Somehow I managed to not find it on the web initially so we were unsure if it was still running when we ventured forth the first week. Not only is it still in action, it is thriving. It runs every Saturday morning, and we have been every week since we discovered it. The quality of produce is far superior to what we have been accustomed to (which has been growers' cooperative fresh produce store, not supermarket produce). We've now discovered that all sorts of friends already knew about this great place and it had never come up in conversation before.

Initial Time: five minutes of discovery and address checking; fifteen minutes bike travel each way; variable time spent purchasing, depending on what we need and how many friends we run into.

Initial Cost: Being there costs nothing (except petrol on weeks we don't ride bikes). Produce cost depends on how good we are at resisting temptation. So many yummy things!

Ongoing time or cost commitment: We are committing to purchase our fresh produce from here as much as possible. We have not committed to buying exclusively organic. Certified organic produce at this market seems to cost about twice what regular produce costs, and we buy a selection of organic items each week. Low-spray and/or grower-direct regular produce is comparable in price to what we have previously been paying. 

Market shopping doesn't add all that much to our actual fresh produce shopping time. However, we tend to end up spending a couple of hours each week, by the time we have a coffee, chat with friends and family, and do the shopping, so there is an ongoing social time investment. Riding our bikes takes about three times longer than getting to the fresh produce store we previously used.


Removing middle-people from the journey of food from grower to our kitchen is significant. It allows a greater portion of what I pay for any item to go into the pocket of the producer. Growing fresh produce is hard work that doesn't have great profit margins and it is a wonder to me that enough people are prepared to do it that we do get sufficient food arriving in our shops. I feel that buying at a farmers' market helps to financially support local growers. Its not just the local growers that benefit. According to Barbara Kingsolver's research, buying locally generates about three times as much income for your local economy as buying from big chains.

Much of what is available on a Saturday morning was still in the ground or on the tree on Friday. The number one obvious gain is that it tastes much better (and seems to generally stay good longer). However, it also means it has not been in cold storage for more than a few days. Much cold storage uses 1-methylcyclopropene to delay ripening, and large supermarkets in Australia have been reported as selling 'fresh' produce that is up to ten months old. It takes a lot of electricity to keep an apple cold-stored for ten months so that I can eat it out of season, to say nothing of the synthetic refrigerants used or the refrigeration systems that use water evaporated through the condensers. (To give an idea around the latter, one cold store facility in Hobart that began harvesting rain water in 2008 reduced their scheme-water usage in one month by over 3000kL, which was only about half of its total water usage for the month). Exactly how much energy is used per item is impossible to estimate, as it depends on all sorts of factors like how large and how full the storage systems are, what technology is used, how well insulated the facility is and the weather outside. Its safe to say, though, that produce at a farmers' market has used somewhere between a lot and a ludicrously large amount less energy in storage than a supermarket-bought item.

In addition to energy used for long-term storage, there is the energy used to transport fresh produce around. Typically, an item might be transported back and forth between several middle operators between leaving its farm and getting onto a supermarket shelf (wholesale market, company cold stores etc) and each leg of the journey involves energy for both transport and refrigeration. For out-of-season items, or things which will never be in season in our climate, the legs of these journey can be very long (although how they come is more significant than how far - a short plane journey can use more energy than a long shipping run). Most of the growers selling at our local farmers' market have travelled less than 30km to reach us, in a single journey.

Then there is the energy used to run a supermarket. Our favourite fresh produce store has about 6 glass fronted dairy fridges, an open bay fridge for fresh produce and a large cold store. These all run 24/7 (with the possible exception of the open bay fridge which may be emptied and turned off at night). All sorts of unknown factors mean we can't estimate how much energy is used to run these fridges, but it could easily be between 100 and 500 units of energy per day in refrigeration. Then there is airconditioning, lights, computer systems and assorted operating items. By comparison, most stalls at the farmers' market are not connected to any power. Stalls selling dairy or meat run small fridges, the coffee people and hot food vans are heating their produce, and I think the two large growers that set up shop may have a refrigerated truck parked on site. No lighting or airconditioning is required for the site. Most stalls deal in cash only. Cash registers and scales are manual. And everything only runs for about six hours so no extra energy is used to keep things safe or cool after hours.

Where we do buy organic, we are reducing the chemicals in our diet and supporting growers who make the effort to grow without nasties. 

Probably the most enjoyable impact, though, is the human interaction. We are meeting the people who grow or produce our food. The organic carrots above were grown by Harry, and he was the guy who handed them to us. We are also running into and chatting with friends and neighbours. Tyson appears to have sparked a small revolution in his family, as within a month of us discovering the farmers' market all three of the other households of his nuclear family and an in-law household were found there on a Saturday morning. (Do all the great things about a farmers' market outweigh the carbon impact of inspiring these four households to drive their cars 15-20km to support a great local enterprise in our neighbourhood?!) Its very lovely to spend time with them in this beautiful place each Saturday morning. These bananas (which surely cannot be local in Perth in June?) were a lovely spontaneous gift from my father-in-law one Saturday when I was musing about liking and missing bananas. Eva loves going to market: to see Grandma and Grandad, swoon at the young guitarist-singer (when he is there), watch all the dogs and enjoy the steady supply of mandarins and mini tomatoes.