Farmers Markets and Inexpensive Food

The city of Saint Paul, like a lot of other good-sized cities, has a farmer’s market. Actually, quite a number of them, which is both a blessing and a curse.

The big and heavily promoted ones are downtown, on Saturday and Sunday mornings. They’ve been completely co-opted by a combination of yuppies and special-interest lobbyists, with the net result that everything sold there is locally-grown (within forty or fifty miles, or somesuch) and organic. And, because it’s all local and organic, all the yuppies come, so everything is priced accordingly, i.e. expensive. Also, the quality is frequently frankly crap, probably because of the yuppies, again. (Surely anyone gullible enough to spend fifty cents on a tomato will spend fifty cents on a b-grade tomato, right?)

To my mind – because I don’t really care about whether something is a certified organic heirloom strain – that sort of defeats the whole point of having a farmer’s market, which I always thought used to be to get reasonably fresh food reasonably cheap.

Thankfully, there are other, lesser-known, mostly yuppie-free farmer’s markets around town, usually on weekdays. There are no restrictions at most of these as to whether food is certified organic or not, or grown within so many miles; most of the vendors tend to be southeast asian, either families who farm a couple of acres out in the suburbs, or folks who buy stuff from local produce wholesalers and sell it in usable quantities at ridiculously modest markups.

In the past, I’ve shopped at these markets rather a lot, because the food is good and the prices are hard to beat. The downside is that, for whatever reason, the less-well-known weekday markets tend to take on a slightly more international character, because they’re largely asians and central americans selling to… asians and central americans. I’m pretty sure $1.49/pound is a good price for fresh rambutan… I just have no real use for them, or any idea what to do with them.

In the last couple of years, a lot of the asian-owned markets and grocery stores around town – which I’ve written about before – have started carrying more fresh produce. Some of it is, again, stuff from produce wholesalers that they’re selling at very modest markup, but increasingly a lot of these places seem to be selling produce they’ve grown themselves. (There’s one store here whose owners, I swear, must own a poultry farm, as they sell locally-produced fresh chicken eggs at nine dollars per gross. Not that I need 144 eggs. Or have a way to get them home on a bicycle. But, still…) Get a couple acres of cheap land somewhere nearby, plant a little bit of everything, spend a few hours a week tending to it, and sell the bounty in your store. They obviously only offer whatever happens to be in season, but it’s always fresh… and cheap. Very cheap.

I keep trying to argue with the guy who runs the store closest to me, and who’s been selling the bounty of his family’s ten acre farm, that he needs to raise his prices a bit, or more than a bit. Turns out he has some pretty firm ideas of what produce should cost, going market rates be damned, and he’d rather sell everything quick, and cheaply, than sell half of it at higher prices and toss the remainder when it goes bad.

At the downtown farmer’s market, about-average locally-grown garlic is around $1/head, which is pretty much what the big grocery stores charge, if you’re rather lucky. At most of the asian grocery stores, pretty good garlic of unknown provenance is around $0.40/head, sometimes cheaper, and the not-very-good stuff is often around $0.20/head.

I stopped in the local store yesterday on the way home from work, and was surprised to see bucket after bucket of garlic sitting in the produce aisle. Fresh stuff, from the family’s plot of land just outside town. It looked and smelled good, so I grabbed two heads, got the other things I needed, and brought them up to the counter. The clerk put them on the scale, and… nothing much happened. “Eh, could you get a couple more?” he asked. “Okay,” I said. “…why?”

“The scale only reads in tenths of a pound, and that’s not even a tenth of a pound, so… I really don’t know what to charge you.”

“Oh,” I said. “I thought you charged by the piece. How much is it per pound?”

“Two dollars,”, he said.

“Really?” I asked. Really, he said. Well, damn.

This, in case you’re wondering, is what two dollars gets you:

That’s a 0.5L stein for scale. Three large handfuls, basically.

Gotta love the little guys…

Published in: General | on October 7th, 2010| 2 Comments »

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2 Comments

  1. On 10/9/2010 at 1:00 pm Cranky Old Man Said:

    Gosh, those look a lot like shallots..

  2. On 10/9/2010 at 1:20 pm Nemo Said:

    …and it turned out, Friday, that they are shallots. Silly me, for just blindly believing what was on the sign. My foodie roommate was quite amused, though.

    Still, fresh shallots for $2/pound…