A lot of the things that I do for the sake of the environment, I do out of conscience but don't particularly enjoy. Buying local foods at the farmers' market is something I do just for fun.
Here in New York at Union Square, we have what must be one of the best farmers' markets in the country, with as many as 70 growers in peak season. The variety of offerings is simply incredible. Many of the city's best chefs concoct each day's menu from what they find there.
Yet even my neighborhood farmers' market, with just a few stands, offers infinitely better food than is available at the supermarket, several steps away. This past weekend, the offerings included corn, tomatoes, greens, cucumbers, onions, garlic, mushrooms, cherries, berries, yogurt, artisanal cheeses, baked goods, poultry, fish and flowers -- all grown, harvested, caught and/or produced within a few hours' drive of the city. (The cultivated mushrooms are actually grown within the city, on oak logs in a greenhouse of sorts in Queens.)
Granted, this is July, so there's lots available. Two weeks ago, I couldn't get corn or tomatoes -- but as I did snag some asparagus and wild morels, which I sautéed with garlic scapes (the green tops) -- I didn't feel in the least deprived.
There has been a surge in farmers' markets in the U.S. over the last few decades, from 300 in the 1970s to more than 3,000 today. They've been a great boon to small family farmers because they cut out the middleman, allowing farmers to take home all the profits themselves. They've also been a boon to the consumer, providing fresh, interesting and flavorful foods that can be turned into wonderful meals with very little work, since these ingredients will "speak for themselves," as they say.
But of course, the point of this piece is what farmers' markets can do for the environment. The lower energy use required to get goods to farmers' markets is a major benefit. The average food item at the supermarket travels some 1,500-2,500 miles to get to the store, according to a recent WorldWatch Institute study. Compare that to the 50 (or at most 200) miles it takes to get locally grown food to the farmers' market and you can see that the savings in fossil fuel consumption is huge.
Because locally grown food doesn't travel far, it doesn't need to be picked early, before its time. Therefore, preservatives and artificial ripeners are unnecessary. The food is fresh-picked and naturally ripened.
The small farmers who sell to the local market tend to grow more varieties of each crop (e.g., more types of corn or potatoes), and a greater diversity of crops overall, than industrial farmers, which helps to preserve biodiversity. Their fields function as complex ecosystems, compared to the monocultural wastelands of the big industrial farms. They are also often the only open space left in metropolitan and suburban areas. By keeping them in business, farmers' markets save the land from development.
If you can't find a farmers' market near you, or can't shop there regularly, you can still do good at the supermarket by buying local foods when available (check the labels and signs -- or ask) and encouraging the store manager and people who staff the fish and meat counters to stock more. Getting the supermarkets to change their purchasing practices is crucial because that's where most people will always shop. However, you can't do it alone. Small farmers will have to improve their distribution and marketing, too. Meanwhile, your show of demand will help pave the way.
But do try the farmers' market if you can, if just for the experience. It will give you a chance to take in the sights and smells, talk to the farmers and, for a brief time each week, get in touch with nature's cycles. At the climate-controlled supermarket, one day is like every other, but the farmers' market changes week to week. The small ears of corn tell you it's early July. Eggplant tells you it's August. Or maybe it's different in your neck of the woods. That's also part of the pleasure of the farmers' market. You not only recognize the season, but the place.
Sheryl Eisenberg, a long-time advisor to NRDC, posts a new This Green Life every month. Sheryl makes her home in Tribeca (NYC), wherealong with her children, Sophie and Gabby, and husband, Petershe tries to put her environmental principles into practice. No fooling. Read more about Sheryl.
Local produce (at left) from my farmers' market. The shiitakes are grown indoors on an oak log in Queens. The garlic sign says "I'm too young to make cloves so you can use my whole head!"
Tom Margotta (Stokes Farm). When I asked Tom about scapes (the greens at the top of the garlic), he ended up explaining the full life cycle of the garlic plant to me. Tom says that Stokes, a 130-year-old family farm in northern New Jersey, was one of the original 12 farmers in the New York City Greenmarket system when it was created 28 years ago. "We might not be here if it weren't for the Greenmarket," he says. Check out Stokes' website. Their herbs are exquisite.
Alex Villani (Blue Moon Fish). I've been buying fish from Alex for more than a decade. His fish is all caught locally, off Long Island, and has never been less than excellent. Since he mans his own stand, he can answer customers' questions about what the fish is and how it was caught. Alex is a member of Farm to Table, a project of Earth Pledge, whose mission is to support and promote sustainable farms and local producers. Visit Blue Moon's website.
--------------------------------- Sheryl Eisenberg is a web developer and writer. With her firm, Mixit Productions (http://www.mixitproductions.com), she brought NRDC online in 1996, designed NRDC's first websites, and continues to develop special web features for NRDC. She created and, for several years, wrote the Union of Concerned Scientists' green living column, Greentips, and has designed and contributed content to many nonprofit sites.