September 23, 2004
Why does food from the farmers’ market taste so good? Certainly, the experience of shopping at the market and buying directly from the farmer adds to our pleasure when we sit down to eat, but what accounts for vast differences in quality between the food that you buy at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market and what you might find at a supermarket? The answer is as complex as the food system itself. Below we’ve identified some of the major factors that affect food quality.
Freshness: Food going to market is usually harvested the afternoon before it is sold and in some cases that very morning. Produce travels an average of about one hundred miles to get to the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market and is close to the freshest it can possibly be when it is purchased. After supermarket-bound produce is picked, it enters a distribution network for a week or two before it reaches the shelves. Even though California is among the largest agricultural producers in the world, much of what Californians eat now travels from abroad, adding to its distribution time. Flavor and texture are compromised by over-refrigeration and water-loss and result in bland produce.
Variety: Many of the varieties of fruits and vegetables and breeds of livestock and poultry you find at the farmers market cannot be found in a typical supermarket. Commercial varieties are often chosen for their pack-ability, storability, productivity and uniformity – in short, their ability to hold up in the industrial food system – flavor is, at best, last on the list of criteria. Farmers growing for sale at the farmers’ market choose varieties for flavor. Of course, these farmers also have to consider other crop characteristics, but flavor wins at the market because it is what discerning shoppers respond to and demand. This is the reason that many heirloom varieties of fruits and vegetables, and heritage breeds of livestock remain in production and have become more popular in recent years – they have better taste and texture and are often extraordinarily beautiful!
Ripeness: Fruit from the farmers’ market is usually tree or vine ripened. Shorter traveling time from the field to the plate enables farmers who are growing for market to pick at the last possible moment. Leaving produce on the tree or vine longer maximizes its flavor and its nutritional value. Out-of-season fruits found at the supermarket are picked unripe to preserve their firmness for transport – the ripening process is then sometimes commenced artificially with ethylene gas and results in ripe-looking product with unripe taste and texture.
Inputs: We are what we eat, and so are fruits, vegetables, livestock, eggs, and poultry. Healthy and flavorful food cannot be produced without high quality inputs. At the farmers market you find grass-fed beef and lamb, free-range eggs and chickens, and fruits and vegetables that have been fed the most nutritious and diverse diet possible. The taste of these products is distinctly different from their industrial counterparts that have been fed antibiotics and hormones, limited and repetitive diets, and petroleum-based fertilizers laden with harmful levels of metals such as arsenic and mercury.
Growing Technique: Watering, thinning, pruning, and fertilizing techniques can affect end-product dramatically. The growing philosophies represented at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market are as diverse as the farmers themselves. In a highly mechanized industrial production system, the nuances of growing are lost – and so, often, are the nuances in taste. Small farmers are constantly experimenting and improving their techniques based not on the industrial normative, but on their own observations and tastes.
So how do you pick the best of the best? Ask the farmer! You can learn innumerable and invaluable produce-picking tips by simply asking.