Yesterday was my second visit of the season to the farmer’s market. Early on in New England, there is little local food to be had, so the farmer’s market is generally just a rainbow of annuals filling the parking lot that they occupy. It’s very pretty but a dangerous place to be for a person who loves plants. I figured that a few more vendors might be out by now and I’d give it a try.
During the peak of the season my favorite artisan bread baker has a booth, there’s a spice man, a mushroom man, a cookie guy and even an organic grass fed free range meat person. This time of the year however, there were just the handful of hardened regulars who are there in the rain, at the very beginning of spring, and late into fall. Eggs were on sale at the local supermarket for $0.99/dozen. Babci wanted some eggs, but I convinced her to try some local eggs I heard are much tastier. She agreed and off we went.
When we got there, we went our separate ways and I gravitated towards the perennial guy. I can’t tell you how much money I’ve spent with him over the years. I was chatting with him about what the heck I could do to get rid of an invasive ground cover he sold me a few years back, when Babci comes over. She whispers to me, “I found the eggs..they want $4/dozen.” She said it as if she was trying to cover for a crime the vendor was trying to commit. “Nobody’s buying them.” “What kind of chickens produces $4 eggs? They must be living in solid gold coops.” Needless to say, even if I was bent on getting some local eggs that day, Babci was ready to fight me right then and there if I tried buying them. She didn’t raise a daughter that paid a 400% mark up on anything. She declared everything was too expensive and off she went to sit in the car while I finished my shopping. Babci loves the farmer’s market but not this time of the year.
I bought local strawberries ($4.50), pepperoni bread ($6), radishes ($4), goat cheese (? don’t remember) and a bunch of annuals to fill my porch planters. In total, I probably walked out of there spending $70 and I only had a handful of things that were eatable. I’ll admit that my farmer’s market is on the expensive side and I have a weakness for flowers. It’s almost always more expensive than the grocery store except late in the season when they’re trying to get rid of excess produce. I felt like I did my good deed of the day but I also felt like this type of spending was not sustainable for our family either.
Realistically, if I paid a 400% mark up on everything I bought so that I could support local farmers, then my grocery budget would balloon to over $2000/month. Who can do that, even with 2 incomes?
Buying Local: Shop around
I’ll admit, the egg thing bothered me. Was it really that expensive to buy free range eggs? I was prepared to pay a little more, but not that much more. I swear I have driven by little signs in the road advertising eggs for $2-$2.50/dozen. I tried my closest farms and checked craig’s list. It seemed like $3.75-$4.50 was the going rate in most places. There were a few $2 places, but they were an hour drive from me, so the gas would offset the savings. Then I found it, Star’s Hollow Farm. The eggs were $2 a dozen and in the farmer’s ad on Craig’s list, she even said that we were welcome to meet her chickens. The farm is about 20 minutes from my house and on the same road as berkshire mountain bakery my favorite bread store. They were recently voted one of the top 10 bakers in America. I really do live in a foodie’s paradise. Score.
I think the lesson here is that buying locally is no different from regular grocery shopping. You can’t just go to one place all the time and expect to get the best prices. You have to shop around and know who has the best deals on certain products. Unfortunately, it’s not as convenient as the grocery stores where the sale circulars come to your door every week, but it is possible.
Buying Local: Choosing your Foods
With what you just read about Babci, you’d think she wasn’t picky about her food, but she really is. This same vendor that sells the $4 eggs, has the most delicious raw honey we have ever tasted. It has a gorgeous floral finish that is just divine. We don’t have any problems paying double for this honey vs the cheap clover stuff in the teddy bear bottle. The difference? Well, it takes me at least 6 months to go through a jar of it, so paying double really doesn’t put a big dent in the food budget. Same thing with vanilla. We have a local vanilla shop here and a big bottle is about $26. We like supporting that particular business and are okay that it cost 2x the normal price and 10x what the imitation generic stuff costs. Why? Because it makes a big difference in the final flavor of our cookies and a bottle of vanilla lasts us about 4 years. Maple syrup on the other hand, we have to shop around. My kids eat waffles several times a week, so we go through gallons of it every year. At a couple of the farm stores, it’s been running about $10 more a quart to buy from the guy down the street vs Vermont brand from the grocery store, so I get the Vermont stuff. Sorry Canadians, you’re too far but Vermont is a 20 minute drive from me, so they’re fair game.
Buying Local: Online Resources
Next on the list is beef and chicken which will definitely require some shopping around. Again, we only eat those 1/week, so I think we can do it without killing the food budget. There’s a great listing of regional grass fed farms by state on Eat Wild.
Rikki Carroll, the Cheese Queen also has a great list of “Good Milk” Sources on her Cheesemaking.com website.
For Farmer’s Markets and local farms, there is a pretty good search tool on the USDA Site that had 2 out of the 3 farmer’s markets listed in our area. Local Harvest also has a great search by zip feature, that pulls local farms, csa’s etc. Farm Fresh.org is also a good site and well organized by food category which is convenient. They even have a list of pick your own vendors which is always a fun family activity.
I think everybody can do a little something. Not all items will break the bank. You should do a search by your area and see what comes up. I was surprised by a few businesses that popped up on the local harvest site that I didn’t know about.
Buying Locally in New England
Just to make myself feel better that I am making some progress, here’s what I’ve got checked off the list. Each person’s list will vary depending on the region they”re in, but I’m hopeful that I’m making some progress.
- Vanilla – Even Martha Stewart uses this stuff
- Maple Syrup – Digging around for my eggs, I think I found a closer and cheaper source at Holiday Farms. Looks like I can save about 50% if I buy by the case and get it in mason jars.
- Flour – Who doesn’t love King Arthur and they’re right in my backyard
- Eggs – soon.. I used to trade eggs for Kraut, Pierogies and Jam with a friend of mine but her chickens keep getting eaten by sneaky foxes, so it’ll be a while before she has excess. I’m hoping Star’s Hollow will be a hit.
- Bread – 50/50. We do a mix of local artisan bread and sandwich bread. We mainly use nature’s pride and arnold. Interestingly enough, Nature’s pride is a division of Hostess but it took some digging to find that out. It’s no where on their website. Arnold is in PA, so that’s not too far. I also go through bread baking phases, but mostly in the winter.
- Yogurt - Stoneyfield – Organic, Local, Yummy, reasonably priced and we go through gallons of it every month
- Milk - Crescent Creamery – I can literally walk there from my house and they have the most delicious milk. Even Babci’s hooked. Rikki says that their milk makes the best home made yogurt of any of the local sources she’s tried.
- Cheese – 50/50. My kids go through a lot of cheese sticks, but there are many great local cheesemakers in my area too. I can even find many local brands at my grocery store.
- Take Out Pizza – Baba Louis – best pizza in the world, it’s organic and they source most of their ingredients locally
- Seltzer (we don’t drink soda) – Polar – They were one exit down from where I grew up. They also own adirondack selzer, nantucket nectars, snapple and a bunch of other brands.
- Salsa – Dave’s Salsa from the Gut is the best salsa I’ve ever had. He starts by smoking jalapenos on apple wood. I mail order it by the case and he does give a case discount. I found him at a garlic festival a few years back. His personal website is not working, but I usually just call his number 802-747-9017 and he’ll fax or email you an order form. He only makes batches once in a while so don’t expect a speedy turnaround, but it’s well worth the wait.
- Beer - Berkshire Brewing Company – I’m spoiled to have such a great brewery nearby. I also still buy Sam Adams Boston Lager and buy a lot of different microbrews. I think you can’t go wrong supporting any of the regional breweries in the US.
Well, if you’re on a similar journey, I’d love to hear what you’ve been able to source locally and what your challenging foods are. I know for me that will be any kind of citrus but I’m not going to be a purist in my venture. Florida and California farmers need income too.