Imagine making a trip to the grocery store to find that every food item available had someone standing behind it. This person could tell you about how that product was grown, harvested, processed, sold and delivered to where you now stand. Whom would you see? Farmers in Mexico, Chile or California? A corporate CEO? Factory or migrant workers? The Chiquita Banana lady? What would they tell you? And more important, what would you ask? 

If this sounds bizarre to you, you’re not alone. In conventional supermarkets, the food we buy is faceless. We don’t ask questions, we look for the food on our list for the best possible price, and we get out as quickly as possible. If we do ask a question, the answer will most likely be, “Aisle 4.”

But farmers markets, exploding in Michigan and across the country, are rewriting the rules. Now our food once again comes with a face, a history, maybe a recipe. We can talk directly to a person intimately involved with the food he or she is selling, very likely the farmer who harvested it that morning or the day before.

“Farmers markets are a venue where education is taking place, unlike the supermarket,” said Wynne Wright, a rural sociologist at Michigan State University. “One of the things that’s taking place is a new awareness. You have an opportunity for learning and sharing that really is not allowed in a supermarket. There’s no room for it.”

But after all this time in the grocery store, do we know how to communicate with each other? What is there to ask besides, “How much is this?” Seriously, what are we supposed to say? 

“Just because you’re shopping at a farmers market, you don’t know where your food comes from,” Wright said. 

Ask questions

Farmers markets create the potential for dynamic relationships, education and awareness, inspiring learning from both customers and farmers. But it requires a little work on the part of the consumer. 

“Don’t be shy,” advised Mark Kastner of Hillcrest Farms in Eaton Rapids, where he and his wife grow food naturally, from seed and by hand. “We’re proud of what we do, and you’ll be doing yourself and the farmer a favor by asking. If you want to know something please ask, and if I don’t know I’ll try to find the answer.” He will, too — he keeps detailed notes on 3-by-5 cards and carries them with him everywhere he goes. Kastner acknowledges that it’s sometimes difficult to fully engage during busy times, but he insists that it’s one of the most important aspects of a market. 

“It doesn’t have to be about a sale — it’s people helping people,” he said. “The more you engage that other human being, the more the defenses come down and the more open they are. Pretty soon you’ll find out things that you never knew before. It’s incredible.”   

Kastner said he’s been amazed at the rise in customer engagement and willingness to ask questions in the past few years alone, and other local farmers agree. 

“There’s a greater awareness now,” said Marjorie Johns of Stone Cloud Gardens in St. Johns. “You can’t just throw it on the table and expect people to buy it. Farmers realize they have to be able to talk to customers.”

Proactive customers make for proactive farmers, and vice versa. 

“I have to keep educating myself about what I’m growing and selling,” Johns said. “Don’t make assumptions about what you’re buying at the farmers market, ask the questions, and the more questions you ask, the more ready we’re going to be to answer them.”

OK, but what questions exactly?  

“What is this?” and “How do you prepare it?”

When Johns started selling at markets 20 years ago, most vendors were just selling the usual tomatoes, green beans and broccoli. 

“But now you can find just about anything,” she said. This serves her well — Johns prides herself on her “crazy” organic produce, like elderberries, pawpaws, goumis and the ancient cornelian cherry. 

“People will come up just to see what I have that’s new and different,” she said.  

MSU graduate student Adrienne Tyrey, who was browsing at the Allen Street Farmers Market recently, said that her favorite part is looking for “weird” vegetables. 

“I had never seen patty pan (squash) before,” she gave as an example. “But they were pretty delicious. If I don’t recognize something, I’ll ask what it is, I’ll ask how to cook it, and they always have great suggestions. So I ask farmers what I should do with their food because they’ll know better than I do.” 

Joan Nelson, director of Allen Neighborhood Center, said that in the early days of the Allen Street market, there was a separate booth set-up to answer questions on how to prepare the various foods. 

“But nobody asked them,” she said. “They asked the farmer. Because farmers know food. They’ll talk about nutritional content, and what this deeper color might mean in terms of how nutrient packed it is. They’re food experts, and they’re great.” 

Most farmers are more than happy to talk about what it is they grow and sell — after all, it’s their life and livelihood. And they have helpful ideas on how to prepare it, often with other in-season products available at the market. 

“We have tons of information,” said Sue McMaster of Mac’s Market. She and her husband, Dan, farm vegetables and hay in Laingsburg. “We’re always sharing recipes, and sometimes we grow things specifically for people who ask for them.” 

Some vendors come prepared with printed recipes to hand out, but Dan McMaster likes the interaction. 

“We prefer not to write it down because that gives you a chance to talk to a person, get to know what they want,” he said. “Like, do they want something a little more healthy, or maybe fried in butter like in the old days? So if you see (unfamiliar items), ask for a recipe, because we’ve got two or three kinds of recipes for everything.”

“Did you grow this?” and “How did you grow it?”

If you don’t know whether Johns grows her food, you’re not paying attention. One of the many signs dotting her table at the Meridian Market reads: “I’m the one who grew it, I’m the one who picked it, I’m the one who eats it if I don’t sell it. My name is Marjorie — I made the soaps too.”

While most markets increasingly have the strict requirement that the food sold must be locally grown, not everyone always grows their own produce. So it pays to ask. Some farmers might bring a neighbor’s vegetables or eggs to market along with their own food, but occasionally vendors might bring produce that’s out of season, from other cities or even from grocery stores. 

“So asking, ‘Did you grow this,’ at a farmers market is really critical,” Dan McMaster said. “It seems like a strange question, but it’s not.”

“My business is a one-person business,” Johns said. “If you’re buying something at my table, you’re buying something from the person who grew it and picked it. I pick every bean that I sell.”

You can tell a lot about Johns from her signage, including her ecological practices and her fierce passion for sustainable agriculture. An educator and activist, Johns has been growing organically on her farm since 1993. She goes to markets to make a living and also to spread information on healthy eating. She hands out a lengthy list of questions customers can ask farmers to dig in deep about their growing practices and sustainability. 

“People should know about how we grow things, and why it is or is not sustainable,” she said. Her signs and handouts serve as conversation starters, and she always volunteers additional information when asked a question, hoping to provoke more critical thought. 

So ask farmers about their growing practices, how they manage pests and maintain or add to the soil’s fertility. 

“How do you want farmers in your community growing things?” Johns asked. “Because this is the environment you live in.”

“When was this harvested?”

If you buy a tomato at a Kroger or Meijer, chances are it’s sat in a storeroom for a day or two after being trucked hundreds or even thousands of miles before hitting the shelves. 

“By the time people are taking home, preparing and consuming that food, a significant proportion of the nutrient value is lost,” Nelson said. The nutritional quality of food, highest at the time of harvest, is rapidly depleted as hours and days pass while food is transported across states or countries. Sometimes it’s picked before it’s ready so as not to spoil by the time it makes its grocery debut, further limiting its healthful benefits. 

“So the fact that this food is so fresh, so freshly picked, and has not traveled a great distance to get to the market says something about how nutritionally dense it is and how beneficial it is,” Nelson said. “At an afternoon market like ours, this food has been picked this morning, or at worst yesterday. It really is so evident that fresh picked produce is so much more flavorful. That hooks folks.”

Farmers markets, with their variety of vendors offering similar but no-quite-the-same produce, let people try food grown by different people, in different ways, before deciding on their favorites. 

“They really get to distinguish between food grown by one farmer or another,” Nelson said. She raves about Urbandale Farm’s spicy lettuce and spinach (“It’s just phenomenal.”), grown on nearby Hayford Street. 

So ask farmers when they harvested their produce, and what that means. 

“And try a lot of things,” Nelson added. “Educate your pallet.” 

“How much is this?”

Yes, we can still ask this. Price, of course, remains a relevant and important question — but it’s not the only one. There’s quality to consider, and supporting healthy growing practices and the local economy. There’s also the need to acknowledge the incredibly hard work of the farmers, recognizing that they’re at the market to make a living, too. 

Kastner said that while people are definitely price-conscious, he’s seen a transformation in consumer awareness since Hillcrest Farms first started with markets four years ago. 

“It started out being all about price,” he said. “People would come to the market trying to whittle you down on price, pointing out a spot on a bell pepper. But now they’re not so much looking for the best dollar buy — they’re looking for the best buy, which means quality.”

When farmers work all season to grow produce without chemical pesticides, customers should be prepared for a brown spot here and there, or a wilted leaf, rather than using it as an excuse to knock down the price. Perfect-looking produce often comes with synthetic inputs that harm the environment and human health. 

“It’s important that people support local growers who are doing it right,” Kastner said. “And when they have a kind word, well that just makes you want to get up in the morning.”

But nevertheless, times are tough and pocketbooks are tight, so local farmers markets are working hard to make food accessible and affordable. The Allen Street Farmers Market was the first in the state to accept food stamps, and now there are about 80 across Michigan. 

“Every liquor store on East Kalamazoo takes food stamps,” Nelson said. “So we thought, why can’t our little nonprofit?”

Many local farmers markets accept Bridge Cards as well as debit and credit cards and participate in other unique programs like WIC Project Fresh (for low-income residents) and Market FRESH (for senior residents). This is also the final year that the Double Up Food Bucks program will be accepted at some markets, but there’s hope that this will continue. 

These innovative solutions help customers as well as farmers. 

“It makes total economic sense for farmers,” Nelson said. “Our farmers love the fact that we accept so many kinds of plastic.”

Questions today, relationships tomorrow

Farmers markets are fostering education, awareness and connection on both sides. “I’ve never been to a market where I didn’t learn at least one thing, and it doesn’t have to be about growing,” Kastner said. 

The McMasters send Christmas cards to their customers. Their regulars come in to see them every week, exchanging tidbits about what they grew or cooked that week. “Remember that one couple we had?” Sue McMaster said to her husband behind their table at the Meridian Farmers Market. “They were students, and they’d buy blueberries from us in the morning, and by the afternoon they were back giving us muffins. So yeah, the relationships are pretty fantastic.”

“We have so many ways to get food in this country,” Johns said. “But farmers markets are really a special relationship, and some customers really work hard at making those relationships happen. So ask the questions, participate in small-scale agriculture and support the things that make the world a more diverse place.”

Top ten questions to ask your farmer:

1. What is this? 

2. What does it taste like?

3. How do you prepare this? 

4. Do you have any recipes?

5. Did you grow this?

6. How did you grow this? What kind of practices do you use?

7. How do you manage pests? 

8. How do you maintain or add fertility to your soil?

9. When was this harvested?

10. Where is your farm? Could I come and visit it?

*Note — Ask a couple of questions a week; be mindful of farmers’ time and if there are other customers around!

What to do with…Sorrel
“Sorrel is a lemony flavored herb/green related to rhubarb. Traditionally it is used in sorrel soup, which is sorrel pureed in broth with heavy cream (and sometimes mashed potatoes) added. It can be garnished with many things including chopped hard-boiled eggs. One of my customers suggested I pass on to others the idea of goat cheese on a slice of beet, wrapped in a sorrel leaf.  Sounds delicious to me. I´ve learned some of the most useful and creative things from my customers.” –Marjorie Johns, Stone Cloud Gardens

Rhubarb Strawberry Pie
1¼  cup sugar
¼ cup flour
¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg
3 cups diced Michigan rhubarb
2 cups fresh Michigan strawberries, sliced
Pastry for a double crust pie
1 tablespoon butter
Combine sugar, flour and nutmeg. Add rhubarb and strawberries. Mix gently and let stand 10-15 minutes to blend flavors. Pour mixture into an unbaked 9-inch pie shell. Dot with butter. Cover with top crust. Cut slits into the top crust. Seal and flute edges of pie crust. Bake at 350 degrees for 45-50 minutes until fruit bubbles and pie is golden. 

Rhubarb Preserves
5 cups finely chopped rhubarb
4 cups sugar
3 oz. package red gelatin
Mix rhubarb and sugar and let stand to form its own juice. Bring to a boil and boil approximately 10 minutes or until rhubarb falls apart. Remove from heat. Add gelatin and stir well. Put in freezer containers and freeze. 

Ginger Roasted Parsnips
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 ¼ pounds small parsnips, peeled and quartered
1 ½ tablespoons minced fresh ginger
Salt and pepper
Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Pour the olive oil into a 9-by-13-inch baking dish. Add parsnips and ginger, season with salt and pepper and toss to coat. Cover with foil and bake for 40 minutes, until the parsnips are tender. Serve right away.