A few days ago, in London, I was strolling along a nondescript stretch of pavement, in the direction of a farmers’ market, when I hit my head on the branch of a tree. It was one of those collisions where you find yourself poking at the point of contact in expectation of blood and other subcutaneous leakage, but, in my case, the blow had been lessened by the knitted hat that I was wearing. Winter’s descent, and the necessary adjustments to clothing, had saved me. Or so I thought.
Feeling fit enough to press on, I continued towards my destination. And what follows are the observations that I made once I got there.
First, on a macro level, the organization of the market, to use a polite term, was higgledy-piggledy. Illustrating this assertion with an example run of stalls, the order went: a vegetable seller, then a stall with fruit preserves, then another with veg, then someone selling nuts, and then one with both fruit and veg as well as chutneys. If, instead, the market’s overseer had restricted sellers to one kind of good and sectioned off stalls accordingly—or, better still, if they had limited the market to a single vendor per produce type—then the shopping experience would have had a much more professional feel.
Next, the choice of available goods, to maintain my gentle choice of language, was inconsistent. I made my initial pass of the stalls as flakes of snow began to fall, and I could see, for instance, that while there were at least four different varieties of kale on offer, and three sorts of carrot, there was not one kind of melon, or mango, or grape. If these markets really wanted to offer genuine competition to supermarkets, they would have to work harder on diversification.
After this reconnaissance, I settled on a first stall to approach. The vendor had some shiitakes on display, and, despite the gloom of my initial impressions, I had to admit that they looked rather attractive. I asked him where he kept the plastic-wrapped boxes of these mushrooms, twisting my neck around and down to hint at the ground below the table as a possible location. “Oh no,” he said with a look that puzzled me, “you just help yourself, and I’ll weigh them.” He pointed at a pile of brown paper bags, and I backed away slowly.
I was surprised by the cumbersome approach—when everything could instead be pre-packaged and pre-weighed—but it did offer an explanation for why there were queues at almost all of the stalls. For, as I looked around me, I could see that the large majority of available goods were being sold loose. Even the eggs were not pre-boxed; instead, customers were transferring them, one by one, into old cartons that they had brought with them.
Inefficient was a designation that could be applied to the whole market, and I began to discover another reason for the affliction. The conversations between buyers and sellers extended far beyond the necessities of desired items and quantities. Customers were asking questions like: How many miles away is your farm? What’s the best way to cook this variety of potato? Is everything here organically grown? I had to resist an organically growing urge to butt into these exchanges and ask the customer if they had heard of the internet.
There was one discussion in particular that pushed my resolve to the limit. The customer had somehow got onto the culinary uses of stinging nettles (something that, clearly, nobody was selling). The vendor must have been both polite and good at acting, as she was thoroughly convincing in her efforts to look captivated by this bizarre conversational turn.
At another stall, I witnessed two customers sharing recipe ideas with each other, even though they seemed to be strangers. This type of thing only served to exacerbate the inefficiency of the shopping process.
Conscious that I had become distracted by all the conversations going on, I strove to refocus on my purpose for being there: obtaining food. As I looked around, however, I could see that sellers were beginning to run low on some items. That underscored the poor organization of the whole business. If these people had had any commercial acumen, they would have known to bring more than enough of each good to avoid this kind of thing happening.
In what proved to be my final effort to buy something, I approached a fruit stall. Since other customers seemed happy to obstruct the flow, I felt entitled to pose a question of my own to the man behind the table. And so I asked if the lack of watermelons was a result of them having sold out. I never got an answer, however. Someone nearby must have said something funny at the same time, as the fruit seller did not reply to me but instead let out a long deep laugh.
Feeling that I must at last purchase something, I reached for an organic apple juice. Out of a habit formed at those wonderfully efficient automatic supermarket tills, I turned the glass bottle around in search of a barcode, but all I could see on the back was a hand-scrawled note.
“You can return the empty for twenty pence off your next one,” the man said, as I tried to make sense of the writing. “But you’ll need to drink this in the next few days, as this isn’t pasteurized. Is that okay?”
And with that I was done. I left the bottle on the table, turned on my heels, and began the cold walk home. Once I got there, I downloaded an app that showcased a much more impressive achievement of humanity. With it, I could get any grocery item I wanted delivered to my front door in a matter of minutes.
Later, I realized that the blow to my head had not been entirely benign. For one thing, it had deprived me of what limited wit I had, forcing me down into a literary gutter where the only form of expression available was a crude strain of irony. For this I can only apologize.
Now for the serious point to all of this, which is that while the future holds uncertainty, and may at times leave us feeling anxious or in outright despair, there are plenty of good things to be enjoyed in striving to be more ecologically sound in the way we go about our lives. One of these—to borrow a term from my above alter ego—is the shopping experience at a farmers’ market.
My experience in Britain is that farmers’ markets are on the rise, and this is mirrored in data from the US, but I’m aware that not everyone has easy access to one. Equally, I know that some people will find them too much of a stretch financially. (The cheaper alternatives are only cheaper, of course, through exploitation of people and planet, which makes for a grimly vicious cycle.)
Those of us who do have the good fortune to be able to frequent these wonderful venues can be grateful for the thrill of wandering among the creatively laid-out stalls, the ease with which one can buy seasonal produce, the satisfaction of avoiding plastic packaging and reducing food waste (not least through the selling of ‘wonky’ fruit and veg), the excitement of finding varieties that never see a supermarket shelf, the pleasure of slow shopping (to set up slow cooking and slow eating), the contentment from knowing that you are helping growers and producers achieve economic stability, the joy of being part of a community and sharing a moment with a fellow human being—be they the person who picked the crop or a stranger who wants to talk about stinging nettles*—and, of course, the opportunity to buy fresh, unpasteurized, organic apple juice in a returnable bottle with a hand-written label.
*The person at a market most eager to talk about stinging nettles is usually me.
Read ‘Inconveniences at the farmers’ market’, by Joe Gray, on the #EarthTongues blogTweet