By Jess Piskor
Traverse City Record-Eagle
---- — I set up at the Sara Hardy Farmers Market last June with a table full to bursting with peas, carrots, beets, chard, kale, spinach, salad mix and green onions. The stalls were bustling, the sun was out, I had a cup of coffee —the recipe for a perfect market.
Customers quizzed me on how to cook beets (they’re great on the grill) and how the weather was affecting my crops (things were awfully dry). I visited with other farmers and we swapped stories about the latest bug infestation and the progress of our tomatoes. I was having a great day.
What I didn’t count on were the onions. Two tables down, another vendor had the biggest, hugest, most perfect onions I’d ever seen. I mean these were softball-size sweet onions. The kind you could slice up and use to play ring toss. And at 50 cents each, they were darn cheap, too.
Unfortunately, there was no way those onions were grown in Michigan. Big onions like those are day-length sensitive. That means they don’t size up until the days start to shorten toward fall. Even after they are harvested, they need to sit for a couple of weeks in order to develop their dry, papery skin.
They were too perfect to have been stored from the year before and it was way too early in the season for them to be fresh. I asked the vendor and her story kept changing. I was left with the sinking suspicion that this vendor was just going down state, buying commodity onions from warehouses and repackaging them as farm-fresh local food.
As someone who makes his living growing and selling food in this region, it hurts me when people misrepresent what they sell. It hurts my bottom line, it is dishonest to customers, it sends money downstate to food wholesalers and it breaks the link between farmer and eater that our markets should cherish.
Most importantly, it does a disservice to all the farmers in this region who can and do fill your market bags each week with healthful, delicious food.
If you want cheap food trucked in from down state and around the country there are plenty of places in town to get it. Your local farmers market should be the place you can count on for food grown right here by people you trust. That’s why I am delighted that the Downtown Development Authority is working to crack down on the vendors who act as middlemen for faceless, unaccountable agribusinesses.
I’m proud that our region is blessed with so many great farmers who, in spite of the cold spring, are growing food for you. We’re all loaded with plenty of spring crops — you just might have to wait until July for those giant onions.
About the author: Jess Piskor is co-owner of Bare Knuckle Farm in Northport, where he has grown and sold produce for the last four years.
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