When I moved to Brooklyn from Seattle a few years ago, I considered myself fortunate for the opportunity to experience a big city. And while I’ve always cared about where my food comes from, at least as an adult, I never considered how a dense city manages its food supply before moving there. I was in awe of the every day farmers markets that feature fresh goods from upstate and how they sit alongside plastic bodegas that light up urban streets 24/7.
Upon arrival, I eschewed my professional experience in technology in favor of a job slinging high quality duck at one of the world’s most beloved farmers markets. I gave up my Friday nights and a fat paycheck in favor of early Saturday mornings and good, local food. With every market, and more duck sold, I began to see a clearer connection between farm and city, a justification for all those gas miles that farmers burn for a premium dollar on their goods. I eventually noticed some gaps in the system as well.
When you shop at a grocery store, there’s a section for produce and another for jam; a section for meat and another for soup. You see fruits on one aisle, veggies down the row; pretty jars of sweet and savory condiments half the store away. Meat is cut into amorphous chunks, wrapped in seemingly sterile packaging, and broths are found in room temperature boxes, sitting on shelves next to the Campbell’s Soup display.
At a farmers market, however, one stand might display heirloom apples in autumn alongside berry jams—an offering preserved from a late summer harvest. A rotational livestock farmer might have fresh pasture-raised chickens next to frozen grass-fed beef, eggs in limited supply and smoked beef bones as dog treats—the availability and presentation depending on the season. The connection between fresh and preserved is striking at markets, even though every category might not be represented. But why?
As our global food supply decreases and our cost of living increases, farmers are especially hard-pressed to make the most of their land and harvests. The USDA acknowledges that “today's farmers are exploring new enterprises for diversification or considering alternative marketing strategies that increase a customer's perceived value of existing agricultural products.” In other words, farms are trying to make use of every part of every thing they produce—either through means of sustainable permaculture or value-added products.
When it comes to efficiency, it makes sense for a farmer to find a use for everything they produce. But a farm is an already complex system that requires early hours and lots of manpower. Adding enterprises can cost a lot and introduce administrative challenges. Farmers are interested in maximizing their harvests, but they rarely have the time, facility and resources to do so.
While there are more than edible ways to make use of a farm’s harvest, food products might be the most direct way of adding value back to the land. Given the down economy, consumers are eating out less and cooking in more. They are also demanding simpler foods and transparent labels. The specialty food market has seen significant growth in recent years, and small brands are emerging as leaders in sustainability. Professionals are leaving their day jobs and devoting themselves to an artisanal trade. Even Brooklyn, as a brand of its own, is becoming associated with makers of farm-fresh products—from pickles and salsa to cheese and soups.
When I worked at the market, I asked farmers about their practices and inquired about what they had (or didn’t have) to offer the consumer. What was waste to some was gold to me—such as bones from livestock farmers and spent grain from beer makers. These conversations ignited an interest in understanding the intricate nature of farming and gave me a greater appreciation for the challenges that small farmers face today. I’m one of those professionals who turned to an artisanal trade, offering a staple to farmer and consumer that gives back to the land, and it’s been a very satisfying journey.
If you’ve ever been to Europe, you’ve seen the bounty of food products that pave the path back to farmers markets. There are cracked olives specific to a province of Southern Italy; bitter orange blossom water that is made with such care to be present on the nose and absent on the palate; marmalades crafted from citrus that is too fragile to ever leave its home. There, products are seen as a means of preserving heritage, and programs like Slow Food Presidia are dedicated to the cause.
We’re seeing a similar trend in America as well. We begin to look back to our food system as a source of sustenance and sustainability. The family meal has returned as a part of our collective dialogue, even though the hours in a work week continue to rise. The value of knowing where your food comes from is becoming synonymous with knowing your farmer. And food artisans are helping to honor the source as a means to personal satisfaction and social responsibility.