A Conservative's Case for Farmers' Markets

Every Thursday evening at around 7 p.m., I begin checking outside my side door to see if the elves have made their delivery yet.

It's quite amazing: At one moment the brick stoop is empty. In the next, a rustic white-painted wooden box with a black lid sits waiting for me to bring it in to the kitchen.

I open it with an unfailing sense of awe and wonder. During the previous week, the elves have been traveling all over the countryside, seeking out the freshest and most delicious things to eat. This night's offering: some fantastically colored carrots, purple and yellow along with the more familiar orange; filets of local wild flounder, packed in ice; two young chickens, frozen. Under these lie a paper sack of all-purpose flour tied with twine; two tubs of hand-churned butter; a brown bag containing handsome-looking green beans; a scattering of full broccoli heads; and a carton of eggs.

My excitement amuses my children. Jeez mom it's just a box of groceries. I examine the carrots. Compared to their ordinary supermarket cousins, they look truly odd: Aside from the strange colors, they are gnarly and thin -- or wait, here's one that is bulgy and fat. I rinse and taste it over the sink -- sweet, earthy, crunchy-the flavor you think a carrot ought to have but never does. I offer a sample to our small carrot expert: she agrees and eagerly asks for another.

There's less enthusiasm for the fish. No matter: When I cook the filets the next day for their Dad and me -- dusting the filets with flour, salt and pepper, and doing not much else to them except sautéing them in some butter -- they will taste meltingly fresh and tender. And as I put the two chickens away in the freezer -- weekend supper -- I explain to the kids that these chickens actually walked in a farmyard amongst other farm animals in real daylight. (When I get around to roasting them, my husband will be impressed that the muscles attaching their legs to their body require vigorous carving to remove. They don't just fall apart. "Maybe they were doing walking lunges around the yard...?" he wonders.) The flour is unbleached and has been freshly ground in a mill, not a factory using a logo of a mill. And the eggs have come from the same kind of aforementioned chickens. I'm especially excited about the eggs. I'd tried my first fresh farm egg last summer, bought on vacation at a rural roadside stand: It was lighter in texture and color than a store-bought egg, and had much more flavor. Before then, I hadn't ever thought much about the taste of eggs or their degrees of egginess. I'd immediately scrambled another for my mother, with whom we were staying, and who was raised in small-town Australia. Her family had kept chickens in the backyard and...

"Oh my gosh, this tastes of my childhood!" she exclaimed before gobbling down the rest of the egg.

As I finish unpacking the box, I realize that I have actually stepped back into my mother's stories of a pre-refrigerated, pre-factory-farm world of food. She was born in 1935. Australia may have been a bit behind the modern curve by urban American standards of the time, but not by much. She remembers waking up from nightmares to the reassuring, early morning clip clop of the milkman's horse. Like my little farm box, the fresh bottles were left by the side door and the empties removed (or what we now call "recycled"). You had an "icebox" not a fridge or freezer -- something like the ancestor of the Coleman cooler. If a fruit or vegetable wasn't in season you didn't eat it unless it came in a can. Chickens were -- as my mother learned -- like house pets you put down less sentimentally than the family dog, and then ate. Beef was universally grass-fed and free-range; agricultural scientists hadn't yet figured out that it would be more efficient and cost-effective to pen thousands of them together, stuff them full of corn and hormones, and let them marinate in their own manure for a few months before grinding them up into mass-produced hamburgers.

I don't want to sentimentalize this period, obviously. And nor would my mother. In a time when cheap cuts of meat were less plentiful than they are today, she and her siblings were never allowed to leave the table until they had choked down their last piece of heart/kidney/liver or worse, rubbery tripe. There are vegetables to this day I can't persuade her to eat -- squash, for example -- because it was served to her as a canned watery mush when she was a child.

My farm box

And yet -- as I wash and put the box's contents away -- I'm struck by how much of what we are calling today the "farm-to-table" movement is really just a modern re-imagining, or re-invention, of a less industrialized time. The elves (okay full-disclosure: they are not really elves) who deliver my weekly container work for a nascent web-based company, Arganica Food Club. Like dozens of similar companies now popping up around the country, Arganica organizes food from regional farms for city-dweller consumption. Every Sunday I am sent an email with a spreadsheet attachment that lists the coming week's offerings. Most of it is seasonal produce and locally raised meat, but amongst the suppliers are also artisanal dip -- and cracker- makers, bakers, pasta impresarios, and even pre-fab homecooked meals for the time-pressed. I check off what I want, email it back, and then the order appears on my doorstep a few days later.

These companies are a natural progression from the now ubiquitous urban Farmer's Market: instead of waiting for the weekend -- or whatever day of the week is officially declared Market Day -- I can have the farmer's market brought to me. Not that I don't like going to the Farmer's Market -- there are still some products I can get only there that I can't get online (a local guy makes pastas and sauces that are to die for; ditto another stall that sells delicious cured meats). But essentially Arganica and others are doing what even Whole Foods is now too big to do: deliver truly fresh, truly local, truly organic foods that still taste of the place they were grown in.

In that sense we have reached maybe the perfect juncture of old and new: We have the technological abilities (read: modern refrigeration, appliances and online shopping) to achieve the maximum benefit -- and enjoyment -- from locally grown, fresh food. And the increasing awareness of this type of food's health benefits have led to a growing consumer demand, one that small companies such as Arganica are scrambling to meet.

But maybe the biggest remaining hurdle fresh food advocates face is the pervasive perception that to eat locally and healthily is somehow "elitist" -- not to mention more costly and time-consuming than buying fast or processed meals. The minute you purchase an organic apple, you are suddenly lumped among NPR-listening, NYT's crossword-puzzle-doing, out-of-touch-with-the-common-man liberals. As a conservative -- in the robust, Teddy Roosevelt tradition -- I am perpetually gobsmacked to find myself on the side of the political fence with people who are enraged that Michelle Obama is trying to introduce healthy foods into public schools -- or insist that the right to be obese and eat junk food can be found somewhere in the Constitution. When you think about it, these arguments against preparing meals from scratch are nonsense.

Often an example given is the McDonald's $1 meal, which we are assured is essential to low-income budgets: Imagine a single mother hauling her children in for breakfast before school drop-off, on her way to work. No food prep needed during the morning madness when she's trying to get the kids dressed and ready to leave. If she has two kids, she spends only $3 (plus tax) on breakfast for the whole family.

Now compare the price of the $1 meal -- along with its zero-nutritional value and the future health problems it's going to create -- to a box of Cheerios ("Honey Nut" if you prefer the sweet version). An 18-oz box costs approximately $3.00 at a chain supermarket. One box contains approximately 17 servings-which works out to about 18-cents per serving, not including milk. So add in a 1/2 cup of milk -- priced at an average of $4 per gallon -- and that comes to an additional 12-cents per serving, or 30-cents total per breakfast. The "prep time" to pour cereal and milk (presuming the kids can't do it themselves?) surely amounts to less time than it takes to go to a restaurant, stand in line, and pay for the meal. And less money as well when you factor in gas or transportation costs to the restaurant. I could do the same exercise with lunch or dinner.

Then there's the "time and convenience" excuse. We are told that working parents these days are too busy to cook. And even if they have a spare moment or two, they are certainly too exhausted to prepare a meal

But this argument too doesn't hold up after a few minutes thought: Maybe never in the course of human history has a society had "more time" than ours to prepare and eat food. And yes, I'm including working single mothers and "dual-income earning" families here. It wasn't so long ago that you couldn't eat a meal without lighting a stove -- with firewood or coal. And back then, it was common for everyone in the household to work and do chores, including children. There were no microwaves, no electric stoves, no refrigerators, no food processors, no convenience stores or supermarkets. Every single item of food had to be cleaned and prepped from scratch using manual tools. The day ended with lightfall, so you'd better have it all done by then. And even with the advent of better technology and lighting, I don't think an Edwardian or Depression-era household -- or a 1950s housewife for that matter -- enjoyed "more time" than we do today. The sheer easiness and convenience of modern life has simply allowed us to busy ourselves in different ways, liberated from the once all-consuming daily tasks of domesticity. And thus we have drifted away from learning very basic, useful household skills.

So while it may seem easier to order in a pizza, or zap a pre-fab mini-meal in the microwave, it's not really so. How much extra effort does it really take to get together a bowl of salad (especially given that lettuces now come pre-mixed and pre-washed)? Or boil fresh beans and toss them with some salt, oil and lemon? Or, as I noted with the fish filet, dust it with some flour and seasoning and fry it or broil it for a minute or two? You can do the same with simple cuts of chicken and beef. Or put on a pot of pasta and in the space of time it's cooking whip up very simple homemade sauce. There's an app for that.

Then do the economics for dividing the costs of the fresh ingredients among three or four people -- for most dishes I doubt it will come out to much more than a large take-out Domino's pizza.

The problem is that we've persuaded ourselves -- as we surf the Internet, download movies, check our email and play games on our phones -- that preparing food from scratch is as awesome and time-consuming as knitting our own sweaters. Who would even bother to do that? It's true that planning fresh meals does take a certain amount of ingenuity and creativity to avoid repetition -- more so than cruising the prepared food aisle or ordering the number 4 with Diet Coke, thanks. And yet, that's what makes the emerging farm-to-doorstep market so exciting -- and in the end, so easy.

By putting the farm order forms online, you can order your groceries at your convenience --and also have the time to brood over the choices as you check your email or quickly Google search a recipe. Arganica, like other sites, even posts fast recipes for that week's seasonal harvest. When the food arrives, you've already thought the meals through. And now you don't need to go to the supermarket for several days. What's more, everything you make will taste delicious. Anyone who has grown even so little as a cherry tomato on their patio knows the difference between the fresh-plucked juicy version versus the red cannonballs that fill supermarket bins in January.

I'm wondering, then, if farm marketers haven't made a mistake by focusing on the homey, nostalgic aesthetic of another era. At a certain level it makes sense: that customers receive their weekly deliveries hand-packed in wooden crates and paper sacks is a powerful psychological sales tool against the shiny, shrink-wrapped products of mass-produced food.

But I wonder if a better economic strategy wouldn't be to package fresh farm products in a more contemporary way. Americans are innately forward-looking. They want the next good thing, not the good thing of 30 years ago. I'm sure there's a way to box the food in a "green" container that looks hip and urban -- a hint of retro, but not too much. Like the funkily patterned, reusable shopping bags now on sale everywhere -- or even something in a smartphone aesthetic: What would an app for a farm-to-table delivery service look like? Go from there.

Now excuse me while I go trim that broccoli for tonight's dinner.

This article is cross-posted at FrumForum.