My first visit to the Fredericton Farmers’ Market was peppered with rookie mistakes. “You’re going the wrong way,” said my companion under his breath, as I zig-zagged around the L-shaped indoor market. Clutching plastic bags filled with goat milk cheese, cured meats, sandy rainbow-hued vegetables and fresh apple cider, I cozied up to counter after counter, oblivious that everyone was slowly, and very politely, circulating counter-clockwise. “How can there be a wrong way?” I hissed back. “There just is,” he replied solemnly.
Farmers markets are the beating heart of many Atlantic Canadian communities, particularly in the summer and fall. But for all the magic of farmers markets, they can also be stressful and confusing, as under-caffeinated shoppers jockey for service, fumble with change and face piles of unfamiliar produce.
There are some basic tricks and tips shoppers can use to make their most of their market, says market-goer and Université de Moncton student Kevin Arsenault. He usually arrives at the Dieppe, N.B. market by 8 a.m. every week. “Early in the morning there are fewer people, and the merchants are just starting their day so they have more time to talk with you,” says Arsenault. “It’s more relaxed.”
Arsenault suggests bringing reusable bags to cut down on waste and keep purchases organized. I swear by a wide-mouthed leather-handled woven tote I bought at a market in France; heavy, sturdy items like cured meats, gallons of milk and hard cheeses go on the bottom, while delicate items like leafy greens and eggs nestle on top.
Following a routine and carefully observing the culture of a market can help the experience go smoothly. “You’ll get the most out of it if you’re looking for an experience,” says Arsenault. “If you see something you don’t know, farmers are usually really happy to give you some suggestions on how to cook it.”
For market lovers serious about supporting local farmers, community supported agriculture programs, or CSAs, are increasingly catching on. Through CSAs, farmers sell shares in their yearly crops and distribute the bounty through periodic deliveries or pickups. Getting cash upfront helps farmers fund their upcoming season and lends some protection in case of crop failure. It also means customers benefit from any surplus.
Last fall, Charlottetown resident and food blogger Barbara Mayhew spent one morning with Wilmot Valley organic farmers Jen and Derek Campbell as they distributed CSA allotments. “It was like Christmas in August,” says Mayhew with a laugh. “All the customers showed up with their coolers and reusable grocery bags. Jen would open up each box and with each customer she’d go through what was in the box. I had never heard of kohlrabi and now it’s my favourite new vegetable.”
Tegan Renner is the New Brunswick coordinator for the Atlantic Canadian Regional Organic Network (ACORN). While CSAs have been slow to hit the mainstream in Atlantic Canada, Renner says the number has doubled in the past three years. Nearly half of the 60 existing programs are in Nova Scotia, and the largest is Annapolis Valley’s Tap Root Farms with 400 members.
If a long-term commitment to an all-season CSA is too intimidating, Fredericton’s Real Food Connections and Bedeque’s Crystal Greens Farm offer weekly deliveries of boxes packed with seasonal produce.
Renner suggests picky eaters choose their program carefully. “Some CSAs grow more standard vegetables, but some might be a little more adventurous. So it’s good to know where you are on that scale,” she says.
One innovative model is a flexible Market Food Club program offered by Broadfork Farm in River Hébert, N.S. Customers pay for vegetables in $100 increments at the start of the season, and use that amount like a tab throughout the year. Every cash advance earns 5 per cent in extra veggies and the customer has total control over what foods they get and when.
The CSA model has also spawned similar buy-in programs for meat, fish and even baked goods. Last year at New Brunswick’s Gagetown Fruit Farm, owners Matthew Estabrooks and Heather Rhymes started “Adopt an Apple Tree.” For an early bird cost of $80, families could “reserve” any variety of tree and pick all its apples, with the farm guaranteeing at least 160 pounds per tree.
For seafood lovers willing to pay a premium for regionally caught and sustainable fish, Halifax-based Off the Hook community-supported fishery provides a similar buy-in system for line-caught haddock, hake, pollock and cod. Another unique community-supported model, says Renner, is the Whole-Grain Bakery on Prince Edward Island, which sells small and large 18-week shares in its community-supported bakery for $360 and $690.
This year, Renner is starting her own third season of membership with Wysmykal Farm, in Northport, N.S. For $400, Renner gets a half share, with a season that runs from June 1 to mid-December, as well as an extended season in which the farm offers preserves, including a “really awesome salsa verde.”
One challenge with CSAs can be an unexpected wave of vegetables arriving all at the same time. “The biggest thing for people who are new to a CSA is the overwhelming overload of vegetables,” says Renner. “Look at it not just as a week-to-week supply of food, but think about how you can use that supply to extend the availability of local food.”
But whether you’re buying from a CSA and preserving the bounty, or mixing and matching produce from a weekly market, there is one very thing I’ve learned since that fateful day walking the wrong way at Fredericton’s market: take a chance, pay attention and ask questions and soon you’ll be a pro.
Maximize your market
•Get there early
•Make a plan
•Bring reusable bags
•Ask farmers how to cook unfamiliar produce
•Experiment with one new product or vegetable every week
•Find a local CSA at www.acornorganic.org/csa