Farmers markets nurture curiosity, health of local consumers
For Sean Russell, it wasn’t necessarily culinary reputation or reputed health benefits that prompted him to pick up the goose egg at the Lake Saint Louis Farmers & Artists Market earlier this month. It was a sense of exploration.
“Honestly, because I’ve never had a goose egg before,” said Sean, who along with his wife, Kristin, and 3-year-old son, Leland, were walking through the market on Saturday, April 4, the opening day of a season that runs through October. “And that’s about it as far as that goes.”
The Russell family of O’Fallon have become regulars at the market since it opened in 2012. They and other consumers are being drawn to the markets, usually open on Saturday mornings, for a variety of reasons – a desire to support local farmers and be in touch with rural life, and to enjoy a community space where people can gather safely, to name a few.
But the main draw is the food – the perception that it’s healthier and tastier than the fare available at the local supermarket. It’s a movement that not only has its expression in farmers markets but in people tilling their own organic gardens or building chicken coops in suburban and city yards for the purpose of having fresh eggs.
“It’s the kids that did it,” said Sean.
“They made us look at what we were eating and what we were feeding them,” Kristin said. “We also like to cook.”
She added that it’s neat to talk face-to-face to the person growing your food.
Giving people what they want
“In general, people are getting a grip on the fact that you need to eat healthy in order to stay healthy – you are what you eat,” said Shelly Meyer, the vendor who sold the Russells the goose egg.
Beth Lavy, who raise Piedmontese cattle at her farm in Elsberry, Missouri, and sells meat at a number of farmers markets including Lake Saint Louis, said healthy food is a major concern of her customers. Piedmontese cattle are naturally lower in fat and cholesterol and higher in protein. They are fed a natural, healthy diet free of growth hormones.
“People are looking to get back to knowing the fact that there are no hormones, no steroids,” Lavy said. “They’re wanting to make sure that it’s humanely raised and treated – that’s a big factor in my customer base.”
Customers also want cattle that are not fed genetically modified crops, she added.
Then there is the curiosity factor.
The goose egg was twice to three times the size of a chicken egg.
Carefully placing the $3 egg in two Styrofoam coffee cups for the journey home, Meyer told Russell: “It makes a great omelet and is great in a cake, treat it just like you would the others.”
“Something you can add to your bucket list – you missed the peacock (egg),” she said.
Meyer, whose family started out selling exotic eggs, game birds and produce in the 1940s in Bridgeton, has about 50 acres in Montgomery County. She raises beef, pork, lamb and goats, along with assorted poultry that provide peacock and quail eggs along with the regular chicken variety – all of which she sells at the market. She also sells guinea and peacock feathers and other curiosities.
“Guess what this is,” she said, as an onlooker examined a small ragged piece of fur. “That is a white squirrel. That’s all the dog left me,” she said.
Her customers include people like the Russells “and a few hotsie-totsie restaurants.” Her farming operation isn’t big enough to sell goods to supermarket chains.
“We’re not fancy, we’re just good,” she said.
Dining on freshness
Farmers market wares are good – as in good-tasting and healthy – literally right off the vine vegetables as they come into season; eggs that are brown, not white; grass-fed beef, poultry, lamb and even goat meat; and baked cakes and bread using ingredients raised on the farm.
That taste and texture, that “ultimate freshness” said Chef Carl McCnnell, is a contributing factor responsible for a growth spurt in farmers markets and in locally produced food that has now made inroads on the shelves of large supermarket chains.
McConnell, who with his wife, Nancy, own and operate Stone Soup Cottage on the Wiese farm in Cottleville, said that an awareness of the locavore lifestyle has been abetted by a “food revolution” over several decades. Chronicled in the news media, books and by food programming on cable television, it has prompted a renewed interest in eating in season and supporting local producers.
At Stone Coup Cottage, the McConnells feature a small portioned, six-course meal made from seasonal and premium ingredients, much of which are grown outside the door of the restaurant. The menu changes every six weeks, seating is limited and there is often a wait for reservations – and prices don’t run cheap at $90 a person. The restaurant has been rated a perennial top 10 restaurant in the St. Louis area almost since it opened in 2009.
Having ingredients nearby for the picking makes sense on a very practical level, McConnell said. Ordering produce from, say, California takes time.
“Its four to six days from the picking date and it can start to disintegrate,” he explained.
Meyer said consumers have learned that flavor and freshness are allied.
“The quality of the product you will get from an animal taken care of by a small farmer is way different than the larger farms,” Meyer said. “You’re going to get way better produce.”
Meeting consumers where they live
Carl Saunders, who manages the Lake Saint Louis market and has a booth for his Yellow Dog Farm in Warrenton, said that local contact is a major selling point for the market.
“You can stand here and if you’re buying my asparagus or my garlic or Rusty’s sweet potatoes or something like that and if you have a question about how it’s grown, we’re here and we can answer it for you,” Saunders said of himself and other vendors.
The Lake Saint Louis market is a “producer-only market,” Saunders said.
“You’ve got to grow it, bake it, craft it or create it to be here,” he said. “You can’t go to produce row, buy a bunch of vegetables and bring it out here and try to pretend to be a farmer.”
The market, on The Meadows at Lake Saint Louis shopping center parking lot, is open from 8 a.m.-noon on Saturdays through Oct. 31. It also has some winter hours in January and February. Another major farmers market in St. Charles County is held in downtown St. Charles at the north end of Riverside Drive. The St. Charles market is open from 7 a.m.-noon on Saturdays, beginning from the middle of May to the end of October.
The farmers live mostly within 50 miles of the market, a consideration now in place in other markets such as the DeSoto Farmers Market, run by Debbie Campbell, who also is president of the Missouri Farmers Market Association. Too far a distance can work against a farmer’s ability to pick produce and get it to a market early in the morning, she said.
Saunders and Campbell said people know more now about when local vegetables are available.
“We come out here for opening day and we don’t get nearly as many people asking where the ripe tomatoes are,” Saunders said. “There are no ripe tomatoes in Missouri then – but we will have them.”
In spring, the first crops often are Swiss chard or salad greens, and then asparagus.
“It’s part of eating seasonally in Missouri,” Saunders said.
By this summer, Saunders expects more than 70 food vendors at the market. There is a waiting list.
What consumers can expect in the coming months includes sweet corn, those vine-ripened tomatoes, asparagus, watermelons and other melons, garlic, broccoli, cauliflower and lettuce. No avocados or oranges, but apples in the fall.
“There’s not a whole lot we can’t grow,” Saunders said.
The business end of farming
For farmers, a market is an inexpensive place to develop a business idea, often becoming small business incubators, said Campbell.
The producer captures the full value of the produce without middlemen, Saunders said.
Missouri is among the top 10 states in the number of farmers markets with 245 listed in the National Farmer’s Market Directory, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Sarah Alsager, a public information officer with the Missouri Department of Agriculture, said farmers markets have grown by 74 percent since 2008.
Another reason for that growth is that farmers don’t need a lot of land to produce crops and new farming techniques are extending growing seasons for some crops into the winter.
Ryan Smith, who with Chris Wimmer manages the Farm at Kraut Run in Wentzville, has about an acre of land in organic vegetable produce. That acre is intensively managed.
Along with vegetables, Kraut Run sells pork, eggs and even maple syrup.
“We kind of feel that the more variety that we have the more we will hang onto people because they will come to us for more of their groceries,” said Smith, who has a booth at the Lake Saint Louis market.
One challenge of farmers markets is that profits often lag behind the attractiveness of the markets. “This is supplemental income for nearly all of them,” said Campbell, whose Desoto Farmers Market has about 80 vendors.
“There’s a lot of interest but it’s very tough to get into and it’s not very lucrative,” Smith said.
He and Wimmer take a different approach, offering individuals and families a Community Supported Agriculture or CSA subscription program. The subscription entitles holders to a weekly selection of vegetables and allows them to visit the farm.
In addition to finding creative ways to turn a profit, farmers have to contend with different issues including meeting permit requirements for selling processed meat and poultry. Campbell said the Missouri Farmers Market Association has offered classes to help vendors work with consumers.
“You’ve got to want to be a people person to be out here,” Lavy said, because vendors often spend much of their time providing simple instructions on how to prepare the shiny new vegetables and grass-fed beef.
“People don’t have that kind of knowledge, they don’t understand,” Campbell said.
Lavy added, “I didn’t realize how many people are eating out as much as they are and not cooking.” Education, she said, becomes critical.
“I spend as much time sometimes telling someone how to cook something than selling them something to cook,” Lavy said.
But people want to be educated, Campbell said, and that education is often broader than how to cook a goose egg.
In addition to cooking lessons, Lavy said she often discusses the realities of farm life to people whose experience with the food chain is picking up a pound of wrapped hamburger from a supermarket freezer. Suburban children often don’t get a literal taste or smell of rural life or see it.
Zak Kniffe, of Lake Saint Louis, and and his wife, Valarie, have a membership at Kraut Run that lets them take their 4-year-old son, Alec, to the farm.
“I would say that the biggest benefit to us is that our son gets to see where it all comes from,” Zak said. “He’s learning so much; he gets to go to the farm, he gets to help with the chickens, and he gets to see what they’re growing throughout the year – and that education is priceless.”