The popularity of locally sourced foods in restaurants and home kitchens has had a resurgence in recent years. Two of my great-grandfathers were farmers, but the profession has dwindled and changed in later generations. Today, despite the trend of farmers markets in many communities across our home state of North Carolina and the South, concerns remain about access to fresh food and affordability.
For quite a while now, I’ve wanted to visit a local farmers market, spend a set amount on a variety of fresh foods and then see how far they stretch to make meals sourced entirely from products grown or made within an hour or so of our home. My wife Molly and I do a lot of cooking at home, and we often buy local honey and receive summertime gifts from the gardens of family members and friends. But it was a foreign concept for us to use a nearby farmers market for a grocery store. We wanted to change that—at least once, if not more frequently.
After a long period of considering our options, we decided to visit the Gastonia Farmers Market in our native Gaston County, North Carolina. While it’s only a half hour outside of Charlotte, the 17th largest city in the United States, Gastonia’s market offers products from farmers and other food producers from much smaller corners of our greater community, including neighboring counties.
We visited the market on a weekday. Most markets in our region offer their largest variety on a Saturday, but many set up midweek markets with a portion of their vendors present. We actually wanted to see the market on one of these lighter days.
I considered this farmers market exploration a fun experiment of sorts, one in which I wanted to see how far a dollar can go in buying local food and how far that food goes to make actual meals. Here’s what Molly and I found.
WHAT DID WE SPEND?
Many farmers markets offer tokens to customers who don’t bring cash. We swiped our card for $40 in the front market office and received eight $5 tokens for trade at vendor tables. We found that many of the vendors would give cash back for change, even if we were giving them a wooden token as payment. Why did we choose $40? Well, $20, like we might pull from an ATM, seemed a logical choice. But I wanted to make sure we had enough money in our hands to purchase a wide variety of food.
WHAT DOES THAT BUY?
At the end of our shopping experience, we left the market with:
- two pounds of pork chops from Tony Pasour & Girls in Bessemer City
- a loaf of locally baked sourdough bread from Tony Pasour & Girls in Bessemer City
- a 16-ounce jar of local honey from Hoyle Farms in Toluca
- a half pound of okra from a nearby Rock Hill, S.C. farm
- a pound of squash and cucumber from a Gastonia grower
- six ears of corn from the Rock Hill farm
- a quart of strawberries from Lineberger Farms in Dallas
- a dozen large brown eggs from a home near Crowders and Kings mountains.
We also still had $2.25 in change in our pockets. And change is always good!
We attempted to visit as many vendors as possible, and while we purchased an item or two from a half dozen separate producers, we still bought products from fewer than half of those present at the market.
WHAT WERE THE VENDORS LIKE?
In a word: delightful. We enjoyed talking to several of the kind people who were selling their products at the market that morning. The woman from whom we purchased our eggs told us how she loves to live in the country near a mountain. Another woman who sold us the bread and pork chops told us we made great choices and picked the sourdough loaf she would have chosen. A fruit vendor helped us decide whether we wanted peaches or strawberries for baking.
Each booth offered something unique and valuable. It was a special feeling to connect what we would eat with where it came from. It was also somehow comforting to see a lack of uniformity in products. Every egg wasn’t the same size, and the loaf of bread didn’t look factory produced. Machines didn’t sort, process and enhance these foods. They came straight from people, and we liked that.
HOW MANY MEALS DID OUR TRIP MAKE?
Well, we’re still eating food from our farmers market shopping excursion.
That same day we made a brunch, each enjoying two flavorful fried eggs, toasted bread with local honey and fresh diced strawberries.
In the evening, I marinated, seared and baked our pork chops—two pounds meant four large chops—and I cut corn from the cobs to make a small pot of fresh creamed, needing no sweetener besides the “milk” raked from the cobs into the pot. I also sliced and breaded okra, dredging the pieces in a local egg and then in cornmeal we’d been previously gifted from another local county, and I fried them in a cast-iron pan. And I sautéed a couple of the fresh squash as another side. We enjoyed a side of fresh bread with butter, too.
For dessert that night, I made one of my special original pie creations—strawberry crumb—with fresh berries we purchased that morning and homemade biscuit crusts.
And all of that was just on the first day!
We still had a half a loaf of bread for later, most of which I cubed, toasted and then enjoyed with Molly with oil, vinegar and herbs, like you often get at Greek and Italian restaurants as an appetizer.
We enjoyed two leftover pork chops. I used leftover corn to make a homemade cast-iron cornbread that was to die for and also used two local eggs. Molly fried the other two squash in pancake batter.
We also enjoyed our cucumber on a fresh dinner salad one evening. And a few leftover strawberries became sweet treats in two bowls of oats on separate mornings.
More than a week after our trip, half the okra, five of the eggs, two ears of corn and the majority of the jar of honey—which I’ve used multiple times to sweeten my morning oats in lieu of white sugar—remained.
So, by way of a long explanatory answer, I count no fewer than a half-dozen meals, with additional parts of meals, appetizers and treats.
WHAT DID WE LEARN FROM OUR FARMERS MARKET TRIP?
At least in our area, a farmers market is a fairly affordable option for families that want to shop, support and eat local. You might not get the cheapest deals possible on all of your food—yet you certainly don’t pay any more than you would for most items if you shop at the more expensive grocery chains.
But the prices at a farmers market include a special connection to farmers in your community, as well as the experience of eating food grown close to you. There’s a certain kinship in the present and connection to the traditions of the past that come in feeding yourself and your family from the bounty of a community farmers market. And those are comforting experiences that fed our hearts and minds just as much as our stomachs.
What about you? Do you shop regularly at a local farmers market? We’d love to hear about your experiences, your favorite products to buy and your tips and hacks for visiting a market and cooking with the food in your home kitchen! Comment on this post, email us, or share with us on our Facebook page.