Farmers markets offer opportunity to buy, learn of local foods from those who grow them
Many people may be unaware of some of Rhode Island's most significant people: its farmers. The state has over 1,200 farms on more than 65,000 acres of farmland, which includes crops, pastures, woodlands and wetlands.
Farmers markets provide opportunity for citizens to connect with growers and buy local produce. Held each day of the week, many markets open in spring and run into autumn, while others are year-round. Available in all areas throughout the Rhode Island, markets provide the unique opportunity to talk to the people producing the food you buy and also gain sound advice on the benefits of shopping local.
Kathy Weber of Wedgewood Flowers, who runs a stand at the Pawtuxet Village Farmers Market, says when people shop there, or at other farmers markets, they get to purchase items that are in season, and they end up purchasing and eating more of them. She also speaks of the health benefits, saying, "If you eat vegetables grown in your area, it gives you nutrients you need. Our soil gives us what we need in our bodies, that's why it's better to buy vegetables from a farmers market than a grocery store."
The Pawtuxet Village Farmers' Market is in its 14th season and has close to 15 vendors who offer everything from fruit, a wide selection of vegetables, seafood, poultry, dairy, herbs, honey, flowers, specialty items and more. It is located at Rhodes Place and is open Saturdays from 9 to 12.
Also featured at the same farmers market is Cranston's chemical-free Blue Skys Farm, which is run by 11-year veteran Christina Debora. In addition to supporting the state's economy, she says shopping local is also beneficial as it supports our farmers, whereas a grocery store acts as a middleman between the distributor and buyer.
"It's also cutting down on the carbon footprint. You could buy spinach picked ten minutes ago, traveling 20 miles, as opposed to something traveling 1,000 miles," she says.
In addition, there are several items available at farmers markets, such as heirloom tomatoes, green zebra tomatoes and husk cherries that you don't find in stores because shelf life is too short. Some other items difficult to find in a store that are available locally are extra large leaf spinach and nettles, which is actually a weed people cook and eat and is also used to make herbal tea. Blue Skys does their harvesting mostly on Fridays, meaning the food is less than 24 hours old when available for sale Saturday, as opposed to a grocery store, where the items may be a week old.
Another benefit of buying fresh, local food is getting in touch with the variety that each season offers. Some of the fresh in-season foods in springtime include arugula, asparagus, collards, edible flowers, garlic, kale, lettuce, microgreens, mushrooms, onions, rhubarb and salad greens. Summertime offers even more variety with some of the aforementioned and also artichokes, Asian greens, beets, bok choi, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, carrots, cauliflower, chili peppers, corn, cucumbers, fava and green beans, blueberries, cherries, elderberries, raspberries and watermelon. Some varieties of food overlaps into other seasons, but fall is known for edamame, endive, escarole, horseradish, grapes, ground cherries, hardy kiwis and pumpkins, just to name a few. There are also wintertime farmers markets that numerous vendors participate in. Some of the many items available are various fruits, vegetables, baked goods, juices, salsa, preserves, teas and coffee. Some are grown throughout the year in greenhouses and some from extra storage. No matter the season, you'll get good conversation, recipes and other tips on how to prepare your food, and you may even want to purchase your own vegetable plant to take home and try growing yourself.
The importance of being able to speak with the people who grow or raise farm fresh food also has its advantages. It not only gives the opportunity to have questions asked and answered about specific food you may want to purchase, such as how it's processed, but also a certain trust develops between buyer and seller as each become more familiar with each other. Speaking with Nicolette Baffoni of Baffoni's Poultry Farm in Johnston, it's easy to see how that trust is established. Their belief in treating their cage-free animals humanely, feeding them a 100 percent vegetarian diet and commitment to providing the freshest farm-to-table food has not only earned their respect with customers but with the state as well. They are the state's only USDA on-site poultry slaughterhouse, allowing them to provide the freshest poultry around. Their impressive list of customers is long and includes the Warwick Country Club, Brick Alley Pub, Al Forno and the Providence Renaissance Hotel. You also find them at farmers markets and their own farm stand located at 324 Greenville Ave.
If you're traveling through Exeter, you may stumble upon farmers market vendor Linda Blaney of Mizpah Farm. Starting as a young farmer, she has been involved since 1980 in the farmers market movement.
“The public needed to be educated as far as where their food is coming from," she says. "That learning curve took a long time."
She helps operate the small vegetable farm that has the distinction of being the first licensed kelp farm in Rhode Island. Kelp, a type of seaweed, has high nutritional value, absorbs toxins in the body and helps flush out the system. It also contains essential vitamins, iodine and protein and is great for vegetarians and vegans. Her chowder recipe is featured in Edible Rhode Magazine and her products are also bought by local chefs.
It's important, she says, to buy kelp from the East Coast, as kelp from Asia (which isn't regulated), or the West Coast are exposed to pollutants that aren't in our area's kelp.
As for prices, farmers market items are pretty comparable to those in a supermarket, as farmers do need fair market value. Farmers work long hours throughout the year. Some of their duties behind the scenes are preparing land, nurturing and harvesting crops, planning, selling, taking care of poultry and livestock as well as machinery and equipment, and much more. The list is endless and is dependent on the type of farm in operation. By buying local, you get to know the farmer and the farm you are helping to support, and much of the money goes back into the farm, as opposed to a larger corporation.
Farm Fresh RI, a non-profit supporting the local food system, also provides resources for low-income families such as its Healthy Foods, Healthy Families program. It supports at-risk families through hands-on activities, samples, games, recipes and more. If you have immediate questions, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Peter Susi, Deputy Chief of the RI DEM/Division of Agriculture, said that DEM provides $230,000 in vouchers to seniors 60 years old and older beginning in July from senior centers throughout the state. He said three $5 vouchers are given to each senior, meaning more than 15,300 people are eligible to receive the benefit.
Twenty-dollar coupons, Susi said, are made available to WIC and SNAP recipients through the Department of Health. To learn more about farmers markets and the many Farm Fresh RI programs visit www.farmfreshri.org.