Baltimore’s downtown Sunday farmers market opens on May 2, so it’s a good time to discuss fresh and local.
One of my favorite parts of summer is strolling around the farmers market with a wack-a-doo falafel sandwich from the sandwich guys in one hand, picking out my fruits and veggies, meats and dairies for the week. I like getting shallots with dirt on them from Calvert farm; and eggs with bits of feather and straw still clinging to the shell from Springfield farms. I like the pork guys, with their coolers full of humanely raised and slaughtered pig parts and the pictures of their pigs rooting around in a field somewhere. This makes me feel virtuously in touch with where my food came from. I like to know that I'm buying the freshest and the best organic produce I can, and that I'm supporting small, local farmers with my hard earned, crumpled $20 bills.
But am I? A stroll down the aisles of the Waverly farmers market this past weekend would lead you to believe that tomatoes, oranges, celery, cantaloupes and broccoli are in season here in Maryland at the end of April. They’re not. This article explains how out-of-state, or even foreign, produce winds up at the local farmers markets and what to look for if you want to avoid it. For grocery list planning, here's a quick cheat sheet of what's actually in season in Maryland in April and May. Short answer: not much.
According to the official Maryland government information website, the only things that are in season in the state right now are spinach and strawberries. This is yet another reason not to trust the government. You can reasonably expect local farmers to have in the coming weeks:
Arugula, asparagus, chard, fiddleheads, garlic scapes, green onions, herbs, Micro-greens, mushrooms, New potatoes, parsnips, pea greens, radishes, rhubarb, and spinach.
If that doesn't seem like much variety, it isn't. You can find some local produce left over from the winter: certain varieties of apples and root vegetables are cultivated for their ability to withstand storage. If you see some gnarly, ugly potatoes that look like they spent several months in a fridge, they're probably local. With greenhouse technology, it's possible to bring soon-to-be-in-season produce to the market early; you might even see a few, very early, greenhouse cultivated tomatoes in May, but chances are the tomatoes are trucked in from somewhere far south. And what is the harm in eating a tomato from Florida, California, or Guatemala? Well, it will be about as tasty as those rubbery Romas you can get at Giant food year round; it will probably be sprayed with the same gases and pesticides; and for every calorie of energy it provides you, it took up to 10 calories of fuel to get it to your pie hole. Really, the only upside is you're supporting small business, whether it's a farmer who's trying to make a living in a lean season, or a middle man trying for the same thing.
For more information on seasonal produce and how crops grow; good, healthy recipes; and general lifestyle porn for anyone with back-to-the-land fantasies, take a browse through this website, and read the book too. It will inspire you to buy all kinds of edible seedlings and try to have a farm on your tiny, north facing deck. Halfway through the summer, when your herbs and greens have bolted and your tomatoes are half eaten by rats and you're tired of watering your pots twice a day you'll give up and head back to the farmers market for some Guatemalan watermelon, but you'll feel very accomplished through June, at least.