You can't possibly have missed the choruses of “Buy Local” coming from Portland’s business community. Buying goods from our immediate area has swollen from a good idea into a movement to make it a good habit for all Portland residents. But does our support count for much beyond our own feel-good? The obvious place to dig for answers is the weekly farmers’ market in Monument Square, happening every Wednesday.
The rainy entry into this season was still present on the minds of several vendors. “The past few weeks have been tough with all of the rain, but don’t forget, that’s how our season started, too. We’ve been getting it from both sides,” said one vendor, who asked to remain anonymous. The rain at the beginning of the season stunted the growth of her young plants, preventing them from maturing on their prescribed schedule. Her farm, south of Portland, got the worst of the weather this month, too, and it shows in her modest yield. “This is all of it right here; the rest have rotted on the plants, wet and muddy,” she lamented. What vegetables she did have boasted bright colors and flawless natural skin, though, without wax boosters like the ones at the grocery store. A check of the other vendors showed some of the most exquisite-looking fresh berries, beets, greens, and beans I had seen all season.
As she glanced to her neighbors at adjoining tables, the farmer noted that many of them have already done a second planting of lettuces, which, if they grow to maturity before the season ends, can make up for some of the losses of product and revenue. This woman opted out of a second planting, preferring a round of less-fussy flowers, for bouquets to sell.
Farmers' persistence is more apparent than ever. Regardless of economic woes, attendance is up at the markets, according to many of the participating farmers, and there is a wider selection of vendors and products than in past years. And, despite the struggles this season has presented for growers, their prices have not shot through the roof.
Shoppers at the markets and large grocery chains alike will notice that the cost difference between the price of local food and industrialized food has narrowed greatly. Gas prices and other shipping costs — as well as salmonella scares — with international and cross-country produce have taken their toll on suppliers and stores alike. Each recall diminishes the selection on the shelves, with price hikes following shortly for what remains.
Fans of local produce and markets are accustomed to paying slightly higher prices for their preference. Portland-area shoppers are savvy about issues like organic and biodynamic farming and non-toxic treatments. Supermarkets have responded, providing more locally-sourced organic options, at prices near parity with industrialized produce. Hannaford, for example, recently started labeling locally sourced produce with a "Close to Home" logo, and offering coupons and other discounts from time to time.
You still get a more gratifying experience at the farmers' markets, handing your money to the person who tended the plant that grew those stunningly red strawberries in your bag. And when the local stuff is of higher quality, without a higher price tag, then choosing local has become less of an elitist choice for a few and more of an obvious choice for everyone.
Todd Richard can be reached at email@example.com.