Pasture poultry and breakfast burritos
By Ken Root
Editor’s note: Ken Root is taking the week off to enjoy springtime. He attended the first farmers market of the season last weekend. This column originally ran on May 15, 2007.
The farmers market season is underway again with some having record opening-day crowds this past Saturday, mostly due to the excellent weather. The visitors were as diverse as those attending a state fair with some looking for fun, some for food and others for fulfillment.
A farmers market, pure and simple, is an alternative to a supermarket. It has an eclectic nature with vendors offering the produce they grew this week or the crafts they made last winter. The food vendors beat them all with instant gratification from ethnic offerings that become a ritual for some visitors. In the Des Moines Downtown Market, which had an astonishing 30,000 people milling around this weekend, the breakfast burrito stand did a land office business. People waited in line for 10 to 20 minutes to get a concoction of eggs, meat, cheeses and sauce wrapped in a flour tortilla. Food origin: unknown. Calories: a lot. Price: $4.
Just down the street is a pop-up tent covering a square of tables that is selling pasture poultry and the products thereof. I grew up with a similar practice because we were too poor to feed or house our chickens so they just wandered in the yard and roosted in the barn where we’d dig around to find their eggs. The vendor is merchandising “flavor and freshness” of his eggs. He’s probably right on both counts: The flavor, due to the diet, is different than caged layers, and the eggs shouldn’t be more than a week old if he manages his inventory. He is a sincere young man who works days at a university and farms in his spare time. The interface with the customer is pure as both have a purpose in their transactions. Food origin: precisely identified. Calories: normal. Price: $3.
In two booths, people are buying two entirely different forms of satisfaction, both cleverly disguised as food. The breakfast burrito is fun fast food and the eggs are symbolic of the consumers’ need to control their environment. They are taking home a dream in a brown paper bag. They may be returning to their childhood or standing against commercialization, but they feel empowered to shell out cash for an alternative to traditional food production. This should concern commercial agricultural ventures, but at what level, I can’t determine. I think it should be a requirement for farmers and ranchers to sell for one season at a farmers market. Human nature is revealed on both sides of the table, and the final customer can be quantified in a way that delivering grain to an elevator, or selling a pen of steers at a stockyard, can never bring.
I find vendors who have a certain charm and who remember me. We carry on conversations about their growing conditions, the stage of the crop and what will be on their tables next week or next month. May and June are just the warm up months for vegetables and fruits in the Midwest. The real season of the farmers market comes at midsummer when the sweet corn comes in and the tomatoes bear fruit. At that point, the vendors don’t have to promise much about how it was raised, they just have to deliver an attractive display of fresh product. Within two hours the expert buyers have taken the best of their produce and they then try to sell out to the casual customers and the late comers.
It is an amazing little world of fantasy and reality. No one confronts vendors that a product is cheaper at Super Target or that their table is less attractive than the produce aisle at Hy-Vee. The shoppers interact with the vendors while fulfilling their gastronomic and emotional needs, often in the same bite. Opinions of farming and livestock production are formed or solidified with some thinking that this little place is a shelter from the storm of chemical laden foods and others seeing it as a simple pleasure in their otherwise complex and troubled lives.
I think of those chickens that are now free to roam and lay their eggs among the hay bales and later gorge on bugs and other natural substances in a pasture or barnyard. I’m sure this seems appealing and appetizing to those who never lived life on a dirt road on the edge of rural survival. Food was a sacred thing to us back then too. We were always working to make sure the next meal was growing, clucking or mooing. I guess we just didn’t know how good we had it.
At home, we lay out our items and plan the evening meal with satisfaction and excitement that we are eating fresh and wholesome products grown by families we know. I wonder if the people who sell at the market, weary from the day of picking and the half day of selling, just stop by the grocery store and grab something simple for dinner.
Editor’s note: Ken Root has been an agricultural reporter for 39 years. Root now does daily radio and television programming and is a columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or send mail for him to High Plains Journal.