Saturday, August 17, 2013

American farmers markets and Ukrainian bazaars

Sunday, July 28, 2013
By Michael
            If Yulia and I can’t grow our own produce (which we haven’t been in a position to do prior to moving here), we always seek out the best quality food we can. We like organic food, but realize that the processed, industrial-organic products sold in the store and supermarket are not the last word in good quality. We also prefer food grown on a small scale, which usually means a few things. A small scale operation usually doesn’t grow its food in monocultures. Monocultures tend to deplete the top soil (which crop rotation helps). The healthy environment that variety creates also means that less or no chemicals may be needed to grow the food. This means that the produce from these places is organic regardless if it is certified or not. There are many more reasons why we choose to buy from these people if we can help it, but that is not the purpose of this blog entry.
            Our interest in buying from the small guys leads us to the farmers market if we are in the States and the bazaar if we are in Ukraine. To me they are pretty much the same thing with different names, but there are some differences. First I will discuss what they share in common and why Yulia and I like shopping there. Next I will discuss their differences and the ways in which the farmers market is better than the bazaar and vice versa. I will also focus on my favorite markets in the States—those of Sacramento, California—and Pryvoksalnyi bazaar in Lviv, Ukraine. My interest in doing this is analytical, yes. I’d like to get at the core of what makes a market-bazaar worth shopping at compared to other venues. For those of us interested in shopping at or working a market-bazaar, it’s important to realize what works and what doesn’t (and copy and perpetuate the things that make them work). Yulia and I have both shopped and worked at these venues and we know them intimately from both perspectives. We also realize that the readers of this blog may also shop at and work at these places and may benefit from our analysis. In addition to this, writing about (and going to) the market-bazaar is a great source of joy for Yulia and me, and we want to write about it and share some of our happiness with everybody else.
            We go to the market-bazaar because we enjoy being outside, talking with growers, and getting fresh, good quality produce. Being at the market-bazaar gives one a sense of place. The menu is constantly changing here according to what is in season. The location, climate, weather, and time of year are revealed by the produce. Chanterelle mushrooms mean that it is autumn, that it rained not too long ago, and that there is probably a coniferous forest nearby. It is a simple way of buying something. I give you money; you give me food. You grow food; I eat food. In Ukraine and America it’s hard to find food at the store that wasn’t shipped from afar, grown without chemicals, and planted and harvested by unhappy workers who curse their jobs. I feel like food manufacturers will process their food whenever they get a chance. If one does come across something fresh, local, and cleanly grown then it usually costs an arm and a leg. I’ve seen heirloom tomatoes at Whole Foods, for example, but the price was outrageous. The market-bazaar is also a social space. This is a place to practice good manners and talk with other average people. If a vendor is being a brute, then one can always take their business to the next vendor. It is an outlet for the customer to talk to the grower about their products and how they were grown or made. Again, it is the joy of simplicity that draws us here. I realize that the market-bazaar is not always like this. There are, of course, exceptions to my description. But I have developed these impressions a posteriori (excuse my Latin). That is, I have observed these things in the real world and made sense of why they are good or bad after making these observations. Also, there are other ways of buying food that interest us. We appreciate co-ops, for instance. A co-op, as I understand it, is a company owned by many people. These people usually have to pay a fee to be owners (a small investment of sorts), but they can then reap the benefits of ownership. If the co-op makes a profit in a given year, the owners all split the money. They also have the privilege of getting special owner sale prices that regular shoppers don’t get.
            Farmers markets in the States, it seems to me, are like mini fairs. Vendors’ tents are like game booths at the carnival. Someone is almost always selling sweets of some sort, and certain markets even have live music. The vendors at farmers markets care about cleanliness and appearance. They have signs saying the name of their farm and list prices for their products.

Yulia at the Ashland farmers market
This creates a cheery atmosphere and draws many different kinds of customers, not just the ones that want to buy fresh fruits and vegetables. Customers treat local farmers like rock stars, praising them for their good work. Choosing to shop here is a statement of one’s values. Even if the prices are higher compared to the supermarket, many people insist on giving their money to small farmers for philosophical reasons. More upscale farmers markets are like a fashion show. People get dressed up to go walk among people, showing themselves off. I saw one man at the Ashland, Oregon farmers market who wore all purple Renaissance style garb every week.

The farmers market in Ashland, Oregon
            I like farmers markets for all these reasons, but there are some aspects that I think could be improved upon. Because Americans perceive farmers markets as mini fairs, they are given “special event” status. Many times farmers markets occur only once a week. Unlike, say, a supermarket, one cannot just swing by a farmers market whenever it is convenient for them. They are a destination outside the proceedings of everyday life for people. This makes them seem extraneous rather than a necessity for people. People can survive without farmers markets. They cannot survive without supermarkets, the thinking goes. This makes farmers markets places for people who have a little extra money set aside for them (Though things are getting better. Many farmers markets now accept food stamps.). People therefore conceive of farmers markets as places for wealthy people. Instead of thinking of arugula as a nourishing plant to eat grown by average, hard working people, arugula is transformed by American culture into food for prissy urbanites grown by greedy, price gouging farmers cashing in on a trend.
            During our first visit to a Ukrainian bazaar, Yulia and I were shocked by the seeming overcrowding and chaos of the place. We went with Yulia’s aunt to get cucumbers for pickling. We followed her as she zipped down the sidewalk. As vendors began to appear around the periphery of the bazaar, she rattled off questions in a rapid staccato, “How much are the cucumbers? How much is that?” We could barely keep up with her. After a while of roaming up and down the aisles, Yulia’s aunt had us stand in a doorway alcove off to the side of the bazaar while she tracked down some adequate cucumbers. Yulia said she felt like she was at a Turkish market. The experience was dizzying. How could anyone go shopping in such harried environment?

Pryvoksalnyi bazaar in Lviv
            That was how we got to know Pryvoksalnyi bazaar in Lviv. Our first impression of the bazaar kept us at bay and in the supermarkets for a few weeks. We eventually gathered the courage to go back. When we did we approached with caution. I was constantly afraid of revealing myself as an American by my accent. I had heard too many stories of pickpockets and unfair pricing. However, I settled into a much different reality and began to see the structure of the place. The citrus people and other fruits from abroad were in one section. Local fruits and vegetables were in the middle. Cabbages and potatoes from larger farms were on one side while grannies selling milk poured into old Coca-Cola bottles were scattered about the periphery like the asteroid belt around the sun. I realized the method to the madness soon enough.
The grannies selling milk were not from small farms. They simply had a family cow that they or their husbands milked. Usually the milk from one cow is even too much for an older couple to drink themselves. So they end up selling it at the bazaar. They’re not really a business, so that’s why they simply reuse old plastic bottles. It’s good with respect to the fact that they are reusing something that would otherwise be thrown away, but one must trust that the granny peddling milk has properly washed out the old bottle. Also, a few liters of milk is hardly enough product to justify selling from a booth, so standing on the sidewalk until customers buy the two bottles of milk they bring is enough for their circumstances. I never bought much milk, but focused on things like heirloom tomatoes. I would look for things like zippering and cracks. That’s how they always come out of gardens. Perfectly smooth tomatoes are a sign of hydroponic mass production. In general, I was impressed by the quality of food at the bazaar. I never felt like I was ripped off or taken advantage of. I got to know what a reasonable price was for most things and never bought anything from a seller that was asking for too high a price. All of these elements create a tacit organization in the superficial chaos.
            The Ukrainian bazaar is a place of great diversity. There are products from backyard gardeners, small farmers, and industrial scale farms. The bazaar has a greater amount of choices compared to their American analogs as well. Cherries and sour cherries (vyshni) are common there (I almost never hear of the existence of sour cherries in the States.). The first fresh produce starts to appear in late March. I learned about wild garlic (cheremsha in Ukrainian) for the first time at the bazaar. After the winter it is delightful to see locally grown, fresh green leaves for sale. The bazaar is also open every day of the week and, most surprisingly to me, it functions year round. We’re at the 49th parallel here in Lviv. That is the border between the US and Canada. The climate is very similar to what one might find in Minnesota or Wisconsin. Ukrainians know how to keep bringing local produce to the market even through the dead of winter. Once fall rolls around, people start bringing storage fruits and vegetables. Carrots, potatoes, beets, cabbages, sunchokes, beans, apples, and pears can be brought to the market during the cold months. I met a cute old lady selling off the last of her apples. When she had given me the last of her fruit she shook my hand, thanked me for being her last customer of the season, crossed herself, looked up and said, “Thank you lord for watching over me this season. May I live to next year’s harvest.” I was impressed not only with her droll personality, but by the fact that I was able to buy fresh fruit grown at the 49th parallel all winter long. If Americans really wanted to, they could also have year round farmers markets. Root cellars are not a complicated technology after all.
            And neither are signs. That is one thing that Ukrainians might want to start using. Although it could be argued that having no signs forces more social interaction by forcing conversation between customer and seller, this is a generous defense. I think the reason for no signs at the Ukrainian bazaar is cultural convention most likely. I once saw a man with a handwritten sign at the bazaar that said, “Apples. Ecologically clean [Ukrainian for organic].” It also listed the county in which they were grown and the seller’s phone number. Although this would be a typical sight at a farmers market in the US, I was a bit suspicious of the man. I am embarrassed to say it, but it seemed like a bit of a gimmick. I suppose some Ukrainian skepticism has seeped into my psyche. This national skepticism is not a good thing. I would like to see people being more generous at the bazaar, not whining to pay a bit extra for ecologically clean produce. This is something Ukrainians care about. They ask if something is organic by asking, “Do you use chemicals or spray your crops at all?” However, when it comes to paying extra for that, they are hesitant to do so.
             From what I’ve seen as a seller and customer at market-bazaars in both Ukraine and the US, Sacramento and its suburbs take the prize for the best markets or bazaars that I’ve seen anywhere. They are similar to Ukrainian bazaars in that they are year round (though Sacramento’s warmer climate may explain why). There are also enough farmers markets spread around the city and the suburbs to provide a market for nearly every day of the week. Sacramento’s immigrant population provides for an experience very similar to that of the Ukrainian bazaar—in both good ways and bad. Their being accustomed to buying produce that is rare in the States has led to greater variety at the farmers market. For example, there was Chinese and Italian broccoli being sold alongside “traditional” broccoli, and flowering bok choi along with plain greens. They bring a more down to earth atmosphere to the markets. It would be difficult to accuse them of being prissy urbanites. Customers in Sacramento would often approach the vendors directly and ask for the price for a certain item, especially in immigrant neighborhoods. But they would often complain about prices being too high (even if they weren’t). No matter what country they were from, I noticed that they brought some of that old country skepticism with them. Still, I have to give Sacramento praise. Its residents have fostered an environment of year round, nearly daily markets with good prices and a down to earth atmosphere. These markets combine the best of the Ukrainian bazaar and the American farmers market in my eyes. I do not think it is a remarkable city otherwise, but Sacramento’s farmers markets make the city stand out to me for these reasons.  

The Florin Road market in south Sacramento

“Under the freeway” market in downtown Sacramento

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