It’s raining at the Arlington Farmers Market this Saturday morning. Chip Planck, 67, dressed in a yellow rain slicker, arranges 17 varieties of tomatoes under a white tarp—rows of red Early Girls, eggplant-colored Cherokee Purples, striped and spicy Green Zebras.
“Everybody, please taste the lettuce!” Chip’s wife, Susan, calls out. “We have seven different varieties. We have tons of chard, mustard greens.”
Shoppers flit around the stand, picking up a red pepper or two, maybe a handful of tat soi, an Asian cabbage similar to bok choy. Lots of farmers compete to win a spot at the Arlington Farmers Market—there are many more applicants than there are slots.
Lines are so long that Chip often has to stop slicing samples for tasting and set up a third money box. Susan focuses her attention on customers. The chattier the farmer, she says, the more she’ll sell. Today Susan is talking—a lot.
“Rainy-day lettuce special—$2 a bag!”
Chip is quieter, preferring to offer a smile rather than a sales pitch, and the lines on his face reveal a lifetime of worries. He and Susan have never known job security, relying instead on a livelihood dictated as much by the weather as by the region’s demand for locally grown food.
Dozens of shoppers, many regulars, arrive almost at once, and Chip and Susan sell out of okra, squash, cucumbers, tat soi.
“This is a fantastic day, isn’t it?” Susan asks a customer. She’s overwhelmed by the number of people who’ve come to buy their vegetables. She throws up her hands and shouts: “They even come out in the rain!”
The region’s first few “producer only” farmers markets opened in 1980. In Arlington, the market started by chance. A woman wanted farm-fresh vegetables and asked county officials, “Why don’t you get some farmers down to the judges’ parking lot so we can buy food from farmers directly?”
Soon after, Chip Planck awoke at 6 am, bunched his beets and Swiss chard, and drove from his farm in Purcellville to Arlington’s Courthouse neighborhood, setting up a tableful of vegetables in a parking lot. He’d had his doubts—he wasn’t sure anyone would show up.
“Well, I got there and put out my little bit of wares, and swoosh—they were gone,” he says. “The customers essentially said, ‘Where have you been all my life, and when can I see you again?’ I thought to myself, I just made 100 bucks. You think I’d be stupid enough not to come back next week?”
Today there are about 90 farmers markets in the region. They’re everywhere from Mount Pleasant to Dupont Circle, Falls Church to Takoma Park. One in Prince George’s County’s Langley Park area sells sugar cane to immigrants. Most markets sell a variety of specialty items such as grass-fed beef, artisanal cheeses, heirloom vegetables, and homemade soap.
Farmers markets gained popularity as the foodie revolution gained momentum, with more consumers putting taste and quality over cost and convenience. The markets have evolved into bastions of ecoconsciousness, creating a movement of “locavores,” or individuals committed to cutting down greenhouse-gas emissions by eating locally produced food. The average food item travels 1,500 miles to our plates.
Lots of produce sold in supermarkets is bred for durability and maximum shelf life. Tomatoes are picked green and sent to a chamber where ethylene gas turns them pink. Unfortunately, the tomato doesn’t ripen inside.
“Could I Use Something a Little Less Harmful?”
Many people feel that every time they stroll through a farmers market, they promote the local-foods movement, support area farms, and make an environmental statement.
Agricultural runoff is the largest polluter of the Chesapeake Bay. If we buy from local organic growers, we shift dollars to fruits and vegetables that haven’t been sprayed with pesticides, which can harm waterways.
Few farmers at markets are certified organic by the USDA—they say the paperwork is a headache. But many grow using organic methods, meaning they find alternate ways of getting rid of pests, such as introducing a wasplike bug rather than sprays to kill beetle larvae.
“If you want American farmers to stop using chemicals, the best way to influence them is to put them face to face with a customer,” says Chip Planck. “Farmers can’t help but think: Could I use something a little less harmful?”
At local farmers markets, parents buying pesticide-free peaches quiz farmers about their growing practices. Shoppers tote cloth bags to reduce waste. Says farmer Georgia O’Neal of Tree and Leaf Farm: “For many people, shopping at a farmers market gives them a chance to put their money where their mouth is in a very literal way.”
Planck and his wife, Susan, sustained Wheatland Vegetable Farms by selling solely at farmers markets. They helped start the Takoma Park market in 1983 as well as several smaller markets. “It buttered our bread,” says Susan. “We wanted to convert all the farmers in Loudoun to vegetable farmers, but they thought we were crazy.” At one point, the Plancks were selling at 21 markets a week.
As their business grew, Loudoun farmers began selling off their land to developers while the Plancks used income earned at the markets to fix up their aging house, send three kids to college, and pay off their 60-acre farm. They passed their enthusiasm for fresh local food on to their daughter, Nina, who started a string of successful producer-only farmers markets in London in 1999.
The Plancks worked an off-farm job only once, right before the area’s first farmers market opened in Arlington. “These markets make it possible to make a living,” says Chip. At the Dupont market, some growers are rumored to make $10,000 in four hours.
Today, close to retirement, the Plancks sell only in Arlington, but they’re surprised by the growth they’re seeing. Says Susan: “Our sales at the Arlington market have doubled this past year. It’s not that old customers are buying more vegetables; more people are coming out.”
Local farmers markets are giving the next generation a chance to revitalize a family’s hobby farm or pursue careers in farming, and the markets are creating a new kind of farmer altogether. Young foodies, many of them college-educated environmentalists, are choosing to farm for markets, hoping they’ll change the world one vegetable at a time.
“Our Son’s First Food Was Squash From the Farm”
At the end of a long gravel drive in the shadow of the Shenandoah Mountains in Sperryville, Virginia, sit a couple of ramshackle barns and a gleaming house on a hill. Rachel Bynum, 34, leaves her three-year-old son, Nicholas, at home with her mother, who’s visiting, and walks down to the barn. She waves to locals pulling up to buy butternut squash, tomatoes, pumpkins, and peppers and begins bunching vibrant zinnias.
Her husband, Eric Plaksin, 34, parks his pickup truck next to the barn and unloads buckets of cherry tomatoes colored in reds, yellows, pinks, and purples. Tomorrow the tomatoes, flowers, and a truckload of additional produce will go to a farmers market in Charlottesville. On Sunday, the same things will be sold in Takoma Park.
Rachel and Eric met while attending Minnesota’s Carleton College. They were interested in ecology and farming but assumed agriculture was a losing venture. After college, Rachel got a job at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and also worked with Eric at the Plancks’ farm in Purcellville; at one point they were living in a tent on the property. They fell in love with growing seasons and farmers markets—and with the idea that they could support themselves by growing vegetables.
In 1998, they began looking for ten acres, a house, and a barn within a couple of hours of Washington to start their own farm. They could afford about $100,000.