Welcome to the Farmer’s Market…Is That Your Child?

When I was growing up I had a lot of rules with which to contend.  Some of them didn’t make much sense at the time and even now, as an adult with two young children of my own, I still can’t piece together what my parents were doing.  I try not to replicate those rules.  But that isn’t always the case.  For instance, when I was a child my parents had one simple, blanket rule that ALWAYS applied.  “We’re about to go into this store.  DON’T TOUCH ANYTHING.”

I always understood that one.  At least I thought I did.  Even at a young age I may not have liked that rule but I got it.  Mom and Dad don’t have a lot of money and if I break this  thing I want to touch they’re going to have to pay for it.  If it’s say, a candy bar that falls and breaks, that would be an annoyance.  But if it’s that big t.v. I knock over that could be a real problem.

But in the last few months I’ve come to realize there was more to it than simple cost.  It was about being respectful of the fact that said item I might want to touch is NOT MINE.  It was also about being respectful of the fact that said item took work to produce and procure.  The shop owner and/or employees worked very hard to put said item on the shelf and set it up just so.  And it was also about the fact that it would have been quite embarrassing to my parents had I broken something, especially if I had just been told not to touch it.

And here comes the real meat and potatoes of this blog post.  Warning, fed-up farmer alert.  It would be one thing if children damaging things or ruining displays at the farmer’s markets were an isolated incident.  Hey, accidents happen.  But over the last couple years I’ve noticed a very disturbing trend.  And the other vendors have noticed it too. Children are touching and, in fact, damaging things at the farmer’s markets and roadside farms.  And you seem to be OK with it.  I can assure you on behalf of several farmers to whom I’ve spoken, it is absolutely not OK.  And here’s why.

Those little signs are made of cedar, painted with chalkboard paint and written in chalk. But even if they were made of titanium and written in permanent ink...why would it be ok to pick them up and play with them?

Those little signs are made of cedar, painted with chalkboard paint and written in chalk. But even if they were made of titanium and written in permanent ink…why would it be ok to pick them up and play with them?

Do you have any idea how difficult it is to get produce from a farm to a farmer’s market in prime condition?  Nearly impossible.  Whether it be pumpkins or potatoes, turnips or tomatoes the transportation of your food is one of the biggest challenges a farmer faces.  Why?  Have you driven on a Maine road recently? They’re a little bumpy in places.  Now imagine you’re a farmer on the way to a farmer’s market with a pick-up truck full of the most amazing, freshly picked, colorful, pristine, local food available.  Every bump you hit, every pothole you narrowly miss is another ding, divot, dent or tear in that beautiful produce.  I usually have to take a minute when I arrive at market to un-clench my shoulders which, due to the stress of the ride have somehow migrated up to my hairline.  Now, imagine you somehow managed to get all that produce to the market without damaging it.  None of the pumpkins have truck lines in them.  None of the butternut squash have dents from where they shifted and leaned up against their display crate.  None of the tomatoes have been crushed under the weight of another display crate that moved onto them when you went (what you thought was very slowly) over that set of train tracks a mile from your farm.  Somehow, inexplicably, miraculously, you did it.  You managed to get to market and you don’t have to throw anything away just because of the drive.  Exhale.  Release the shoulders.  Revel in your brilliant packing job, the one that took an hour and a half at the farm and enjoy the satisfaction that comes from putting out undamaged, ideally displayed produce.

Spaghetti Squash - one of the most easily damaged squash I bring to market. Every pothole shows up on these things.

Spaghetti Squash – one of the most easily damaged squash I bring to market. Every pothole shows up on these things.

Then stand back and watch as a parent comes into your tent and doesn’t pay attention to his or her children as they proceed to pick up your delicata squash and drop them onto the corners of your wooden crates, thence to roll across the pavement.  Watch as a youngster walks up to your crate of tomatoes and, right in front of his or her parent pokes a finger roughly into one and says ‘What’s this?!  Mommy?!?!  WHAT’S THAT?!?!?!” jabbing said finger into said tomato with each word.  Stand under your tent as a little one picks up a handful of neatly lined up and displayed carrots, dropping several on the ground and says, “Hey.  Look, carrots,” and then replaces the ones that weren’t dropped on the ground.  Replaces them not neatly as they were displayed but piled haphazardly and usually not even in the right display box.  Stand in your tent and watch as a couple of children walk up to your signs, made with chalkboard paint, pick them up and start swishing their fingers through the writing, thereby ruining your careful lettering and/or artwork giving your something else to re-do.  Or how about the children who jump onto the cinder block weighing down your tent leg and start pulling on the release clips that keep the ten erect?  Or the kids that come up and sit on a pumpkin?  Or kick a pumpkin?  Or jump on a pumpkin?  Or roll a pumpkin across the parking lot.  Or pick up a pumpkin weighing more than they do only to discover they cannot lift it and it therefore drops heavily onto the pavement…cracking?  Or pick up a cherry tomato from a pint box and eat it?  Or pick up a shallot and break the cloves apart putting half on the scale and half back in the display crate?  Ok, that one was actually an adult.  Yes, it happened.

No...you may not take a cherry tomato and eat it because then I have a pint that isn't full and I can't sell.

No…you may not take a cherry tomato and eat it because then I have a pint that isn’t full and I can’t sell.

The truth is, each and everyone one of these examples happened.  In fact, many of them happen on a regular basis.  Here’s a great example.  This week at market a woman and her son walked into my stand.  The woman started perusing the items I had on display.  I offered my customary greeting and inquiry (Hi there!  How are you?) and then watched her son walk up to my scale, right in front of me, look me right in the eye, put his hand on the scale’s tray and start tipping it up with the palm of his hand and letting if all back into place.  At the noise the woman looked over at her son, saw what he was doing and then looked at me.  What she saw was a series of facial events.  First, me with my jaw down to my collarbone because while all of the events described above happen regularly, there’s still one that shocks me once in a while.  Then she would have noticed my face shift slightly though my jaw was still open.  The first face said, ‘holy cow I can’t believe that just happened.’.  The second face said, ‘lady your kid just did that…and you watched him…are you going to reprimand him…or at the very least, stop him?’  The woman then turned back to the crate of carrots so she missed my third facial expression which was a combination of, ‘oh my god, no you’re not going to do anything,’ and some other things I’m contractually prohibited from typing here.  Any idea how much one of those digital market scales costs?  Lots.  So much that I wouldn’t have been able to replace it after an entire day at some of my markets.  But it gets better.

Golden Shallots - please don't break them open and put half back.

Golden Shallots – please don’t break them open and put half back.

This little boy then walked from my stand into the adjacent tent.  This placed him directly within his mother’s line of sight.  He proceeded to stand up on the cinder block holding down my neighbor’s tent and start erasing their marker board.  And he was humming to himself as he did it.  I think I might be developing a nervous tic.

My family and I just went to our favorite orchard to pick apples.  We go about three times a year to get different apples for different purposes, first of the season, fresh eating snacks, applesauce, storage, etc.  I am continually amazed at the signs this small-scale orcharding family has had to post around their property.  One being, ‘Please don’t climb our trees, the limbs are weighted down with fruit and fragile.”  You don’t go to the trouble of making several of these hand painted signs if you see one person doing this.  And in speaking with the owners my suspicions in this regard were confirmed.  It happens all the time.  They have lost trees because of it.  A limb breaks and splits a trunk down to the roots.  Dead tree.  Not to mention the legal nightmare if one of these families somehow decide it’s the orchard’s fault they weren’t keeping their kids from being kids.

Picture 271

And that’s the point here.  I have two children.  I know what it’s like man.  I get it.  I really do.  Children are adventurous.  Children don’t know the limits.  Then when they’re told the limits they want to make sure those are actually the limits.  Children, at least young children, don’t understand consequences.  ‘If I break this mommy and daddy might have to buy it.”  Once they’re told the limits they want to make sure those are actually the limits.  Children like to experiment.  ‘If I drop this heavy squash on the pavement what will happen?’  And, oh yes, when children are told the limits they want to make sure those are actually the limits.  Seriously, mommy can’t really think that’s the limit can she?

Spring Piglets 007

Look, I want kids at the farmer’s markets.  I want children asking questions about their food.  I want children seeing first hand that those little lathed uniform orange things in a bag at the supermarket are not what baby carrots look like (or taste like…seriously have you tasted those things?  Blech!)  I want children to ask questions about the pork chops their parents are purchasing, the bread they’ll get to have for breakfast in the morning and why it’s so much different and better than the ‘bread’ at the grocery store.  I want children to touch the pumpkins and help put the green beans in the bag their parent is holding. In short I want children to experience their food.  It’s the only way we’ll start digging out of this mess we call the global, industrial food system.

Yes, I want all of those things.  But not at the expense of my sanity.  Recently, speaking with someone who travels the state to visit different farmer’s markets this topic came up and I finally voiced why it’s such a problem for me personally.  I don’t mind the 14 to 16 hour work days.  I don’t mind those times when I have to work in the driving rain, or horizontal snow or temperatures in excess of 100 degress F or below zero.  I don’t mind when the chickens get out (ok that’s a lie…I hate it when the chickens get out) or any of the other physical, demanding work of farming.  But what really burns me out is dealing with this problem.  And it’s not the fault of the children.

Raven Zucchini.  No, they are not drumsticks.  And no my market table is not the drum?  Neither is the pavement.

Raven Zucchini. No, they are not drumsticks. And no my market table is not the drum? Neither is the pavement.

I’m not going to try to tell you how to raise your kids.  You do what you want.  If you’re content with saying, ‘Honey, please put that down,’ half a dozen times without results, that’s your thing.  You gotta do what you gotta do.  But when you go to a farmer’s market, or a roadside farm stand, or for that matter a Wal-mart and you personally damage something, or you allow your child to do so, now you’ve created a bigger problem.  And it’s a problem that is so easily avoidable.

Last week at market a man came into the booth.  He had with him two children a boy and a girl.  Both entered the stand with their father who reached for a bag and said, ‘Ok guys, what should we get?”  They both immediately reached for some carrots.  The father said, ‘Don’t touch,’ then, ‘so you’d like some carrots?  Great, we’ll get some.’  Then he asked if they wanted anything else.  The little girl picked up a tomato.  He said again, ‘Don’t touch.’  She put it back.  The little boy who was standing between his dad and sister then picked up a tomato and started to ask a question.  The father said, ‘Don’t touch.’  The boy ignored him and continued his question.  The father then reached out, took the boy by the wrist, bent down, looking him in the eye and said, “I told you not to touch.  Put it down please.’  The little boy did so but complained that he wanted to help put things in the bags.  The father said that he would be doing that himself.  Frankly, another acceptable answer would have been to say, ‘That’s fine but that doesn’t mean you just ignore me and pick things up.  You could ask me first.’  They finished their shopping and stepped out of the booth.  I then watched as the father got down on one knee and quietly and gently, but firmly spoke to his son.  I have no idea what he said as he was too far away.  But I bet the little boy didn’t touch anything else without asking first.

I wish I’d had the strength of mind to follow that gentleman and thank him.  So, if you’re the red haired gentleman who was at my booth a couple weeks ago and this story sounds familiar…thank you.  Thank you so much.  You are making the world a better place.  You are teaching your children to be respectful of hard work and care.  And you are helping at least one farmer slipping into madness to do so a little more slowly.  Thank you.

Local food.  Eat well – be well.

Ryan Parker

About Ryan Parker

Ryan Parker is a farmer, writer, artist and musician. He currently lives in Central Maine with his wife, two children, a golden retriever, some pigs and chickens. He raises pastured and forested animals and grows a diverse range of vegetables without synthetic chemicals, pesticides, herbicides or taxpayer subsidies.