Beg, borrow and steal

How and how not to bargain at the farmers’ market

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Courtesy of Boulder County Farmers\' Markets

It’s good to be able to drive a hard bargain; when buying a used snowboard on Ebay, for example, or attempting to stay out of a corrupt policeman’s car in some foreign city, with only $50 in your pocket. On such occasions, one should negotiate with all of the cunning one can muster.

But at the farmers’ market, the dogged pursuit of a bargain is usually poor form.

This isn’t some South American open-air market, where out-of-town shoppers can expect an exorbitant gringo tax, which demands a certain amount of bargaining for the sake of dignity. Nor is this the cheerful theater of price discovery the guidebook prepared you for, where the locals engage in lively bargaining as a form of social interaction, and you can engage with the locals this way too, through the universal language of shopping.

Even in places where it is socially acceptable, I have a hard time sparring over money with those who have turned the earth into food, for my nourishment, with their bare hands.

This isn’t to say that there is no room for dealmaking at the farmers’ market, because there most definitely is. But it’s a more nuanced kind of negotiating. How gracefully you can participate in this dance depends on how sincerely you attempt to understand, and empathize with, the situation from the farmer’s perspective.

Farming straddles a sharp edge between labor of love and slave labor. Even in the rare cases where the farmer makes a decent living, he or she still works ungodly hours, in the heat, cold, rain and in the most generally random, inconvenient of circumstances. Unexpected catastrophes, fickle markets, and changing weather patterns are part of this difficult package.

The stakes are higher than ever this summer in my corner of the northern Rockies. The heat came early, shattering records during the summer solstice. The long days allowed the heat to cause even more damage than it would have later in the summer, when days are shorter and the plants are better established. Some crops bolted, while others were stunted. Keeping everything wet enough became a consuming, expensive challenge. At market, the trick became keeping the fragile crops perky in the merciless heat.

In the rivers around my valley, water temperatures are pushing the limits of what the trout can tolerate. Anglers are cautioned not to fish in the afternoon, when the fish are especially fragile. Farmers, like their produce, are fragile, too, especially by the end of the market. Don’t be that guy who tries to save a little beer money by pointing out how wilted the veggies are. Instead, be the altruistic negotiator who looks for ways to make it better for everyone.

Be an angel of the free market, flowing like muchneeded water through the parched aisles, gravitating to the low places of opportunity. My flow took me to the dairy stand, where Ernie had extra gallons of milk because the steamer on the espresso stand next door was broken. He offered me a good price, and offered to keep the milk cool until I was ready to leave the market. Deal.

On to the next. 

Mike was packing up his stand, even though the market didn’t close for another hour. “I’m sold out,” he said. Not completely, he qualified, but close enough to pack it in.

“I’m not gonna sit here in this heat just to sell some salad mix and carrots for ten bucks,” he told me. “I’m gonna go drink a beer.”

“Can I pay for your beer,” I offered, “in exchange for some salad mix and carrots?”

I held out my basket and he loaded it up with what felt fair. For five bucks I got a pile of carrots, a large green tomato, a handful of zucchini and three bags of salad mix that Mike had impressively managed to keep fresh.

Across the aisle, a farmer named Steve was surrounded by mountains of produce as the clock ticked down. At least he had a good shade system, so his stuff was faring as well as it could. The heat had given Steve an early crop of eggplant, usually unheard of at this time of year, and he had a big box of it. But I was drawn in by his 8-ball summer squash, of which I had grown fond while living in New Mexico, where they are called calabacitas.

“You like these? I’ll give you a screaming deal on a whole box,” Steve said, as he pulled a box from beneath a table. It was packed with those round, green/gray zucchini-like vegetables.

I thought about those squash, and those eggplants, realizing that if I only had some tomatoes, then I could make and freeze a large batch of ratatouille. I told Steve I was interested in the calabacitas, as well as the eggplant, but I had to go see if I could find some tomatoes.

“Good luck with that,” Steve said. He, along with Mike, and most everyone else, had sold out of tomatoes early. A lap around the market confirmed it. I returned to Steve’s stand, sans tomatoes and thinking about a Plan B, just in time to see Ernie walk off with all of Steve’s eggplant in exchange for a block of cheese.

So now it was on to Plan C. I made a plan to blanch and freeze those calabacitas until I can get enough tomatoes and eggplant together to make my ratatouille.

Steve threw some extra goodies into the deal, including kale, cucumbers and even some eggplant that Ernie left behind.

For about $25, I killed it at that market, bringing home a gallon of fresh, organic milk, plus significant quantities of carrots, salad mix, kale, eggplants and cucumbers. And all of this bounty was practically icing on the cake of 20 quartsized freezer bags stuffed full of calabacitas, ready for cooking, that I ended up with. I blanched them for three minutes, then shocked in ice water, before packaging them up.

In addition to that ratatouille, come winter I’ll be ready to make a Southwestern corn stew called posole, to which I always add calabacitas when available. And thanks to my altruistic negotiating skills, they will be.

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