There are many things I love about farmers' markets. I can find unique fruit and heritage vegetables, or track down meat not commonly found in supermarkets such as mutton and game. Farmers' markets are also a great way to support small-scale producers and understand what produce is at its seasonal best.
I don't like to apply the "foodie" label to myself, but I do enjoy cooking with good produce. From a young age, I have grown up with the weekly ritual of shopping at a fresh food market and the wonderful experience of knowing each stallholder – getting a nibble of cheese here, a piece of kabana there, and perhaps half a mandarin or a few slices of apple.
To be able to do this while buying the weekly shopping is something I treasure and have sought out as an adult. The anonymity and homogeneity of the supermarket is not for me.
However, while I feel good about reducing food miles and shopping local, I'm also considering breaking up with my local farmers' market.
For all the benefits, there is one main disadvantage: it's simply too expensive. Many items have attracted the "farmers' market premium" and become way too overpriced.
How much is too much? Well, I can't justify spending $9 on 250 grams of butter, no matter how hand-churned and cultured it might be. I've also seen $8 spring rolls, $6 bunches of broccolini, and 10 tiny potatoes for $10 – that's $1 per spud! One time, I happened upon an apple and berry pie for $68.
Yep, $68. The stallholder had to repeat the price three times to a prospective customer. Sure, it looked nice, but let's be honest – that's an expensive dessert, and even more expensive if you were to serve it with organic cream. I desperately wanted to tell the disbelieving shopper it would be cheaper to make it themselves, even if they used the stallholder's raspberries selling at $8 a punnet.
The Victorian Farmers' Markets Association website says the organisation's promise is "to support local farmers by inspiring and enabling Victorians to buy fresh, wholesome, locally grown produce". Based on my experience, I'm not sure this promise holds true.
Victorians might be inspired and have access to this produce, but are they "enabled" if it's too expensive? The prices I see are unaffordable for many, and that's just fresh produce – forget the value-added items like pastries, smallgoods, cheeses, chutneys and preserves.
Fortunately, my chooks are back on the lay, our vegies are going great guns (thank you, spring sunshine), and my regular fresh food market has amazing specials at closing time on Saturdays.
While I don't expect bargain-basement prices for organic and artisan produce, in today's economic climate the farmer's market premium is a bit too much to stomach. The stallholders would be wise to consider that.
Zoe Furman is a Good Food reader from Melbourne.