Saturday marked my first opportunity to participate in one of our larger weekend Farmer’s Markets: Neenah, alongside the one-and-only Logan Brice. This gave Friday’s market harvest a bit of extra excitement and anticipation, and we put the finishing touches on tomato sorting and cooler packing around 7:00 pm. Tomorrow morning, it’s on, I thought to myself, looking forward to loading the vans and hitting the road in the wee hours of the morrow.
After harvest, Oren and Polly joined Fanni and I for dinner at our place, enjoying a bowl of hearty Ham and White Bean Soup before settling down in the living room to chill over a cup of tea. Chilling isn’t a major part of Oren and Polly’s repertoire, however, and though it stretched past 9 pm, the conversation retained its characteristic Oren Jakobson intensity. We came to the subject of the new media project they’re involved with, and soon Oren was pacing the living room — hands weaving a masterpiece while his mouth carried on a mile a late-night minute. My wife and I melted into our big, comfy couch, trying hopelessly to keep up. Finally, we decided we’d all better get some sleep, for the morning would be early.
Early it was, and I was ready in the kitchen when Oren’s truck arrived to pick me up in the pitch blackness of morning. 4:40 am. I opened the truck door to find him on his phone, talking a mile an early-morning minute, as if he’d never stopped at all. “Yeah, so the idea is that it’s going to be more of an ongoing conversation, with a bunch of people contributing, and the role of the editors then becoming…” Who the fuck is he talking to? I laughed out loud. The guy does not stop.
All the way to Neenah, he did not stop, and our conversation stretched to philosophical loops of thinking, including the classic Hero Vs. Villain. Here, Oren questioned his relentless focus on integrity in all of his business and personal ventures. “Like Harmony,” he said, bringing up the Appleton pizza café of which he and Polly are part owners. “We’re 90% organic; 90% local, and go through a lot of trouble to be as legitimate as possible, but does anyone even know or care? What difference would it make if we just served shitty food like every other restaurant?” This philosophical exploration carried us to Neenah, where we met Logan, and got set up with the most beautiful market display I’d ever seen. All around us, vendors got their tents and booths set up, and I happily took note of the coffee sign on our neighbor’s table.
My enthusiasm waned, however, when the man pulled out his bakery case and started setting up. I walked over and perused inconspicuously, recognizing the muffins and scones immediately. Same flavor combinations, wrappings, shape and size of Otis Spunkmeyer muffins and Rich’s scones, right off the Sysco truck. I was 99.4% certain that these were mass-produced baked goods. Finally, unable to resist, I approached the table. “Hey there,” I greeted the guy cordially. “So, do you guys bake everything from scratch?”
“Yes we do,” he replied certainly and proudly.
“Awesome, man. What kind of crumble is this on the Blueberry Supreme?”
He paused for a barely perceptible moment. “Oh, you would have to ask my wife; she’s the baker.”
I took the three steps back to our beautiful stand, muttered the story agitatedly to Logan, and vowed that this wouldn’t be our last interaction of the day.
We carried on with a relatively slow morning, as folks swarmed their line for fresh, homemade scones and muffins. At some point, the line slowed a bit, and I noticed that the guy’s wife was now on-site. Again, I approached amicably. “Hey, so your husband tells me that you’re the baker, huh?”
“Yes I am,” she replied happily.
“So you bake all of this stuff fresh?”
“Hmm, what kind of crumble do you put on the Blueberry Supreme?”
She paused. “Oh it’s just… oats and stuff like that.”
“And how do you wrap it like that?”
“Oh, just a wrap that we pick up and then place it in there- the lazy way, haha.”
She was starting to get nervous.
“That’s interesting, because I work in foodservice, and I’ve seen muffins that look exactly like this, with the same flavors and everything. They’re an Otis Spunkmeyer product.”
“Oh… well we bake 90% of everything that’s here.”
“So you baked these muffins?”
Another pause. She shook her head and gave a barely audible “No.”
“Oh, I thought you did…” retorted her husband lamely from the other end of the table.
Fucking liars. I stood for a second, looked back and forth at each of them, turned and took the three steps back to my stand, where I could feel their sheepish and uneasy glances for the rest of the morning. I didn’t call them out specifically to make them feel like assholes, but it was a welcome benefit. The truth is that my wife is a baker; I’m friends with her boss and colleagues, and they go through a great deal of work to produce real, high quality treats for us, while these two stood behind a table, taking advantage of people’s simple assumptions. It’s a betrayal of the trade, quite simply. Plus, we’d put in the work to grow all of the beautiful vegetables piled on our table, except for the sweet corn, which we had gotten from a fellow organic farmer and colleague. We would have openly admitted this, had anyone asked. They didn’t.
This was all a direct manifestation of Oren and my conversation in the morning. If his Harmony Pizza actually did go shitty and cheap like everybody else, there’s a good chance that, indeed, nobody would notice. Same with Rising Sand. The huge stand in front of ours imports a vast majority of their produce, if not all, and makes a pretty decent killing doing it.
Maybe I’m being hypocritical. We do, after all, sell our produce to a few other farmers for their market stands, and we did buy sweetcorn from a friend for this market. However, were it not for my strange propensity for working my ass off for no money, I’d have to ask myself the question: “What’s the point?” If nobody’s going to ask, or care, then why be organic? Why even grow any veggies at all, when we could just buy them from Indiana, mark up the price a bit, sit and sell? Nobody’s going to ask. Nobody’s going to care.
The fault is on us, the mass of consumers. If we don’t ask; don’t care; don’t verify legitimacy, we set ourselves up time and time again for easy deception, and spend our lives eating the same fucking lifeless muffins no matter where we go.