Last summer, Lori Bean and her mother spent hours and hours picking the fruit for her Georgia Jams. Already, she’s a victim of her own success: This year, to keep up with growing demand, she’s resolved to buy in bulk from local farmers—and to sell seasonally. When her 2012 Flavor of Georgia finalist, Summer Berries & Wine jam, is gone, it will be gone.
In terms of growth, Emily Myers of Emily G’s Jam of Love is a step or two beyond Bean. This winter, for quality-control reasons, she switched from a co-packer that could work with whole fruit she was able to source locally to a larger facility, still in Georgia, that is less likely to work with local ingredients.
“Quality is the most important. I have to have product. If I can get that locally than to me, that is amazing and I am thrilled,” Myers says. “But we have to grow outside Atlanta, and I make no apologies. I can’t feed my family by making jam in my kitchen.”
No one could blame a local business owner for thriving. The question for farmers market shoppers—and market managers—is, at what point does a company’s methods no longer match the expectations of the consumer?
“They get so big and have so much demand that they change the way they’re doing things,” says Lauren Carey, market manager at Peachtree Road Farmers Market. “It’s a wonderful success story. It just means that they’re not appropriate for the farmers market anymore.”
Many area farmers markets, including Peachtree Road, require vendors to meet certain standards. Many are “producer-only,” meaning a vendor can only sell what it makes. Others may require produce at farm stands to be grown within a certain mileage, or a certain percentage of ingredients in processed foods to come from local sources.
Market managers, too, face economic pressures. Each farmers market competes—for both customers and vendors—with all other markets. A manager may look the other way when a food processor changes production methods that no longer meet the rules of the market.
“I think that that’s the hardship, especially with so many small, struggling markets,” Carey says. “‘Do I change my values of being local, to attract something that might get customers in, so maybe they’ll get some kale to go with it?’ I think the questions the managers have to ask is, does that happen?”
The local challenge
Buying local ingredients for production, Myers says, is easier said than done. Often, the problem is reliability: If you plan to buy all your pears or tomatoes from one grower and the crop fails, then your business is put into instant jeopardy. Sometimes, the problem is competition or availability.
When a business partnership collapsed, cheesemaker Robin Schick found herself in possession of a lot of cheese-making equipment and no goats’ milk. She went on to found her own creamery, CalyRoad, but securing a local source—really, any source—of goats’ milk to make her cheeses proved to be extremely difficult. Most goat-herders in Georgia are either already making their own cheese or are not set up to sell milk for human consumption. Out-of-state farmers need expensive certification to transport milk over state lines. To survive, she made two critical decisions. First, she started making cheeses from local cows milk, and second, she determined to make what goat cheeses she could from an out-of-state source of curd—otherwise known as chevre.
“When we can, we buy local all the ingredients that go into flavoring the chevre,” Schick says. “And the chevre is a small part of what we do.”
Schick has developed techniques for turning the curd into a variety of house-made aged cheeses. “Basically, all cheese starts with curd,” she explains. “We do what we have to do, based on our own interest and our own learning.”
CalyRoad’s popularity speaks to Schick’s accomplishment. The creamery’s cow and goat cheeses are sold at several farmers markets, including Marietta Square, Sandy Springs, Johns Creek and Dunwoody. This spring, Schick hopes to expand to more.
At farmers markets, it’s not always easy to separate the by-hand, all-local artisan from the growing company that has chosen, or been forced, to evolve. Sometimes the sales pitch remains the same, even when the methods no longer match the standards set by the host market.
“I’m betting there is a lot of fear around, ‘If I am honest, then maybe I will lose business,’” says Myers, who expressed concern that some of her competitors are not as forthright with customers as she is about sourcing and production. “I believe in complete and total transparency. I just say where it’s from, and if it does me in at a certain market, then I’ll live with that.”
Even honorable business owners of high-quality products, like the ones I spoke with, may struggle to keep their promotional language in synch with adaptations to their business models. After our interviews, Myers removed some outdated language from her website that said that Emily G’s jams are made in small batches. Schick changed the primary ingredient on her goat cheese labels from “pasteurized goat’s milk” to “fresh, regional, pasteurized goat curd.” But the language on the CalyRoad website still suggests that all its cheeses “start with fresh, all natural milk that is delivered weekly by a local dairy”—a description that is accurate only for its cow cheeses. Bean’s website states that she will come pick unharvested fruit; as her business grows and her time becomes more limited, she may need to adjust that language as well.
The importance in clarity goes beyond maintaining fairness among vendors or following each market’s rules and regulations. It’s essential to the local-food mission of connecting people to the food they eat.
“If we’re honest about where food comes from, it ultimately helps to educate the people in our community,” Bean says. “I think there’s great value in that kind of honesty.”
Next week: Get what you pay for
Image: Last summer, jam maker Lori Bean picked her own fruit. This year, she plans to rely on local farmers—a step that still keeps her sourcing well within standards at farmers markets.