Walking past white tents at Haymaker Farmers Market in Kent, my eyes flinch back at a sign with a large white illustrated chicken. The sign reads, “Breakneck Acres.” I don’t know about you, but when I read that sign, I smirked and hoped that the irony that I immediately recognized was true. (If you’re still confused at what I thought was so blatantly sinister, think about preparing the bird for market. My suggestion would be to learn more about where your food comes from. That might give you an idea.) I imagined the little girl clad in a black and white polka dotted dress beneath the sign shouting at passers by, “Breakneck Acres, we’ll do the dirty work!” I approached the tent. The name was too good of a story to pass up. I had to know.
These are the moments that intrigue me. What makes me take a second glance? Geometrically pleasing displays of strawberries. The smell of homemade lavender soap pouring out of a wooden bowl like Pez from a broken dispenser. These sensory signals immediately attract my gaze, pulled in by selfish desire, and keep me coming back. However, stories like the one I saw on the sign at Breakneck Acres ignite my curiosity. I immediately want to know more. My pen and journal emerge from my bag as my taste for more grows deeper.
While at Haymaker Market, I stumbled upon many stories with a twist. Unconventional ways of growing, making, eating and selling. The rapidly expanding mainstream interest in farmers markets is forcing farmers to keep things interesting. Modern innovations on traditional practices keep the modern consumer coming back for more. With simple introductions and a few initial questions, an ironically hilarious sign became a gateway into the workings of a Ravenna, Ohio farm committed to environmental and land stewardship. Breakneck Creek both inspires their namesake and powers a stone mill on their property, creating feed for the animals as well as people. They have quite a system. A local creek mills the grain that feeds animal and farmer alike. Talk about working together.
A short distance away from the Breakneck Farms tent stood a table of wooden crates filled with neatly bundled lettuces peeking through the cracks. I had a sudden maternal urge to cradle one by the look of them. The sign above read, “Oak Tree Hydroponic Farms.” As an Environmental Studies major, I have some classroom knowledge about this technology, but their placement at a farmers market in Kent intrigued me. A specific formula that includes constant running water laced with a nutrient solution and light shining 11 ½ hours a day works to produce quality lettuces, herbs and cucumbers every day of the year. That’s 365 days to be exact.
When plants are able to grow 365 days out of the year, the word “seasonal” no longer applies. Jan Brown insists, “we have become accustomed to accepting availability of produce year round. It shouldn’t be that way. That’s not how nature works.” Instead, Jane and her husband Steve challenge the natural cycle of produce in a way that does not harm the environment but offers fresh, regular produce to consumers year round.
While unconventional in practice, they are still limited by societal standards of beauty. Certain products, like tubers, are not grown well in hydroponic forms because they need pebbles to form. This is not difficult, but it creates mauled, distorted looking produce that frightens people away. They don’t meet the expectation we have constructed. We are so focused on appearance that even our food must look a certain way to be fit for our consumption. What’s wrong with an ugly potato? I don’t think anyone will complain after they are cut up, fried and dashed with salt.
Jan assured me that these soil-less lettuces are the form of the future. “We have ruined our water, ruined our soil, and ruined our air. This is the only way.” With a soon to be operational greenhouse, Oak Tree Farms is able to grow 19,000 plants at one time. The excitement and interest in hydroponics is growing, attracting school groups from all around to their location. An added bonus, there is no competition. They are in a field of their own. Well, a greenhouse that is.
From an ancient stone mill to hydroponic lettuce, the produce offered at Haymaker Farmers Market gave me a glimpse into the future of food. In order to change the way our society interacts with food, not simply as a passive consumer, there must be a respect and appreciation for traditional practices combined with a thirst for modern innovation. We must be active participants. Strolling through a farmers market, engaging with the vendors, gets you one step closer to the food that ends up on your plate. The distance is shortened. The mind enlivened.
Whether you search the stalls at Haymaker Farmers Market beneath a beautifully painted bridge, or frequent a market near you, the relationship you create with your food deepens. Take some time, find a story, engage with people. And above all, connect with your food. Your taste buds will thank you.