Are roadside farms stands or "farmers markets" really selling local produce, or just overpriced grocery store food? Sometimes, a little of both!
Traveling cross-country, we see a lot of roadside farm and vegetable stands. Some of these are little more than a wagon with a few pieces of fruits and vegetables on them and a coin box, with a sign saying "Honor System". Usually, these are folks with backyard vegetable gardens who are selling their surplus vegetables to make a few extra dollars.
Other farm stands are a little larger, often with row upon row of fresh produce as well as a cashier and even a machine that accepts credit cards. And sometimes these too, are local produce from local farmers, or backyard truck farmers. But often, the produce we see is from far away, often quite far away. In fact, sometimes it is the exact same produce you see in the supermarket.
And some of these farm stands or produce sellers are pretty upfront about this. At the local "farmer's market" an hispanic family sells produce from cartons clearly marked "Walmart" or "Safeway." When you ask him where the produce comes, from he vaguely replies "Florida." I'm not sure whether he's buying this stuff directly from the supermarket or from a wholesaler or whether it "fell off the truck." But they are not representing that they grew the food in question.
It seems about half these farm stands are this way. Either some of the produce they sell is locally grown and then the rest of it is purchased from a wholesaler, or in some cases all of the food is just from a local wholesaler. If you ask them where the produce comes from, some are either outright deceptive or give vague non-committal answers. Few of them will actually come right out and say, "I buy this by the case from the wholesaler down the street, who in turn gets it from a truck that came from California."
Then there are the so-called Amish farm stands. Some of these are somewhat authentic in that they sell products grown or made by local Amish people. The stands themselves might not necessarily be run by the Amish, but are more like small supermarkets. In other cases you actually see Amish people selling products directly by the side of the road, often the small children operating the stand. These are usually pretty authentic in that the produce you are buying was grown on their farm. Some of the more Mega-Amish supermarkets contain a lot of products which clearly were not made by the Amish, such as candy corn.
Then there are farm stands which are not really farm stands, but people just selling things out of the back of a pickup truck. We used to stop by an old fellow on the way back from Ithaca, who would have his pickup truck parked by the side of the road, with a small selection of produce on the tailgate. It was never cleared us where he was getting the produce, but I don't suspect he was actually growing it. We've also come across people with pickup trucks full of melons, potatoes, and other vegetables. And when I say the pickup trucks are full, they are full to the brim.
During a stop at a rest area one day, we saw two gentlemen in parallel pickup trucks transferring a load of watermelons from one truck to the other. The gentleman stood in one truck and threw the watermelons 15 to 20 feet to his companion, who caught them and carefully stacked them in his truck. Where these melons came from, or where they were going was not exactly clear to us, although they did offer to sell us one, and as I recall, we bought it.
Perhaps these were purloined melons stolen from some farmer's field, or perhaps they had a job picking melons and were paid in part by being given excess melons to sell. I guess we'll never know how or why this works, but a lot of people will park by the side of the road and sell produce either occasionally or continually. I supposed it is a good way to make some spare change if you need some money.
This is not to say these farm stands are all rip-offs or scams or schemes of one sort or another, only that many of them, in order to stay in business, get their produce from a number of sources. If you have a backyard garden producing fresh vegetables and people want tomatoes when all you have is potatoes, you are turning away customers. So it is tempting, and indeed a logical business choice, to buy a case of tomatoes from the wholesaler down the street and put them out and just not comment as to whether they were locally grown or not.
Similarly, produce that you grow is only available when it is in season, and tourists and other people may be coming by at all times of the year. So it is tempting, and indeed a logical business decision, to go down and buy produce that may be made across the country and shipped in refrigerated trucks to a distributor near you.
Regardless of the truth in advertising, the ultimate question as to whether the products are good value. Oftentimes we find that many "local produce" stands offer the same products that the local grocery store has, but for a much higher price. And of course this is because they are buying the products of the local grocery store and then reselling them, so they have to pad the price. The sellers also know that people will pay more at a roadside stand, as they often don't check prices, or think they are paying more for "local" foods.
On the other hand, we often find very good fresh produce at somebody's stand at very reasonable prices. Of course, it helps to know what a reasonable price is for produce. And then in other instances, even if the price isn't pretty good, there is the convenience factor. When you're on your way to the campground, and need a few tomatoes and peppers, it's nice to know there's a stand nearby where you can buy produce, fresh, local, or not.
But not in all cases are vegetables from a "farm stand" necessarily grown at the farm behind the stand.