It’s May: the beginning of farmers’ market season. That may not mean much to you, but for a locavore, it signifies a change in one’s weekend lifestyle. May through October, I get up early every Saturday morning – yes, voluntarily – and head for Grand Rapids’ Fulton Street Farmers’ Market. Usually, when I mention this to someone, odds are that they are first shocked (“You get up at seven o’clock on Saturday to do what?”) and then impressed. If I keep talking long enough, chances are that sometime within the next few weeks, that same person will proudly march up to me and announce, “I went to the farmers’ market last Saturday! It was awesome!”
What makes the farmers’ market worth a seven a.m. wake-up on Saturday morning? That’s easy to answer. Fresh food. Local food. Homegrown food. No middle men to eat up your dollars. The opportunity to directly support the endangered family farm. And if those reasons aren’t enough for you, there’s this one: taste. Next to a pint of freshly picked Michigan strawberries in the middle of June, those California things in the produce section of the grocery store pale in comparison.
My favorite farmers’ market experience is the Dane County Farmers’ Market in Madison, Wisconsin – probably one of the best open-air markets in the country. I remember being awed by the pretty, almost majestic setting, the herd of people, the plethora of wares to choose from. In Madison, the vendors set up stalls on the four streets that surround the capitol building in a square, and they sell everything from dry goods to cheese curds to the expected seasonal produce.
My own local market is not as large, but it has the same bounty to offer. There’s a woman who sells hand-knit and hand-crocheted goods, a local honey farm peddling honey and beeswax products, a local coffee vendor, and several farms that raise organic, grass-finished meat, from goat to lamb to beef and pork. There are a few local bakeries that sell bread and other baked goods. There’s even a local cheese vendor, and several stalls sell eggs from pastured chickens. Fresh flowers and herbs – potted and in flats to plant, as well as by the bunch or in bouquets – abound.
Farmers who grow their own produce are allowed to hang signs that claim “100% Homegrown.” Every vendor is local, coming from no more than 100 miles away. For the environmentalists, that’s a huge savings in fossil fuel and a reduction in one’s carbon footprint.
Some tips for enjoying the farmers’ market experience:
Bring your own bags and carry cash. I carry a couple of sturdy canvas tote bags and a handful of cash. I find that whatever funds I take along, I will spend, so I put myself on a budget. It’s easy to buy, buy, buy with all that wonderful eye candy. I take at least two bags: one for sturdy items, one for the more delicate items, like berries and flowers.
Walk the market twice. I do two rounds: the first to look, the second to buy. I compare quality and price from stall to stall the first time, then go back and buy what I want. I save heavy items, like melons in late summer and squash in fall, for last, so that my arms don’t get tired.
Get to know the farmers/vendors. You’ll see the same people week after week, and they all have stories. Get to know them, and they will begin to recognize and greet you with familiarity. This is part of the beauty of buying local – the chance to know the people you are supporting. As well, they can help you decide what to buy – they know what tastes best that week, and they can tell you how to prepare anything they’re selling. They can encourage you to try new vegetables and fruits (last week, for me, it was turnips, parsnips, and rutabagas – all of which were delicious, but I’d never have tried them if I hadn’t had a conversation with the farmer selling them).
Chances are there’s a farmers’ market near you, and that it operates seasonally or, if you’re lucky enough to live somewhere eternally warm, year-round. Try searching online using Google and the key words “farmers’ market” and the name of your city or town, or check your local news sources. I promise, both the experience and the food on your table will make it worthwhile.