Local crops and farmers markets got an early start this year. And judging from the relative bounty already evident at the growing number of markets, it is going to be a very good year.

Besides opening earlier, markets have attracted more growers and vendors. So far, the variety of crops and products exceeds what we're used to at this point in the season.

The mild winter and good weather conditions get some of the credit. The rest goes to smart farmers who took note of the 15 percent increase in farm-market business here last year and planned ahead, "forcing" some crops in greenhouses and "high tunnels" (tented crop rows in the field) to get early harvests of tomatoes, strawberries, green beans and broccoli to augment the usual spring range of asparagus, rhubarb, onions, leeks, herbs, peas, potatoes, mushrooms, and assorted salad and cooking greens. The only problem may be what they must charge.

"Our farmers are really worried about pricing. Some say they want to keep prices the same as last year," said Bob Pierson, director of Farm to City, a nonprofit group that helps local farmers market crops directly to consumers through farm markets, buying clubs, and Consumer Supported Agriculture (CSA) programs.

With about one-third of his growers maintaining organic certification and another third following natural and low-pesticide farming practices, that just isn't practical, says Pierson, who has been advising growers against undervaluing their goods.

In general, despite increases, farmers markets offer good value for the fresh, locally produced foods they provide, i.e. higher quality at lower prices (with a smaller carbon footprint).

But this year, those prices may not be as low as we are used to. We've been spoiled. For most of us, food has always been readily available and at least reasonably affordable. Actually, by much of the world's standards, an absolute bargain.

Now, as food prices are climbing around the globe, small growers locally are dealing with the same higher costs for energy-dependent fertilizer, feed grain and such, along with the escalating costs of oil and fuel.

Still, local comparison shopping found our farmers market prices competitive with supermarkets'. Local asparagus was $2.25 to $3.95 a bunch (about a pound) at most farmers markets, compared with same-day supermarket prices of $3.99 (Whole Foods) and $4.99 (Pathmark) per pound.

"Even if I have to pay a little more, it's worth it, because the food is fresher and tastes better," said city dweller Dottie Mitchell, drawn to Fairmount's street-corner stands en route to a nearby restaurant.

Another shopper at Fairmount hesitantly asked what those long, ruby-red stalks were and how to use them.

In some areas, rhubarb may be found only at farmers markets, and then for just a few weeks. At Aviator Park, four large stems (near 11/2 pounds) were $4 last week, and at Fairmount, $2.95 a pound. Of three supermarkets visited, only one had fresh rhubarb ($3.49 a pound at ShopRite).

Local strawberries, ripe and sweet, were $3.50 a pint last week at Aviator Park and, in much greater supply, $5 a quart Sunday at Headhouse. (You could have opted for ShopRite's 4-pounds-for-$5.99 deal on California berries last week, but they wouldn't taste the same.)

And Livengood Produce offered huge heads of organic butter lettuce, three to four times supermarket size, at $3.95 a head at the Fairmount market.

Ruth Linton toted two ice chests to Aviator Park from Highland Orchards in Wilmington - one filled with chicken and turkey parts, the other with steaks, sausage and bacon.

"It's all naturally raised on neighboring farms and processed fresh by a local butcher," Linton said.

The boneless, skinless chicken breasts were $5.50 a pound, compared with the Whole Foods price of $6.49 a pound for like product.

More growers are expanding their offerings in order to increase sales and maximize profits on the long trips to market.

In its second year, Fairmount has growers Dwain Livengood, Samuel Stoltzfus and Bill Weller, each offering a range of produce through the season. Along with organic produce, Livengood sells organic, grass-fed beef from his small herd - 4-ounce patties at $5.25 a pound to T-bone steaks at $16 a pound. Stoltzfus brings Pennsylvania Dutch baked goods along with his produce. In his first venture from upstate Bloomsburg into the Philadelphia market, Weller started with flower baskets and herbs in advance of crops to come, including much-anticipated peaches in July.

And Versailles Bakery, of Collingswood, offers prepared foods such as quiche and croissant-wrapped hot dogs that outshine any ordinary bun (a bargain at $1.75) at its outposts at the Headhouse and Fairmount markets, the New Hope market (Tuesday and Saturday), and the Collingswood market (Saturday).

The Food Trust has nearly doubled its markets, to 30, in the last five years, this year adding Aviator Park at 20th and Race, on Wednesday. Two others, in the North Hills and Temple University areas, are due to open in July once sites and schedules are set.

The trust's venues span the region, extending into Lancaster, West Reading and Catasauqua. It also has two year-round city sites, Clark Park and Fitler Square.

Farm to City has added two markets - City Hall courtyard and 10th and Chestnut near Jefferson Hospital - bringing FTC sites to 15.

The two groups also have helped establish other market sites now operating independently. Many other markets have been established in the area with the support of community groups.

Market Moxie

As farmers markets open around the region, it's a good time to review some basic tips for shopping success, courtesy of Ivy Manning, a freelance food writer and personal chef in Portland, Ore.:

  • Get there early for the best produce. You'll be able to choose from the freshest selection, and chances are you'll be able to chat with vendors who aren't yet swamped.

  • Take a stroll through the stalls before buying. The broccoli at one producer's table may look better than another's, or browsing may help in mapping out a wallet strategy.

  • Bring cash. Most vendors do a cash-only business; do them a favor and bring small bills and coins.

  • Bring your own bags. It's environmentally friendly.

The tips are from Manning's new book, The Farm to Table Cookbook: The Art of Eating Locally (Sasquatch Books, 2008).

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Broiled Asparagus and Orange Slices

Makes 4 side-dish or 3 first-course servings

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1 pound asparagus, woody stem ends snapped off and discarded

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

1 shallot, sliced thin in rings

4 very thin orange slices, quartered

1/4 teaspoon finely grated orange zest

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1. Place rack close to broiler and heat to high.

2. In a bowl, toss asparagus with oil, salt and pepper.

3. Arrange shallot rings in a thin layer on one side of a rimmed baking sheet or jelly roll pan. Top with asparagus in a single layer. Toss the orange slices with leftover oil in the bowl. Arrange slices in a single layer alongside asparagus.

4. Broil until asparagus and oranges just start to char, 5 to 8 minutes. Remove and sprinkle with orange zest.

5. Serve hot, warm, or at room temperature.

Per serving (based on 4): 92 calories, 4 grams protein, 4.5 grams carbohydrates, 0.5 grams sugar, 7 grams fat, no cholesterol, 308 milligrams sodium, 4.2 grams dietary fiber.

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Smashed Potatoes & Long-Cooked Leeks

Makes 8 to 10 servings

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3 pounds moderately starchy potatoes (Yukon Gold, Satina, Purple Peruvians or All Reds), see Note

6 to 8 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

Kosher or sea salt

Freshly ground white pepper

3 bunches leeks (about 10), white part only

1/4 to 1/2 cup chicken stock or water

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1. Heat oven to 400 degrees. Cut medium potatoes in half or large ones in quarters. Put a single layer in a shallow baking pan(s), toss with 2 tablespoons oil. Season with salt and pepper. Cover pan with foil and roast 30 minutes.

2. Uncover, toss potatoes to loosen. Roast, uncovered, until tender and lightly browned, about 20 minutes more.

3. Meanwhile, quarter leeks lengthwise and slice thin.

4. In a wide pot, heat 4 tablespoons oil to medium-low. Add the leeks, season with salt and pepper, reduce to low heat. Cook gently, stirring some, until leeks almost dissolve, about 30 minutes. Stir in a little stock toward the end of cooking if leeks seem dry or are sticking to pan.

5. Smash the potatoes in the pan with a fork or masher, scraping up any browned bits. Stir in the leeks. Add a little more oil or stock to moisten as needed. (This can be made ahead and reheated in a 350-degree oven.)

Note:

To vary, use 1 pound each of three colors of potatoes, using a separate pan for each color, smashing separately and dividing the leeks among them. Then gently fold the three batches together for distinct swirls of color. Green garlic or spring onions may be used instead of leeks.

Per serving (based on 10): 253 calories, 4.6 grams protein, 41 grams carbohydrates, 4.8 grams sugar, 9 grams fat, no cholesterol, 282 (or more) milligrams sodium, 4.7 grams dietary fiber.

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No-Cook Gazpacho

Makes 4 servings

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1 cup tomato or vegetable juice

1/2 cup tomatoes, peeled and chopped

1 rib celery, diced

1/2 cucumber, peeled, diced

1/4 green bell pepper, diced

2 scallions (white and light green part), diced

11/4 tablespoons white wine vinegar

3/4 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil

1 clove garlic, peeled, minced

3/4 teaspoon minced flat-leaf parsley

Tabasco sauce to taste

Salt and pepper to taste

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1. Combine all ingredients in a bowl. Cover. (Or, place the base ingredients in a food processor with the knife blade and pulse 5 to 8 times until coarsely chopped.)

2. Refrigerate overnight and serve cold.

Per serving: 49 calories, 1.2 grams protein, 6.4 grams carbohydrates, 2.2 grams fat, no cholesterol, 133 milligrams sodium, 1 gram fiber.

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