As farmers' markets open around the region, I look forward with great pleasure to visiting my favorites and checking in with the growers from around the region.
As a gardener, I go to learn from the masters. I can see and sample crop varieties I might try, in quantities I couldn't grow without an acre or two. I have a small backyard berry patch and veggie beds, but I need boxes and boxes of strawberries for the jam I want to put up this month, the dilly beans I crave in July, and the peach brandy I want to infuse in August. In spring, most farm markets have at least one grower who sells seedlings – often of the same crops they have had success with in years past. Advice about planting and care direct from an expert comes along with every sale.
As a cook, I see myriad ingredients for every meal – all the vegetables and fruits that can be coaxed out of healthy local soil. I've had Pennsylvania grown chickpeas, right out of the pod, and the sweetest melons – still warm from the field – grown right here in Philadelphia.
As a lover of color and style, I never leave a farm market without a bunch of locally grown cut flowers. I imagine these nearby flower farms dotting the landscape with blooms and feeding a diverse ecosystem of pollinators and birds with their nectar, pollen, and seeds. Bringing these flowers back to a dining room table connects me to the hands that planted and cut these flowers, and the bees, hummingbirds, and ladybugs who feed on them. I like this feeling.
But farm markets are about so much more than buying food for me. Bursting with colors, they are a hub for neighbors and tourists to mingle, and a very important source of income to the valuable stewards of the land that surround our cities. And nowadays, there is so much more to offer than produce: These markets provide such artisan products as bread, cheese, candles, herbal tinctures, beer, soft and hard cider, even whiskey, not to mention locally made ice cream, jams, and honey. At the best markets, these are made on the farms and available for sale direct from the producer. And many farm markets now have a prepared-food stall or food truck that allows you to extend your stay with a pastry break or a food truck taco.
I also prefer to buy eggs, poultry, and meat at farm markets. Doing this can help support practices that let animals lead the kind of life – scratching, pecking or grazing outside – that respects the animal, the land, and the humans whose livelihoods are entangled together with these creatures. No antibiotics, no feedlots, no manure cesspools. I envision the animal having an integral role on these family farms – eating the grass, providing eggs to eat, manure to fertilize, and tasty flavorful meat for the occasional meal. I like this image, and if it means fewer meat meals because this meat costs more, that is the cost of doing the right thing.
If you are not sure about how something was grown or raised, ask the farmers, because they are the ones behind the table laden with goods. Their growing practices are influenced by the requests they get, and this feedback and these connections help us all understand new things. Among other things, supporting local farmers means they have a livelihood and a productive use for their land, so maybe it won't be sold for another housing development.
There is so much to take in and enjoy at these markets, that it is best, when you can, to shop without urgency. Enjoy the meandering, the conversations, the samples. Most of us live or work within minutes of a market, and so can all enjoy these connections to our food producers, to our neighbors, and to the ingredients that will produce delicious meals.
And don't forget one of my favorite adages this time of year: "If you've eaten today, thank a farmer."
Tips for doing the farmers' market right
Shopping at a farm market requires more patience and planning than a trip to the supermarket. Here are some tips to help you make the most of it.
1. Take along various-size bags, including an insulated bag with a cool pack, so cheese, fish, meat, or poultry can be safely transported. A market basket with a handle and with more room to spread items out horizontally will keep tender fruits like soft strawberries from getting smashed. A mason jar tucked in your basket with a few inches of water will keep flowers fresh.
2. Each vendor has to be salesperson and cashier, and that can take time. Be mindful of how many folks are trying to pay for goods. Circle back during a lull to pick up the conversational thread, but don't keep a farmer from making sales.
3. Make the most of your trip. Arrive as close to opening as you can, when the variety is at its peak, and the farmers' are too. Many of the growers pack their trucks before dawn and drive into the city just after sunrise. By midday, their produce isn't the only thing flagging.
4. If your neighborhood market is a late-afternoon affair, plan to stop between work and home for the freshest dinner salad or dessert.