Hear ye, hear ye, for though the wrathful Snowmageddon of 2021 doth approach this eve of the week’s end, many a wandering pondering have I spared for the coming of a much beloved annual bloom: local farmer’s markets.
Never something I had seen as a child, and as a young adult I spared them no glance. City-bred and experience-poor, I thought them whimsical and wholly uninteresting.
One of my many regrets, that, not discovering them sooner.
But life is short, as they say, with little time for such things as wasting it over what might have been. Fortunately, I had dear friends who extended invitations for local market visits, and eventually my opinion began to shift.
When visiting certain locales, such as in New Mexico, Washington State, and even here in Colorado, it became a special event to spend a couple of hours wandering up and down the parks or fairgrounds of a small town in spring or summer to peruse produce stalls, mingle over a meal at a food truck, eye clever crafts and bring home a bright bouquet for the table.
And then, very recently, an opportunity arose for me to work at a farmer’s market. Though I abhor beyond belief rising before the sun for any given reason, I thought, why not? It only took away Saturday mornings for a few months, and I’d get paid for my time to sit there and sell products I already loved.
At first, I played the good little soldier, stubbornly stuck to my stall and not wandering around too much, though I really, really wanted to peruse. Shy and reserved by nature, it took some time to begin introducing myself around to the other vendors and build the confidence to ask questions.
(Yeah, I hear you thinking that my writing doesn’t reflect this, but most of you haven’t met me in person.)
Turns out, it’s really hard to work with the same people every Saturday morning from April until November and not get to know them, start to trade jokes with them, stand in lines for hot coffee on a brisk day with them, and take care of each other as a tight-knit community for a full season. Multiple seasons, if you and they return the following year.
Though I’m still a newbie to the community, through those months many wonderful revelations evolved regarding the nature of farmer’s markets in general. These are but three, with perhaps more to come at a later date.
Local Produce, Local Businesses
This may seem like a no-brainer, but a large portion (if not all, depending on market rules) of the produce and specialty items found at a farmer’s market are local to the state or county, if not the immediate city. Sure, you can find some of the same apples, pears, or peppers at the supermarket, but have you ever sunk your teeth into a plump peach picked within the last day, on the other side of the mountains, at the peak of ripeness? Sampled honey harvested from bees that sought nectar in a field not three miles away from the market grounds? Plucked seeds from the head of a sunflower when, in full bloom, the diameter stretched larger than a six-month-old child?
Those and other wonders opened my eyes to a huge difference not only in taste, but also in quality. There’s no comparison.
In addition, a range of unusual finds exist that are unique to each market, items you wouldn’t expect to grow in that area and simply stumble upon — I hadn’t even heard of a “sunchoke” until a few months ago, when a local farmer recommended them to me. She even handed me one and shared a simple recipe to follow, asking that I return the next week to tell her how it went. I’ll definitely tell that story in detail another day.
Other wonderful discoveries from my own market days: squash blossoms, fairytale eggplant, and green chile pupusas with a fried egg on top. For the first time, I tried farm-fresh eggs, yogurt made in the next town over, wild mustard, and even mushrooms from a harvester who wandered the mountains on his days off.
If you’re not careful, it’s easy to be overwhelmed by how many wonderful gems you can uncover. Exploration is part of the fun.
Another side to market shopping: doing so can help those farmers, bakers, butchers, and makers to thrive, especially during times of economic hardship. As part of the community, rallying local support makes a huge difference in the survival of small businesses.
A certain satisfaction exists in knowing exactly where your food has been from start to finish. Grocery stores can’t offer that, even if they have a designated “local” section; going to the market eliminates the middle man step and brings the best and freshest possible directly to you, the consumer.
Sometimes this means you can find items at a lower price at market; in other instances, such as during pumpkin or artichoke season, you’re likely to pay a bit more. However, that extra goes directly to the producer rather than to a large chain of stores that can likely source the same product elsewhere year-round, at times sacrificing quality for a better deal or a lower cost.
Yes, vendors are there to sell. But show a little interest, offer some patronage and you’ll find they’re more than willing to offer advice and ideas.
For example: while fascinated with the fairytale eggplant when I first spied them, I had no idea how they differed from the big purple monsters I was used to seeing/eating, and how preparation would change. Sure, there’s always Google, but why not ask someone who works with them — and likely cooks with them — once they come into season?
So I asked. And boy, did I gain a wealth of information! Excited, I went home to roast my itty-bitty eggplants and enjoyed them so much that I returned to the same stall every week for more. Each time, I continued to build that relationship, asked more questions, and learned even more about the food I chose to put in front of me and my family.
The same goes for just about every vendor with whom I interacted — again, no disrespect to the world wide web, but nothing compares to having an honest-to-goodness conversation with someone who brought this food to you directly from the earth, or from animals they raised themselves. Sure, some vendor stalls only had representatives like me as opposed to the real makers/growers of the product, but 99% of the time you’re going to find individuals who want to be there and genuinely care about the product. Heck, talking to vendors landed me a job in the first place!
So while winter may be coming again for a short spell, I instead look forward to the arrival of April and opening day of the market.