Sunday, September 26, 2010

Farmer's Markets

Farmer's markets have always been a part of my life.  My mom used to take us to the West Allis Farmer's Market. I can remember the bustling aisles, and especially buying bags of apples from Weston's Orchard and frozen cider pops from Nieman Orchards.  There is no where like a farmer's market to get excited about vegetables, at least in my family.

When Bryan and I were dating, we began doing the majority of our shopping at the Dekalb Farmer's Market.  The YDFM isn't your normal farmer's market, however.  It is a vast warehouse filled with every dry good, produce, meat, seafood, dairy, wine, and beer item imaginable, from all over the world.  Their produce section alone is bigger than most grocery stores in their entirety.  Truly an amazing resource, this was hard to leave behind when moving away from Atlanta.

Once we moved to Milwaukee, we knew we wanted to find local markets to shop at.  Of course we began visiting the West Allis market, since we live close, and I spent some mornings at the smaller New Berlin Farmer's Market with Mom.  Smaller, with more ready made items, it is a pleasant way to spend the morning.  We visited the Dane Country Market, around Capitol Square in Madison.  The largest producer-only farmers’ market in the country, it is a sight to behold.  However, as large and popular as it is, it is impossible to navigate with a stroller, and no place to let a toddler roam free.  I'm not a big fan of crowds, so while a great market and all, not the place for me.  The new Tosa Farmer's Market has become one of our favorite places to spend our Saturday mornings.   To me, this market has the perfect blend of direct producers, offering a wide variety of fruits and vegetables, and finished goods, such as coffee, breads, jams, and soups.  The market is new, and small, so it allows us to let Oliver run free without worry. 

For me, there is something perfect about wandering along the stalls of a market, inspecting produce, discovering new foods, talking with the smiling vendors.  Open air markets have been a part of human history ever since we had food to sell.  Continuing this tradition keeps us connected to our food in a way we cannot afford to lose.

One of the greatest draws of farmer's markets for me, other than the obvious bounty of food which appeals to my stomach, is the ability to buy food which is as fresh as you can get, not having grown it yourself.  The produce is generally less than 24 hours from the field.  Buying something so fresh obviously means it's local, and supporting my local economy, especially my farmers, is something I find extremely important.

Not all produce at a market is Certified Organic.  But as certification is an onerous and expensive title to take on, many smaller produces employ organic (or beyond organic) practices.  Another great thing about farmer's markets is that you, the consumer, have the ability to interact directly with the producer of your foods.  Ask how the food is produced.  There may not be a "Certified Organic" sign, but you may find that the food fits your needs just the same.

Shopping directly from farmers benefits both me as the consumer as well as the farmer.  Without the "middle man", all profits go directly to the farmer, and there is no additional markup to pay that additional middle man (or two).  To make things even better, more and more farmer's markets have vendors who accept food stamps, through the EBT program, and/or WIC, as part of the USDA's Nutrition Assistance Programs.  The USDA also offers a program for Seniors.
More personally, we have had the opportunity to become connected to our food by direct work with a farm.  As Bryan works from home, and is a social being, he needed an outlet away from home.  When JenEhr Family Farms, through whom we've gotten our CSA these past few years, sent out a request asking for help at the markets, we knew this would be a perfect fit for Bryan.  Getting outdoors, talking to people, and food - all for the win.  Little did we know how we would become so closely connected to the farm, and our food, nor did we understand how this opportunity would provide us the ability to become connected with other farms, expanding our direct connection to more of the foods we eat.  Going beyond the produce, chickens, and rabbits we source from JenEhr, we love our mushrooms from River Valley Kitchens, some of the best breads imaginable from Wild Flour Bakery, the irresistible cider and free apples Oliver's cute face manages to elicit from Nieman Orchards, the fantastic cheeses from Saxon Creamery, the tantalizing dry cured meats from Bolzano, the fresh pastas from Mia Famiglia - the list goes on and on.  It's more than just vegetables.
You can find nearly everything you need at many markets these days.  Going far beyond just fruits and vegetables, most markets now boast vendors carrying meats, eggs, dairy products, breads and other baked goods, mushrooms, handmade pastas, jams, jellies, relishes, pickles, flowers - nearly every essential (and quite a few non-essentials!) you can think of.  If visiting a market and seeing all these beautiful things doesn't get you excited about food, I am not sure much will.

And it's more than just the food, too.  Learning about these products, sharing tips and tricks, hearing the story of these producers - this is a good thing.

This is why I cannot withstand the allure of a farmer's market.  While I menu plan, and do purchase items from the market to fulfill that plan, I also will not hesitate to supplant items on my menu with something that looks better, or to add to my plans when I find something additional to compliment a dish.  It took me awhile to feel comfortable in doing so, but now, it is second nature.  This is why the Tosa market is becoming our Saturday morning tradition:  Grab a cup of coffee from Anodyne or a fruit smoothie from First Fruits (Oliver's preference), and a baked good from any number of vendors, and meander around slowly.  Even Oliver seems to understand this concept (it probably helps that he knows exactly where to go to get his smoothie, or find the apple cider).  Find something new, pick up some things needed, and generally enjoy family and nature.  This, to me, is pretty close to heaven.

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