Should you seek out farmer's markets? Only if you want the tastiest greens and juiciest fruits. Here are the West's best.
- San Luis Obispo, California
- Stockton, California
- San Francisco, California
- Missoula, Montana
- Salt Lake City, Utah
- Seattle, Washington
- Anchorage, Alaska
- Beaverton, Oregon
- Boise, Idaho
- Eugene, Oregon
You can't walk into a Safeway and look into the eyes of the windburned guy who grew your artichokes—and not only grew them but also lopped them off the day before and is standing there with dirt under his nails, eager to bend your ear about this year's bumper crop. But at a farmers' market? That's just what you'd expect. We're living through a true grassroots movement, a decades-long explosion of farm-to-kitchen commerce. And travelers who drop in on local markets get a terrific bonus: a chance to savor the essence of the place they're visiting. It's there in the rainbow sheaves of produce; it's there in the faces of the farmers. Of course, we in the United States are showing up a little late at this particular table. Travel guides to Mexico, Italy, and France often list open-air markets established long ago for city dwellers. In Vaison-la-Romaine, in France's Provence region, Tuesday has been market day since Pope Clement VII declared it so in 1532. Even today, shoppers line up to buy their week's chevre from the goatherd herself.
"Shake the hand that feeds you," suggests Michael Pollan in his 2008 best seller, In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto. "Food reclaims its story, and some of its nobility, when the person who grew it hands it to you." The U.S. government started tracking this trend in 1994, noting 1,755 farmers' markets nationwide. Just 12 years later, the count had ballooned to 4,385. California alone now has more than 500, and Nevada and Utah about two dozen each, with hundreds more throughout the West. (To locate markets around the country, visit www.localharvest.org or www.ams.usda.gov/farmersmarkets.)
You could say: Sure, that's nice. Seen one table piled with broccoli, seen them all. But San Luis Obispo's seasons are not Seattle's. Artichokes say coastal California, Rainier cherries Washington. You won't find avocados in Anchorage. Well, you might—but not at a farmers' market. Rules at most markets ensure that the apples of your eye grew to size within a few hundred miles. As one red-white-and-blue bumper sticker puts it, BUY FRESH. BUY LOCAL.
Granted, produce is cheaper in the supermarket. But more than half of U.S. consumers say they're happy to support sustainable farming, and, besides, few of us do all our shopping outdoors. The market farmers are on our side. They push back against blandness and bigness as they rebuild soils, protect streams, and stand up for the near-vanquished little guy. That extra buck you pay for a bag of organic greens goes into some grower's pocket, but call it a grant for real spadework—a tithe for tilth.
Maybe you've heard the term locavore, 2007's "word of the year," according to trend watchers at the New Oxford American Dictionary. It's a high-concept coinage for someone trying to get by on foods procured in season, mostly near home—an enchanting idea, depicted with amazing grace in Barbara Kingsolver's recent book, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. But who says you have to jump on the locavore bandwagon to love just-picked olallieberries, Brandywine tomatoes, Sequim strawberries, and Suncrest peaches? And what if you're not near home? Don't worry. Just leave the philosophical baggage in the car and go for a taste of the good stuff.
Shopping for strawberries, garlic, and artichokes under the streetlights has evolved into a Thursday night tradition in San Luis Obispo. Twenty-five years ago, the city hoped an evening market would diminish a downtown cruising scene. Now the market generates a family-style party atmosphere—no alcohol, but lots of fresh-cut flowers, hot churros, barbecued meats, and bulging bags of fruits and veggies. "A lot of people say their weekend starts here," says Diana Cotta of the downtown association. Pedro and Asteria Mamaradlo run Gold Ridge Farms near Morro Bay, and they've been bringing the fruits (and vegetables) of their labors to the market for 12 years. "I have a lot of friends there," Asteria says.
HIGHLIGHT: First strawberries of spring
WHEN: Every Thursday 6 p.m. to 9 p.m.
WHERE: Higuera Street between Osos and Nipomo streets
This is a market in true farm country. San Joaquin County produces more cherries (in eight different varieties) than any other county in California, and it leads the nation as a producer of asparagus and walnuts. The Stockton market wows shoppers with its sheer abundance—literally from fruits to nuts—but organizers go to extra lengths to amuse and entertain. On any visit, you might stumble onto a salsa taste-off or a battle of Elvis impersonators. (If you see a lot of bejeweled white jumpsuits, it's not salsa day.) There's always live music, from jazz to bluegrass. A favorite spot for downtown workers, the market swells at lunchtime.
HIGHLIGHT: Several kinds of cherries, mid-May through mid-June
WHEN: Fridays 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., May through October
WHERE: Main Street and Hunter Square
Every year, farmers haul in 1,200 varieties of fruits and vegetables to sell outside San Francisco's Ferry Building, while shoppers with their cargo turn departing ferries and trolleys into virtual produce trucks. Amid all the vendors, Heirloom Organic Gardens stands out. Owner Grant Brians has been farming organically since 1976, time enough to perfect the flavor of his tomatoes. You're visiting? No kitchen? Cocina Primavera offers a superb breakfast: huevos rancheros with avocado and pumpkin seeds on handmade corn tortillas. Or indulge in some St. Benoît natural star-thistle honey yogurt sold in a reusable crock.
HIGHLIGHT: Piquillo peppers, shelling beans, and new potatoes in fall
WHEN: Every Tuesday 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. and Saturday 8 a.m. to 2 p.m.
WHERE: Market Street and the Embarcadero
A small town built on good dirt, Missoula displays its appetite for fresh produce, from wild high-country huckleberries to sun-loving cantaloupes, every Saturday during growing season. Nearly half the vendors here are Hmong, a testament to the wave of Vietnam War refugees who brought their know-how from Southeast Asia to this mountain valley. Yeng Moua works a table crowded with green peppers, potatoes, snapdragons, and sunflowers grown by her parents on small plots scattered throughout town. Market regular Elke Govertsen knows several growers, a connection that ensures a few trophies for her sons, Boone, 5, and Dimitri, 3. "Sometimes they get a gigantic, bizarrely shaped carrot," she says.
HIGHLIGHT: Wild huckleberries in August
WHEN: Saturdays 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., May 3 through October 18
WHERE: Off Higgins Avenue near the old train station
There's no shortage of honey in the Beehive State. Some bees gather clover nectar, others work fields of raspberries, and shoppers get to explore the subtly sweet differences in the final products. From southern deserts to mountain forests, Utah has a varied climate that yields abundant, diverse crops: sweet corn, melons, cherries, peaches—even wild mushrooms. Kirk Blackburn, a computer programmer from West Bountiful, spends his weekends hauling and hawking red peppers, fresh greens, squash, and other fruits and vegetables from nearby East Farms. "It's a great break for me," he says. "I'm constantly meeting people all day long."
HIGHLIGHT: Deals on fall apples and pears
WHEN: Saturdays 8 a.m. to 1 p.m., June 14 through October 18
WHERE: Historic Pioneer Park
Be prepared for some good-natured jostling at the "U District" market, a vibrant scene where homemade cheeses, fresh bread, wild salmon, Olympia oysters, and just-picked peppers, peaches, apples, and cherries lure elbow-to-elbow crowds. Blake Johnston offers pasture-raised chickens, eggs, grassfed beef, and 35 kinds of vegetables from his mother's Growing Things farm 30 miles east of Seattle. "As a farmer, you do a lot of hard work by yourself," he says. "Seeing people appreciate what you're doing—that's huge." Wade Bennett of Rockridge Orchards & Cidery makes fresh-pressed apple cider, raspberry port, and blackberry wine with his own fruit. A market fixture since 1993, he's grateful for the throngs of eager buyers. "If it weren't for the farmers' markets," he says, "our farm wouldn't exist."
HIGHLIGHT: Peaches in July and August
WHEN: Every Saturday 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.
WHERE: NE 50th Street at University Way NE
Farming the Far North has an upside: Once the growing season starts, there's an embarrassment of sunshine. Twenty-two hours of daylight inspires greatness in the cabbages, cucumbers, and flowers that Kathy Baker raises at nearby Gray Owl Farm. "The closer to home your food grows, the fresher it's going to be," she says. The produce of early summer is also some of the best: Cupfuls of sweet, raw peas go down faster than kettle corn. Shoppers with bigger appetites might try salmon quesadillas, grilled halibut, or Rocky's spicy "killer shrimp." And at a place where craft vendors outnumber farmers, Lorena Finley's fur dolls stand out.
HIGHLIGHT: Almost anything grown in Alaska can be found here in late August.
WHEN: Saturdays and Sundays 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., May 10 through September 7
WHERE: Between C and E streets off West Third Avenue
Berries star at the Portland area's biggest farmers' market—firm Hood strawberries in June; blueberries in July; raspberries, blackberries, and olallieberries in August and September. Grab a small basket for instant gratification, or buy a whole case to freeze for the berry-deprived months ahead. Mount Hood region orchards yield the expected bounty of apples and pears, but the area's meat vendors offer real surprises. Choices include grass-fed elk, water buffalo, and yak. For another local specialty, try a bag of fresh-roasted hazelnuts. With as many as 20,000 shoppers on a sunny Saturday, this market hops.
HIGHLIGHT: Sweet marionberries in July
WHEN: Saturdays 8 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., May 10 through October; Wednesdays 3 p.m. to 6 p.m., June 11 through August 27
WHERE: SW Hall Boulevard between Third and Fifth streets
If it hadn't already staked its reputation on potatoes, southern Idaho could be famous for fruit. Hot, sunny summers fuel an explosion of peaches, berries, plums, nectarines, and melons that bring color and flavor to Boise's Capital City Public Market. Grapes thrive here too, and five local wineries have added their chardonnays and pinots to the mix. At a time when top Boise restaurants are touting local foods, shoppers can put together their own Idaho meals: handcrafted cheese for an appetizer; a salad of spinach, cucumbers, and tomatoes; lamb chops for a main course; a fresh-baked apple pie for dessert. And, what the heck, grab a few spuds, too. They'll keep.
HIGHLIGHT: Midsummer melons
WHEN: Saturdays 9:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., April 19 through October
WHERE: North Eighth Street between West Bannock and West
Eugene's friendly, no-hassle vibe is on full view at the Lane County market. Since this is Oregon, the market is all but obliged to sell berries by the truckload. But there's plenty of variety beyond the berry bushes. Vendors display colorful, multi-layered towers of local apples, tomatoes, root vegetables, and squash, visual masterpieces that can compete with any of the 250 art and craft booths at another market next door. The growers don't seem to mind that their aesthetic assemblages are ransacked and ravaged by afternoon. Shoppers wait happily in long lines for the season's first sweet corn.
HIGHLIGHT: Spring asparagus
WHEN: Saturdays 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., April 5 through November 8; Tuesdays 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., May 6 through October
WHERE: Eighth Avenue and Oak Street
Photography by Gabriela Hasbun
This article was first published in May 2008. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.