Opening day at the farmers market is my most anticipated harbinger of spring. During the long, cold winter, I daydream of reconnecting with much-missed farmer friends, filling my bags with a rainbow of organic produce and sharing a homemade soft pretzel with my shopping partner.
If you’re unfamiliar with new-age farmers markets, imagine a roadside vegetable stand. Now imagine the colorful farm fare being 100 percent naturally grown and the vegetable stand being surrounded by a cornucopia of artisan bakers, local beekeepers, cooking demonstrations, live music, children’s booths and a crowd of engaged shoppers. This is the real-life makeup of farmers markets across Northeast Georgia, places where communities gather for fresh food and social connections in support of their local economies.
The anchor of every farmers market is still the familiar fare of produce, meat and eggs. Many markets advertise the production policies to which their vendors adhere, such as pesticide-free vegetable growing or the requirement of farms to be within a certain geographic region of the market. This trend of providing shoppers with locally and sustainably grown food of the highest quality is on the rise. According to Sagdrina Jalal, executive director of the Georgia Farmers Market Association, markets across Georgia are striving towards becoming certified by Certified Naturally Grown, a “farm assurance program certifying produce, livestock and apiaries for organic producers who sell locally and directly to their customers.”*
In addition to the quality of the farm fare, the variety of goods found at markets keeps the crowds coming. For instance, items like ginger and turmeric are rising in popularity, and farmers are responding from their bounty. Where supermarkets offer one variety of each root, farmers markets offer several, each with a different flavor and nutrition profile. Another example of variety involves the humble spud. When shopping for potatoes, market goers encounter a rainbow of potatoes, from dark-purple sweet potatoes to pale-yellow delicacies. Knowledgeable farmers stand alongside their produce, ready to recommend the best variety for the shopper’s needs.
Beyond vegetables, imagine the varieties of meat, cheese, bread, jam and drink offered. If you’re not hungry, imagine the art: handcrafted jewelry, locally designed textiles, wheel-thrown pottery – and the list continues. Are you with me in counting down the days until market opening day?
Oftentimes, a market’s location bolsters its charm. This is the case with the Monroe Farmers Market, which has a quaint downtown location, and the Freedom Farmers Market, which is situated near the Atlanta Beltline and the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library & Museum. Other markets are a product of their environment and are infused with a character unique to their home city. Look no further than the live music at each Athens Farmers Market or the arts & crafts vendors at the Blue Ridge Farmers Market.
The old stereotype of farmers markets as gathering places for homogenous groups of affluent shoppers is outdated; new-age markets are striving to function in a truly representative fashion. Many successful markets are filling their vendor slots and shopping queues with crowds that reflect the community at large. The need for local, nutritious food isn’t unique to one demographic, as evidenced by the diversity of shoppers at new-age markets.
Intentional outreach is a key component of Northeast Georgia’s markets. The Monroe Farmers Market has a Senior Bucks program for patrons aged 65 and up, and nationwide, the Wholesome Wave program (formerly known as the Fruit & Vegetable Prescription Program) doubles low-income shoppers’ SNAP/EBT dollars and provides healthy food prescriptions to combat diet-related illness. Sarah Thurman, manager of the Athens Farmers Market, observes, “When the anxiety of affordability disappears, people enthusiastically eat vegetables.”
Another type of farmers market worthy of mention is Community Supported Agriculture (CSA). CSAs are not brick-and-mortar markets; instead, they are online marketplaces where consumers can order farm fare, oftentimes through a weekly subscription service. Fresh Harvest is an Atlanta-based CSA that describes itself as an “online farmers market that connects local farmers to folks in greater Atlanta.” They, like many other CSAs in the region, deliver baskets of in-season produce and other farmers market products to your home, place of work, or other prearranged drop-off location.
This type of market is very popular with professionals and busy families.
A basic spring CSA basket might include radishes, mushrooms, green onions, heirloom lettuce, strawberries, cabbage, rainbow chard and turnips, with add-on items of stone-ground flour, local honey and pasture-raised beef. Participants reap the benefits of having nutritious food to eat without having to commit time to shopping at a traditional farmers market.
If you’re new to farmers markets and need an extra push to venture out, go during the first market of the year or during a special event, when the markets are most vibrant. Many markets open their doors between March and May, although some are so popular that they remain open year-round. Markets are held on different days of the week and at various times of day – a fact worth noting if you’re not an early bird and can’t bear the thought of getting up early on a Saturday morning. To locate a market near you, search the listings in the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Farmers Market Directory at www.ams.usda.gov/local-food-directories/farmersmarkets.
The benefits to locals of shopping at farmers markets are abundant, but there are plenty of benefits for visitors, too. Thurman explains, “Farmers markets hold the gems of a community. If you eat a biscuit at the market, it’s going to be the best biscuit in town. If you eat a pastry, it’s going to be the best pastry. If it’s coffee, it’s going to be the best coffee.”
Whether you’re a longtime farmers market shopper, a first-time visitor or a tourist passing through, be sure to visit one or more of Northeast Georgia’s blossoming farmers markets this spring. As for me, when my local market opens on March 23, you know where I’ll be.