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When the warm weather dissipates, farmers begin to fill their market stalls with hardy root vegetables: turnips, rutabagas, sweet potatoes, beets, carrots, winter radishes. But this year, customers can also find an exotic tuber among the local mix: fresh ginger.
If you’ve been thinking of cooking up a “locally grown” theme for your Thanksgiving dinner, I’ve got some good news and bad news for you. The bad news is this: If you haven’t already arranged to buy a Georgia heritage turkey, you aren’t likely to find one at this late date. Locally, humanely, naturally raised turkeys are in such high demand in these parts that most are spoken for before the poults have become proper poultry.
Although several farmers markets around metro Atlanta have now shut down until next spring, we lovers of fresh, local food still have plenty of options. In fact, each year more and more markets opt to extend their seasons. Here's an updated list of area markets that are still in operation.
We’re lucky, in this part of the world, to have several tenacious farmers who produce food year-round. But as the days get cooler and some farmers markets shut down for the season, it does get harder to find the delicious greens, radishes, lettuce, squash, turnips and sweet potatoes that farmers are harvesting right now.
They operate in parks and parking lots for a few hours a week … but not always the same hours a week. They are loosely formed, a collection of entrepreneurs and independent thinkers who want to shake up the status quo. They’re experimental, free-wheeling, adaptable.
With Farmers Atlanta Road Market in Smyrna opening Tuesday, Dunwoody Green Market opening Wednesday, and East Lake, Peachtree Road and Sandy Springs farmers markets opening Saturday, it’s safe to say the spring farmers market season is upon us.So what’s it to you?Maybe a lot. There’s more going on at the typical farmers markets than meets the eye. Here’s a smattering of reasons why you should frequent the one nearest you:1. Farmers markets are fun. This ain’t a boring trip to a grocery store. Thanks to a little healthy competition between markets, the managers are almost coming up with new ways to draw in customers. On any given day at any given farmers market, you may encounter local musicians, a cooking demo from an area chef, a children’s concert, a dog parade.2. Farmers markets offer the healthiest food. Check the policies at your nearby market; most require vendors to raise food without man-made pesticides or fertilizers. Often, food was harvested within several hours of market time, when it’s at its most nutritious.3. Farmers markets offer the best-tasting food. What could taste better than a fresh-picked strawberry or an egg from a free-roaming chicken? Nothing. Really.4. Farmers markets support the local economy. Most markets put a mileage limit on their vendors, guaranteeing that they are based in the region. When you spend your hard-earned money at a farmers market, you can be assured that much of it will stay in the area.5. Farmers markets support fledgling businesses. Entrepreneurs have discovered that farmers markets offer a low-cost way to test a new business concept. By shopping there, you help small business people gauge which products sell, and which ones don’t.6. Farmers markets are educational. What better way to teach your children about healthy eating than by setting a good example? Take your kids to markets and encourage them to ask farmers and other producers anything they want to know about products.7. Farmers markets are educational. This one gets two spots, because grownups can learn at farmers markets, too. Discover a new vegetable. Stay for a cooking demo and learn how to prepare it. Ask a meat producer why they choose to raise livestock on pasture instead of feedlots. You may be surprised by all that you learn.8. Farmers markets are a great way to meet your neighbors. I never cease to be amazed at how freakin’ friendly everyone is at a farmers market. In the past week alone, I’ve had conversations at markets about: dogs I have known, the egg-laying habits of hens, hopes and dreams of the newly married, cooking methods for fava beans, the history of sugar cane mills in Georgia, business hours of a local coffee shop, the charms of Western North Carolina, the popularity of green peas. All with (formerly) complete strangers.9. Farmers markets are a great way to meet farther-flung neighbors. It’s often said that Georgia is actually two states: metro Atlanta and everyone else. Many vendors at Atlanta-area markets come in from that “other” Georgia beyond the 'burbs. Interaction between city folk and country folk fosters good feelings and better understanding all around.10. Farmers markets may solve your problem about what to serve for dinner. Fresh, whole foods
This is the final installment in a series on ingredient sourcing for processed—sometimes called “value-added”—foods sold at farmers markets.Shoppers may seek out farmers markets for a variety of reasons: because they want more “natural” foods; because they want to know how the plant or animal they’re eating was raised; because they want to support local businesses. A few farmers markets require food vendors to acquire a certain percentage of their ingredients locally, but most do not.As the consumer, you have to decide for yourself what’s important.Will you pay more for humane or environmentally sustainable practices? Can you live with scant supplies of your favorites in the off-season? When forced to make an imperfect choice, do you prefer locally grown or certified organic/sustainably grown? Whatever your choice, vendors who share your priorities should be able to tell you—and show you—where they get their ingredients and why.A “Georgia Grown” label may not help you decide. The Georgia Grown website explains that agricultural food products must merely be processed in Georgia, “regardless of origin” of the ingredients, to qualify for participation in the labeling program. So a participating company need only buy, say, pickled okra packed in a Georgia factory to legitimately call it “Georgia Grown.” The okra may come from Georgia … or it may come from Florida, Mexico or the Honduras.What can you, a mere shopper in a little farmers market, do to ensure validity? Ask, ask, ask. Educate yourself. And then, demand.“Ask your vendor if they have open houses, if they have field days,” says Mark Stevens, founder of Capra Gia Cheese Co. And then go. “You can’t borrow a herd of goats and a milking parlor.”“I wish more consumers would know the seasons and know the harvest,” says Lori Bean, owner of Georgia Jams. Strawberries are first, then blueberries and peaches, then apples. “Within a few months that a fruit is out of season, you probably aren’t going to have any of that stock left unless you are a commercial operation.”If you run across a significant difference between the product description offered by the vendor in person and the description on the vendor’s website, point it out. Perhaps the vendor’s process has changed due to growth, and the website lags behind reality. A little consumer pressure may push a web redesign to a higher place on the company’s priority list.
Last summer, Lori Bean and her mother spent hours and hours picking the fruit for her Georgia Jams. Already, she’s a victim of her own success: This year, to keep up with growing demand, she’s resolved to buy in bulk from local farmers—and to sell seasonally. When her 2012 Flavor of Georgia finalist, Summer Berries & Wine jam, is gone, it will be gone.In terms of growth, Emily Myers of Emily G’s Jam of Love is a step or two beyond Bean. This winter, for quality-control reasons, she switched from a co-packer that could work with whole fruit she was able to source locally to a larger facility, still in Georgia, that is less likely to work with local ingredients.“Quality is the most important. I have to have product. If I can get that locally than to me, that is amazing and I am thrilled," Myers says. “But we have to grow outside Atlanta, and I make no apologies. I can’t feed my family by making jam in my kitchen.”No one could blame a local business owner for thriving. The question for farmers market shoppers—and market managers—is, at what point does a company’s methods no longer match the expectations of the consumer?“They get so big and have so much demand that they change the way they’re doing things,” says Lauren Carey, market manager at Peachtree Road Farmers Market. “It’s a wonderful success story. It just means that they’re not appropriate for the farmers market anymore.”Many area farmers markets, including Peachtree Road, require vendors to meet certain standards. Many are “producer-only,” meaning a vendor can only sell what it makes. Others may require produce at farm stands to be grown within a certain mileage, or a certain percentage of ingredients in processed foods to come from local sources.Market managers, too, face economic pressures. Each farmers market competes—for both customers and vendors—with all other markets. A manager may look the other way when a food processor changes production methods that no longer meet the rules of the market.“I think that that’s the hardship, especially with so many small, struggling markets,” Carey says. “‘Do I change my values of being local, to attract something that might get customers in, so maybe they’ll get some kale to go with it?’ I think the questions the managers have to ask is, does that happen?”The local challengeBuying local ingredients for production, Myers says, is easier said than done. Often, the problem is reliability: If you plan to buy all your pears or tomatoes from one grower and the crop fails, then your business is put into instant jeopardy. Sometimes, the problem is competition or availability.When a business partnership collapsed, cheesemaker Robin Schick found herself in possession of a lot of cheese-making equipment and no goats’ milk. She went on to found her own creamery, CalyRoad, but securing a local source—really, any source—of goats’ milk to make her cheeses proved to be extremely difficult. Most goat-herders in Georgia are either already making their own cheese or are not set up to sell milk for human consumption. Out-of-state farmers need expensive certification to transport milk over state lines. To survive, she made two critical decisions. First, she started making cheeses from local cows milk, and second, she determined to make what goat cheeses she could from an out-of-state source of curd—otherwise known as chevre.“When we can, we buy loca