Year-round farmers markets
January/February 2011 California Country magazine
Story by Kate Campbell
Photos by Kate Campbell, Keith Sutter and James Cole
Winter brings fresh offerings of local bounty.
Farmers market advocate Joanne Neft, left, and chef Laura Kenny shop for fresh, in-season produce at farmers markets in Placer County. The pair have created a cookbook and menu planner for every week of the year, with meals focusing on what's available from local farmers.
On cold, wet winter mornings, Placer County cookbook authors Joanne Neft and Laura Kenny cheerfully put on rain slickers and venture out. Their destination, often as not, is a local farmers market.
They say the state's more than 600 local markets offer an amazing variety of seasonal fruits and vegetables—including many markets that operate during the winter months. They say they're concerned that not all consumers realize the bounty of fresh, nutritious foods waiting for them at the state's 350 year-round markets.
"When the summer fruits disappear, so do the majority of the customers," said Dan Best of the California Federation of Certified Farmers' Markets.
"My goal is to help people understand that it's really simple to prepare good, in-season food from farmers markets year-round," said Neft, co-author of "Placer County Real Food from Farmers Markets," which showcases recipes and menus for every week of the year—starting in January.
Neft said part of the reason she and Kenny wrote the cookbook is to support local farmers in their own county, but they think the benefits of buying farm-fresh produce year-round is available throughout California. Neft opened the first farmers market in the Sierra foothills of Placer County 20 years ago and watched the market grow, along with about a dozen more seasonal markets.
"We encourage regular attendance at farmers markets between November and April, when shoppers often assume there's nothing at the market," Neft said. "That's just not true."
She quickly ticks off a list of available produce that includes celery root, rutabagas, turnips, parsnips, winter squash, cabbages, broccoli, cauliflower, chard, spinach—and often underappreciated brussels sprouts. In addition, winter in the Sierra Nevada foothills means loads of citrus: mandarins, Meyer lemons and navel oranges.
California leads the nation in the number of farmers markets, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reports. Across America, these markets have more than doubled in the past decade, mushrooming from about 2,900 markets in 2000 to more than 6,100 today.
Although it's difficult to pinpoint how many Californians regularly shop at farmers markets, it's estimated that each week millions of families grab their canvas produce bags and walk, bike or drive to their local market.
Food writer Deborah Madison, who wrote the introduction to "Placer County Real Food," said, "I would love to see every region in our country have a cookbook that shows us what we can eat throughout the course of the year in our particular foodsheds."
Kenny said a winter menu based on fresh food available in Placer County might include a green salad with kiwifruit and blue cheese; pork tenderloin with fennel and olives; mashed butternut squash; sautéed broccoli; and for dessert, Meyer lemon tart with dark chocolate.
"It's not at all complicated," said Kenny, who is a Placer County native and graduate of the California Culinary Academy, as well as a former chef for a number of award-winning restaurants in San Diego and San Francisco. "We've developed the simplest, easiest recipes possible."
Improvisation is a key to designing farm-fresh meals 52 weeks a year, she said: "Let the farmers market inspire you. Maybe you aren't fond of fava beans, but you find there are beautiful snap peas and green beans at the market that week. Substitute, experiment, enjoy."
Southern Californians are particularly blessed when it comes to enjoying farm-fresh food. The majority of the state's year-round markets can be found there. For example, the Orange County Farm Bureau has been managing farmers markets in that county for more than 30 years. Today, the county Farm Bureau manages nearly a dozen certified markets throughout the region.
"I find that the more farmers we have, then the more customers, not the other way around," said Tricia Harrison, who for more than a decade has managed four of the Orange County Farm Bureau certified markets. "The challenge is to get the farmers here and convince them to stay and grow along with the markets."
Harrison notes it's called Orange County for a reason. In the 1930s and '40s, Orange County was among the nation's top citrus-producing regions—travelers told of driving through the heart of Southern California and smelling orange blossoms for 100 miles.
"We have some great winter fruit: satsuma mandarins, oro blanco grapefruit, Fuyu persimmons, navel oranges, pomegranates, just to name a few. Our farmers come from as far away as Fresno County to the north and Imperial County to the south, and all counties in between with wonderful, in-season produce," she said.
Farmers markets have changed over the years, Harrison said. "They've become hugely popular with the public and consumer awareness of the benefits of having a certified market in their community is increasing.
"It's great to help bring high-quality food to consumers. I love absolutely everything about my job—except getting up at 4 a.m. to go to work, sometimes in the pouring rain. Our farmers do the same."
It's on those cold, blustery days when she's greeted by regular shoppers, Harrison said, that her toes warm up.
Sacramento County farmer Kang Lee prepares vegetables from Vue Farms before customers arrive at the year-round Roseville Farmers Market.
"The faces of the farmers change as seasons change," Best said. "But the fact that they're all California farmers growing and selling fresh produce in season remains. As they return, it's like a celebration. We see old friends again. Our favorite citrus farmer is back, and it's time to squeeze some juice for breakfast."
At long-established markets, Best said, "sellers and customers become a special family of sorts. Going to a year-round market is what in the 1960s we called going to a happening!"
Farmers market shopping tips
- Quickly circle the market once to see what's available before buying anything.
- Check for new, in-season produce and compare prices.
- Purchase only enough for one week's meals.
- Ask for a taste sample, particularly if buying in large quantity for canning or preserving.
- If canning or preserving fruits or vegetables, ask the grower if "uglies" or seconds are available. Preserved food is going to be cooked or sliced and the flavors are just as tasty in produce with a few blemishes.
- Remember to ask growers for suggestions on methods of preparation.
- Peaches and apricots and the stem end of melons should smell good enough to eat; that means they're ripe.
- Growers are happy to suggest the perfect apples for baking or squash for roasting or greens for salad—just ask.
- Remember to thank your local farmers for providing fine-tasting and healthy food for your family.
For an online guide to year-round farmers markets, go to www.cafarmersmarkets.com.
For more information about the cookbook, visit www.placercountyrealfood.com.
Kate Campbell is a reporter for California Country. She can be reached at 800-698-FARM or email@example.com.