Farmers’ Markets – Delicious Produce and a Whole Lot More

Genesis Growers, one of the many vendors at Chicago Green City Market. Photo: Caryn Green

Genesis Growers, one of the many vendors at Chicago Green City Market. Photo: Caryn Green

Shopping at a farmers’ market — a staple of village life throughout history — is healthier for you while also being a socially and environmentally responsible act for your community. Buying locally grown food direct from the producer ensures that the produce you purchase is fresher — therefore, more nutritious, with superior taste and texture — than anything you’d be able to buy from a supermarket. Keeping food dollars circulating locally directly benefits your local economy. And, by not shipping produce over long distances, you reduce both fuel and excess packaging, which benefits the environment.

This is the perfect time for pumpkins at many farmers' markets. Photo: Caryn Green

This is the perfect time for pumpkins at many farmers' markets. Photo: Caryn Green

Ride your bicycle to the market and bring a reusable bag, and you’re living green! You’re also in for one heck of a good time. Today’s farmers’ markets have expanded to include all kinds of products, services, and entertainment. Many also provide a platform for local politicians, not-for-profits, and advocacy groups to interact with the public. Farmers’ markets are celebrating the fall harvest season all over the USA and Canada right now, each with its own distinct character and setting.

After visiting at least a dozen Chicago area farmers’ markets over the past few months, Blue Planet Green Living‘s Chicago-based crew has selected two of our favorites for an in-depth look. Among the longest-running and best-attended markets in the metro area, they offer not only a superior selection of quality goods, but also a number of educational and special programs that benefit their communities.

More than a Market in Evanston

The Evanston Farmers’ Market meets every Saturday from mid-May through the first week of November. For more than 30 years, city and suburban residents have relied on the Evanston market as a premier source of fresh produce, meat, bakery, cheeses, and fresh flowers. The market also features entertainment and numerous information booths from area schools, political and advocacy groups, and charitable organizations.

Not-for-profit groups provide information at the Evanston Farmers' Market. Photo: Caryn Green

Not-for-profit groups provide information at the Evanston Farmers' Market. Photo: Caryn Green

Throughout the season, visitors and shoppers are treated to special events, including family recreational programs, educational seminars on local ecology from the local Parks and Forestry department, Public Works presentations, and cooking demonstrations.

A unique aspect of the Evanston market is its affiliation with Home Grown Artists, a program that showcases the work of hometown artists and artisans. Evanston boasts ten times the national average of artists residing and working in studios and galleries throughout the city. Special events programming at the market also includes ceramics and wood-carving classes and demonstrations.

The market also has a strategic partnership with Now We’re Cookin’, an Evanston facility that offers cooking classes and provides rentable commercial kitchen space and state-of-the-art demonstration and event space for corporate clients and local culinary businesses.

This past week, Now We’re Cookin presented their 2nd Annual Harvest Celebration, a fundraiser that benefits both the Evanston Market and the Land Connection, an Evanston-based not-for-profit which teaches sustainable farming practices and trains new farmers. Evening events spotlighted the market’s food products by incorporating them into dishes prepared by Evanston’s top chefs. If you’re in the Chicago area, it’s an event you won’t want to miss next year; watch for it on the Now We’re Cookin’ website.

Year-Round Produce in Lincoln Park

Chicago Green City Market (CGCM), the area’s only year-round, twice-weekly market, meets on Wednesdays and Saturdays. It’s held outdoors from May through October in the historic south end of Lincoln Park, moving inside to the south gallery of the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum from November through April.

Flowers are a popular item at farmers' markets. Photo: Caryn Green

Flowers are a popular item at farmers' markets. Photo: Caryn Green

Earlier this year, Chicago Green City Market received a grant from the Farmers Market Promotion Program, which is part of the USDA’s “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food” initiative. CGCM was the sole Illinois recipient from among the 260 known markets operating in the state.

“This is a giant step forward for us and will help expand the mission and vision of Chicago Green City Market,” said Lyle Allen, Executive Director of Chicago Green City Market. “Our mission is to provide a marketplace for purchasing sustainably grown food and to educate, promote and connect farmers and local producers directly to chefs, restaurateurs, and the greater Chicago community through the market itself, educational programming and special events.”

The grant dollars will fund GCM Farmer Scholarships that encourage participating farmers to attend workshops, conferences, and classes to ensure they will receive 3rd-Party Organic and/or Sustainable Certification by 2012 — as required by Green City Market. Funding will also be directed to the improvement of the Edible Gardens program, with the development of marketing and promotional materials and staffing.

A joint project of Green City Market and Cook County Master Gardeners at the University of Illinois Extension, Edible Gardens engages children in growing, weeding, composting and harvesting, while introducing them to the concept of “farm-to-table.” Located at Lincoln Park’s Farm in the Zoo, programs are available for school and summer-camp field trips.

Chefs from the area's finest restaurants prepare ingredients at CGCM. Photo: Caryn Green

Chefs from the area's finest restaurants prepare ingredients at CGCM. Photo: Caryn Green

Chicago Green City Market is creating a national marketplace model to distribute and promote local, sustainably grown food and educate the public as to the many benefits of consuming locally grown foods. The market features a variety of educational programs, one of the most popular being the weekly cooking demonstrations. Chefs from the area’s finest restaurants prepare dishes using locally produced, seasonal ingredients from the market’s farmers and producers. Local chefs are among the market’s highest-volume customers.

The market also sponsors the Locavore Challenge. Participants commit to eating locally grown and produced foods for two weeks. The Green City Information tent provides a list of local stores that sell locally produced food; names of locavores who have completed their pledge are listed on the market’s website.

Find a Farmers’ Market

Find a farmers' market near you. Photo: Caryn Green

Find a farmers' market near you. Photo: Caryn Green

As the buy-local movement has firmly taken root, and public support of small, sustainable, organic farming operations has grown, the number of farmers’ markets nationwide has skyrocketed. According to U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) statistics, 1,755 known farmers’ markets were in operation in 1994, with the total climbing to 5,274 — an increase of more than 200 percent — in 2009.

Visit any of the following sites to find a farmers’ market near you — or search the Internet for other locations:

Tour a Farm

Find out where your food comes from by visiting a farm. Photo: Caryn Green

An enticing bin of red peppers harvested at a Chicago-area farm. Photo: Caryn Green

There’s a wealth of information available online for people interested in touring farms and meeting the farmers who sell their produce at farmers’ markets.

State tourism sites such as Illinois Ag Fun Texas Farm Visit, Visit Iowa Farms, Visit New Jersey Farms, Hawaii Farms and Farm Tours, are excellent resources. Enter “visit farms” and your location in your favorite search engine to find farms you’d like to visit.

On the national scale, the USDA takes an active role in promoting the movement toward sustainable farming and working to improve direct market access for operators of small and medium-size farms.

But the US is hardly the only location for farm visits. For example, the Farms for Schools website provides a list of farm tours for school children in England. Leeton Farm Visits offer tours of various types of farms in New South Wales, Australia.

Before arranging a visit, check to be sure that the farms meet your own criteria, such as raising organic produce, vegetables, fruit, or livestock.

Caryn Green

Contributing Writer

Blue Planet Green Living (Home Page)

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