Explore Farmers’ Markets While Traveling

Make farmers’ markets a priority on your travel agenda and you’ll save money (no admission fees), go green (most markets showcase seasonal, sustainable products) and support local (slap that cash directly in the farmer’s hand).

by John D. Ivanko
California Farmers' Market
Photo by John Ivanko
During your next vacation or business trip, visit the area’s farmers’ market to get a taste of local flavor.

Make farmers’ markets a priority on your travel agenda and you’ll save money (no admission fees), go green (most markets showcase seasonal, sustainable products) and support local (slap that cash directly in the farmer’s hand).

For the past couple of years, we’ve traded our Wisconsin winter for a few weeks to work on writing projects and articles for Hobby Farms on the California coast. Indulging in the farmers’-market scene is the equivalent of a therapist’s couch for our frozen Midwestern souls. We see happy people holding fresh spinach, and the -20 degrees F wind chill back home melts away as a far memory.

You don’t have to be escaping parkas and snowplows to appreciate a farmers’ market while traveling. We seek out local markets year-round wherever we may roam. According to USDA statistics, farmers’ markets grew in number by 17 percent between 2010 and 2011. Tanking economies may just be what folks need to connect back to their food roots, craving a better quality, authentic connection to what’s on their plate.

Pack these seven tips the next time you travel to add some farmers’-market flavor and fare to your touring plans:

1. Determine a destination.
Thanks to increasing numbers of market and local-food grassroots efforts, it’s usually quite easy to find farmers’ market schedules and logistical information on the web. LocalHarvest provides a national database of farmers’ markets as a starting point, but we also found lots of localized efforts, like the San Diego Roots Sustainable Food Project, that provide detailed listings specific to their communities.

Another fortunate consequence of the flourishing market scene is that they are expanding past Saturday mornings. You’ll see more markets on weekdays. Weekday-evening markets proffer a particularly jolly scene, as they are a social connection point for many who live in those communities.

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No worries if you’re traveling outside the peak growing season: The thriving winter farmers’ markets add year-round opportunity for you to explore. Back on our Wisconsin home turf, the vibrant Dane County Farmers’ Market in Madison heads indoors during the winter months. While smaller in size, it features a tasty selection of “winter fare,” such as cheeses, meats and preserved food.

2. Get there early.
Remember farmers’-market stands operate contrary to a regular retail store: Growers don’t want to end up with inventory at the end of the day. Tomatoes are not the same as toilet bowl cleaner that can sit on the shelf for years; therefore, get there early for the best offerings. Plus, you’ll get to latch on to that fresh, positive energy and exuberance at the beginning of each market—the foodie equivalent to Christmas morning.

3. Go hungry.
We confess that going to a farmers’ market hungry contradicts the recommended approach when heading to a supermarket, but you’re on holiday and taking in a new scene. Justify indulgences. You’re not stocking up the home kitchen, so let your taste buds be tempted. Savor the abundance of samples, wedges of freshly picked oranges and tomatoes, and graze on the just-ripened perfection that is shared by farmers who love their livelihood.

During this year’s travels, we hit the Sunday-morning Hillcrest Farmers’ Market in San Diego ravenous, and the groovy California food scene filled us with both free samples offered by friendly farmers and tempting fresh offerings we could indulge in on site. From persimmons to pea pods chased with fresh crepes, we satisfied both stomach and soul.

4. Bring sampling supplies.
Realizing this intent to indulge and eat on the spot, come prepared. We always travel with our trusted “mess kit:” a set of lightweight plastic plates, bowls, cups and silverware for impromptu picnicking anytime, anyplace. Also don’t forget your cash, the currency of choice for the market scene.

5. Linger and people watch.
The market scene feels like you’re walking into a movie set, only this isn’t reality TV—it’s real. Surrounded by a cast of local characters, observe people and how they interact: the families, the spry senior, the multi-tasking 20-something. The Hillcrest Farmers’ Market scene gifted us with a hefty dose of creative culture at its finest, from street musicians to chatty artists.

6. Connect and compliment.
We may not need to stock up on the potatoes or parsnips like regular local shoppers, but we can still freely dish out compliments to farmers, which spurs a serendipitous connection. An easy way to open up dialogue is to share a comparison based on where you are from: “We can never grow beets this big back in Wisconsin.” This way you not only shoot out a kind word, but also open up the door for dialogue, depending on how busy the market scene is and how much time a farmer has to talk.

7. Bring home (non-perishable, non-liquid) treasures.
Keep your eyes peeled for some things you can bring home as gifts or for your own kitchen. Unfortunately, in today’s airport scene with increased security, traditional food gifts, like jams and beverages, are no longer realistic options. Think instead about dried foods like popcorn and dehydrated mixes. We picked up some dried lavender that provided an extra bonus: sweet-scented suitcases during our travels.

Next farmers’ market stop on our California tour before heading home: the Wednesday night market at Ocean Beach. If the weather gods shine on us next week, hopefully we can savor some of the first strawberries of the season.

Savoring the good life,

John and Lisa's Signatures

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