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Free at the Farmers’ Market: Advice

Farmer's MarketOur wonderful, year-round Farmers Market here in Santa Fe, NM is at its peak. Strolling around its grounds and inside its LEEDS-certified market pavilion is a visual adventure and an education in Northern New Mexico farming and gardening practices. All of its produce must be locally grown and no reselling is allowed. There are more than 150 active vendors offering everything from produce to home-baked breads. Northern New Mexico small farms are an important part of its history and culture. It’s reassuring that its small-farm heritage is alive and well — even booming — in this age of industrial agriculture and processed food.

Like many of you, I attend farmers markets wherever I go. I’ve attended markets in Grand Junction, Colorado; Eugene, Oregon; Santa Monica, California; Burlington, Vermont; White Bear Lake, Minnesota and dozens of others in cities from Fargo to Portland. The Midwest — America’s bread basket — is full of seasonal farmers markets this time of year. One of my favorite markets is in my former, beloved home of Bozeman, Montana where the growing season is short but the gardeners are enthusiastic (they even have a winter market despite the often-nasty Montana winters). There’s plenty of produce there this time of year — even corn and cantaloupe — and it still has the best organic goat cheese we’ve found anywhere.

While walking around the Santa Fe Farmers Market and hearing people talk to the vendors (and doing some talking myself) I realized that the markets are a wonderful source for another commodity, one that can be had for free… gardening advice! Despite the crowds waiting to make purchases, I heard farmers discussing what kind of greens they grow, how they water their fruit trees, when’s the best time to pick squash, and which is the hottest type of green chile to grow. There’s a fellow there pushing the benefits of earthworms (and selling worm castings for a dollar a cup!). He was engaged in a lively discussion about keeping purchased worms from migrating out of your garden once put there. His sage answer? Make sure you have plenty of organic material and compost in your garden’s soil. The worm’s won’t go anywhere if they have plenty of those components in your garden soil. I also heard a discussion on the different soil types in river bottoms and hillsides and what needed to be done to condition both. One farmer, while sautéing a skillet of small green peppers, told me how most heirloom eggplants, if picked soon enough, don’t require the usual salting and soaking to remove their bitterness. The least bitter eggplant of all? White, he said.

All this information is especially valuable to a recent transplant like myself. I’ve lived in many different parts of the west, each with its own particular demands. And I’ve always relied on the kindness of strangers, er, other gardeners, when learning how to adapt to the area’s unique conditions. A farmers market is a great place to get that information. It’s also a great place to find community gardening groups who love to add new members and share their knowledge. In Bozeman, the Gallatin Gardeners Club not only offered gardeners a place to share their experience and local knowledge, they also have a great stand at the local farmers’ market.

My advice: Don’t be shy at the farmers market. If you see a strain of vegetable that you like, ask the vendor what it is and where he gets the seed. Ask your certified organic farmer how he keeps his corn worm free. Or find out how the tomato seller is able to get a crop so early in the season. Join your local gardening society. Being part of the gardening community has untold rewards. And maybe you can find someone to help when it comes time to break new ground! Finally, support your local small farmers by buying something. Here’s a website to help find a farmers market near you.

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