Tasty Travel: Seven Tips To Explore New Farmers’ Markets When On The Road

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

As my husband, John, and I and our eight-year old, Liam, trade Wisconsin winter on our farm for a few weeks working on writing projects on the California coast, indulging in the farmers’ market scene is like the equivalent of a therapists couch for our frozen Midwestern souls.  We see shiny happy people holding fresh spinach and the 20-degree below wind chill back home melts away as a far memory and all is momentarily right with the world.

While markets in January rank particularly appealing, you don’t have to solely escape parkas and snowplows to appreciate a farmer’s market while traveling.  We seek out local markets wherever we may roam.  According to USDA statistics, farmers’ markets grew in number by 13 percent between 2008 and 2009.  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 one’s plate.

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

1.  Determine a destination
Thanks to these increasing numbers of market and local food grassroots efforts, it’s usually quite easy to find farmers’ market schedule 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 expanding out of the Saturday morning schedule box.  You’ll see more markets on weekdays; the weekday evening markets proffer a particularly jolly scene, as they are a social connection point for that local community.

No worries if you’re not traveling during peak growing season: the thriving winter farmers’ market scene adds 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, smaller in size but with a tasty selection of “winter fare” such as cheeses, meats and preserved food.

2.  Get there early
Remember farm market stands operate on the opposite principle as a regular retail store:  sell it all and ideally don’t end up with inventory at the end of the day.  Tomatoes are not the same as toilet bowl cleaner that you can just stick back on the shelf at the end of the day.  Therefore get there early for the best offerings, and you also get to latch on to that fresh, positive energy and exuberance at the beginning of each market; the foodie equivalent of the first moments of Christmas morning.

3.  Go hungry
I realize this contradicts the common advice to never go grocery shopping hungry (i.e., you’ll buy too much of the wrong things).  But we’re not talking about the supermarket efficiency scene here.  You’re on holiday, taking in a new scene and bottom line, can justify indulgences.  You’re not stocking up the home kitchen, so let your taste buds be tempted.

Yesterday we hit the Wednesday evening in the Ocean Beach area of 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 permissions to pea pots chased with a bakers dozen of hot mini doughnuts, we satisfied both stomach and soul.

4.  Bring 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 local-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 twenty something. The Ocean Beach Farmers’ Market scene gifted us with a hefty dose of California creative culture at its finest, from street musicians harvesting tunes from a saw to chatty artists.

6.  Connect and compliment
I sometimes feel a little guilty; however, as I take in this entire free ambience at the market because most of the things for sale I really don’t need as we’re on the road and can’t cook them.  With no need to stock up on the potatoes or parsnips, I relieve the guilt by dishing out compliments to farmers.  I realize, not quite the same as cold cash, but a kind word still goes a long way.  An easy way to open up this dialogue is 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 compliment, 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) booty
Keep your eyes peeled for some things you can bring home as gifts or for your own kitchen.  I realize, unfortunately, in today’s airport scene with increased security and avoid paying for checked bags, traditional food gifts like jams and beverages are no longer realistic options.  Think instead about dried foods like popcorn and dehydrated mixes.

Next farmers’ market stop on our California tour:  Santa Cruz.  If the weather gods shine on us next week, hopefully we can savor some of the first strawberries of the season.

Photo credit:  John Ivanko

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