When Robert McWilliams' enthusiasm for traversing rows of chard, kale, leeks and beets near his Ross Lane home is as low as early spring temperatures, he "picks" his vegetables at the Rogue Valley Growers and Crafters Market.
"You're getting it fresher; you're supporting the local economy," McWilliams says. "In an ideal world, one would eat what their environment could supply."
McWilliams, 60, gave up organic agriculture as an avocation because farming 45 acres of herbs, vegetables and nursery plants was simply too much work after 15 years. Instead of selling out, however, he leases the Medford property to Steve and Suzy Fry of Talent, who permit McWilliams to pick all he wants from the fields — or their market stall.
"If you can't do your own gardens, the next best thing is the local markets," says Suzy Fry.
And if you can’t bake your own bread, age your own cheese or tend your own flock of chickens, weekly growers markets in Ashland, Medford and Grants Pass fill the bill for foodstuffs beyond seasonal produce.
“The beginning of the markets, there’s eggs, eggs, eggs ... because the chickens have woken up, and they’re laying,” says Mary Ellen DeLuca, manager of the Rogue Valley Growers and Crafters Market.
Featuring only the hardiest overwintered vegetables and pluckiest spring greens, the markets’ opening weeks in March challenge most shoppers, DeLuca admits. Former California residents are particularly befuddled by the sparse selection, says Wendy Siporen, executive director of THRIVE, a nonprofit group that promotes local food.
“We do have seasons here,” Siporen says.
In the absence of bountiful produce, March is the time to plan ahead, DeLuca says. That means stocking up on staples like eggs, bread, cheese, meat and root vegetables that farmers stored throughout the winter. Many market shoppers also purchase seedling plants to start their own garden for the year.
“Home gardens are big,” McWilliams says. “I think people are realizing it’s better for ‘em.”
Nutrition has always been Cathy Jones’ main reason for patronizing the growers market.
"I shop here because the produce here is really fresh," says the 45-year-old Medford resident.
Since Jones started attending weekly markets 15 years ago, eating locally produced food has become the largest industry trend since organic. On average, market vendors — including crafters — number about 60 in Ashland and 50 in Medford, DeLuca says, adding that she expects both markets to expand by at least 10 percent this year.
As farmers markets across the country have grown, so have environmental concerns over the fossil fuels used to process, package, transport and store the U.S. commercial food supply. Eating out-of-season produce shipped or flown in from the Southern Hemisphere is arguably the industry's most inefficient use of fuel, Siporen says.
"You can think about seasonality as really a benefit," Siporen says. "You're forced to try new things."
"I am a seasonal eater."
Peak flavors, Jones says, are the main reward of seasonal eating. But the woman who is just one of numerous customers toting sturdy, reusable grocery bags to the market says she thinks her shopping preference is better for the environment.
While the environment is on many shoppers' minds, DeLuca, Siporen and others say there are greater forces at work, namely supporting local businesses and strengthening community ties. When a local restaurant purchases vegetables and fruits from nearby farmers, the money changing hands often is passed along to other local merchants.
"I see that exchange of the dollar really frequently," says Kristen Lyon, sous chef at Jacksonville's The Garden Bistro at McCully House.
"I really believe in promoting the local economy."
To that end, the Garden Bistro showcases local farms, ranches and artisan food companies on a menu that changes with the seasons. The restaurant deals directly with farmers, but Lyon also makes full use of the market's March-through-November run.
"I kind of let the food choose the menu," she says.
Cooking with seasonal ingredients has become easier in recent years as more cookbooks and Web sites organized recipes around that theme, Lyon says. Cooks short on inspiration can always ask the farmers, themselves, for advice, she adds.
"Usually they know exactly what to do with the stuff because they have so much of it," she says.
Flexibility is another key to cooking what's immediately available at the growers market, Lyon says, adding that she views ingredients as genres rather than absolutes. Any leafy herb can stand in for basil or any root vegetable for carrots, she says.
"You can replace similar items if you don't find the exact thing in a recipe."
Summer may be months away, but The Garden Bistro has tomatoes and blueberries on its menu because Lyon roasted and froze tomatoes for pastas and flatbreads, and she oven-dried blueberries to serve with ice cream. Cooks who plan ahead can relax all winter because the year's harvest is already preserved, Lyon says, adding that canning, freezing and drying may be new to many home cooks but are necessary if one is to eat local all year.
"It's not a foreign concept; it's something we've forgotten."