Growers markets abound here in Southern Oregon, and whether you opt for a quick in-and-out or prefer to linger, there are a handful of guidelines for making your trip as bountiful as it can be.
Bagging the best
Bob Schaller, market manager at the Grants Pass Growers Market (growersmarket.org), advises:
- Get there early: "Growers only come to market with so much and when it's gone, it's gone. I'm the market manager and even I have had times where I thought I would pop in at 11:30 a.m. and grab some tomatoes, but they were all gone."
- Dress in layers so you can shed clothes as temperatures rise: "Summer days in Grants Pass start out with beautiful 70-degree temperatures, and then by noon it's 100 degrees."
Mary Alionis, owner of Whistling Duck Farm (whistlingduckfarm.com) in Grants Pass, says:
- Know what's in season: "People always want tomatoes in May, but the only tomatoes you're going to find in Southern Oregon in May have seen a lot of hothouse work. They're not as good as tomatoes in season, and they're a lot more expensive. Then people complain about the cost and the quality."
- Be curious and daring, and don't get into a rut.
Lori Hopkinson, general manager at the Rogue Valley Growers and Crafters Market (rvgrowersmarket.com) in Medford, adds:
- Be prepared: "Check out the calendar of seasonality and plan your trip according to what's in season. And be ready for some last-minute changes depending on what's available and what looks good."
- Bring a bag.
- Shop around: "Do one full round of the market first to check out the selection of goods and prices, then do a second trip to buy what you want. Not every vendor is going to have the same quality or prices."
- Make it a learning experience as well as a shopping experience. "If you're unfamiliar with something, don't let that deter you from trying it. The farmers behind the tables are the best people to ask what something is and how to cook it. Growers markets are for everyone, not just foodies."
There aren't a whole lot of hardcore rules at growers markets, but you should make an effort to find out what they are. At Grant's Pass Growers Market, for example, animals (other than ADA-compliant service dogs) are not allowed.
While informal markets seem to be the perfect place to haggle, Schaller says he doesn't see much of that. "My experience is that the price is the price. If you like it, pay it. If you don't, you can probably get a better price at Safeway or Walmart. Our growers look to command premium prices for their product, but they have the quality to go along with it."
Hopkinson, however, said that's not always a hard-and-fast rule. Later in the day, while the quality might not be as good as what's available in the morning, vendors might be more open to a little haggling to avoid going home with truckloads of goods. So it doesn't hurt to ask.
No matter where you are in the country, growers markets showcase the best produce at any given time of year. But every region has it specialties. Southern Oregon's climate is hospitable to a large variety of produce.
"The climate is temperate enough to grow things that like cold nights and warm days," Alionis explains. "We can grow artichokes, which you can't grow in really hot conditions, but also peppers, which you can't grow in really cold conditions. People aren't limited so much and don't have to adapt quite so much as they do in areas where the climate doesn't support as the variety of crops."
Pears are a signature crop for Southern Oregon, as are asparagus, wild mushrooms, and nuts like filberts and hazelnuts.But growers markets aren't just for fresh produce. The best ones also offer an array of prepared foods such as jams, relishes, sauces and more. In Southern Oregon, look for lots of things made with pears, as well as fermented foods such as sauerkrauts and other pickled fruits and vegetables. You'll also find some unique artisan cheeses and wines, including dandelion.
Picking among the picks
Growers markets are about freshness, quality and choice. You might find 10 growers in a row offering tomatoes or cucumbers. In that situation, Alionis recommends opting for organic. Most markets require vendors to use signage outlining their growing practices. When in doubt, she says, ask. Don't assume that everything is necessarily organic.
Next, she says, look for the brightest, plumpest, freshest-looking produce. Get to know the farmers and figure out who's the most knowledgeable and who maintains the healthiest soil.
Hopkinson agrees. "Let your senses be your guide. See the colors, feel the firmness, smell the flavors," she says. "And remember that shopping at the market directly supports your local farmers, ranchers and handcrafted artisans, and it keeps money in the local community. Keep dollars close to home and watch your community grow."