As I approach the table laden with baskets of bright green peas, myriad lettuces and bunches of vibrant radishes, carrots, beets, onions and garlic, a diminutive lady with a tan, wrinkled face approaches me. Picking up the basket brimming with crisp spinach that I'm eyeing, she looks straight at me and says brightly, "One dollah! One dollah!" How can I resist?
Three bags of fresh veggies later (all at bargain prices with some extras thrown in for good measure), I catch the unmistakably sweet, rich scent of huckleberries nearby. Shaded by a white canopy and laid out on a rough table, the indigo berries gleam in clear Baggies. "How much?" I ask, pointing to a quart-sized bag. "Six dollah," a Laotian woman says with a shake of her thick, black hair. I'm willing to pay the asking price for these prized gems, especially since I'm not planning on trekking to the far reaches of Mount Spokane anytime soon.
The spirited folk music played by two men on guitar and mandolin matches the lively conversations between the medley of people -- from white-haired ladies eyeing the arrangements of bright sunflowers and snapdragons to the young families piling bags of green beans, potatoes and cherries into their strollers. It's Saturday morning at the Spokane Farmers' Market. Apricots, peaches and tomatoes are in high demand from the organic farmers who have come from as far away as Brewster and Kettle Falls.
All around me people are talking with each other -- asking vendors how their produce is grown, getting gardening tips, exchanging opinions about samples of food and trading recipes. Even on a hot morning, the energy at the market is vibrant and palpable. This farmers' market, like so many others, is a meeting place where we get back in touch with each other, the food we eat and the earth it came from.
"We really give people a sense of community -- where they can connect with people, eat and listen to live music," says Holly Parker, who organizes the Liberty Lake and Moran Prairie Farmers' Markets. "We have a group of ladies who meet every Saturday morning at the Liberty Lake market over coffee and scones, sitting at one of the tables, conversing and listening to the music."
Many people walk or ride their bikes to the centrally located Liberty Lake Farmers' Market. Though it's only two years old, there are 30 vendors offering a variety of goods. Along with the produce stands and baked goods, I found some unusual products at this farmers' market.
Jim and Jeanne Jarrett give out samples of barbecue sauce, beans and cornbread at their stand. The sauce is robust and packaged in homey jars and mugs. The cornbread is sweet and light -- with the dry mix creatively tied up in a bandana. At the Anoka Farms stand, I taste more family recipes. Stephen and Shelly Smith use their Grandma Vivian Lancaster's recipe to make peanut brittle that's a real taste treat. On the east side of the market, Bud Smith's birdhouses, bird and squirrel feeders are finely hewn and made from different colored woods. He says he has been carving all his life. At the next stand, I find huckleberry honey (perfect for those huckleberry pancakes I plan to make). Jake Mauk has been gathering honey from his bees for 15 years in the Spokane Valley.
On Washington Street, just north of the Spokane River, the Spokane MarketPlace -- one of the region's first markets -- has settled into another new home, an old city parks building.
The covered breezeway where farmers show off their fresh fruit and veggies is a nice spot, and there are no high-stallers selling warehouse produce. I stopped by for a bowl of Tulia Barbanti's tasty spaghetti on a recent afternoon and was pleased to see that she was also offering homemade focaccia, crostada, deep-dish apple pie and cookies. Margie McGhee has a fragrant array of hand-poured, natural, soy-wax candles that are long lasting, burn cool and don't produce any soot. Mary Robinson utilizes the thousands of antique buttons from her great aunt Nell's collection to create her original costume jewelry. From Salvadoran candy to pet soap -- you'll find it at the MarketPlace.
Getting farm-fresh produce at community markets is one of the fastest growing trends in food buying in America. "Right now, green markets are growing faster than anything in agriculture," says Steven Blank, a farm economist at the University of California at Davis and the author of three books on the subject. The Department of Agriculture concurs, reporting that farmers' markets have increased by 79 percent since 1994.
The Inland Northwest boasts 16 farmers' markets. There are nearly100 in Washington State. In this era of big-box grocery stores, where 10 major grocery chains control the purchase of 50 percent of fresh food, it's refreshing to see the resurgence of open-air markets. It's also allowed many small farmers to stay in business.
At the Moran Prairie Farmer's Market, where customers have been known to line up three hours before opening, I talk with Janice Thorson about her produce. She has more kinds of summer squash than I've heard of -- from roly poly to zephyr. The retired teacher grows a variety of crops on her farm, Glenrose Gardens, near the market. I leave with a large container of freshly picked raspberries as well as a bag of fingerling potatoes.
Many of the vendors I've seen at the Liberty Lake Farmers' Market have set up their tents and tables at the Moran Prairie market on this Sunday morning -- selling everything from Alaska wild salmon and Cajun mix spices to fresh flowers and hand-painted, wooden furniture. Lenny's "Juan in a Million" stand is also at this upper South Hill market. Samples of his salsa along with homemade tortilla chips are available. While I taste the salsa, Lenny gets tamales for a customer. He also sells tacos and burritos from his Jalapeno Jeaven truck at the Liberty Lake market.
"The South Hill has really embraced us," Parker says about her latest enterprise, the one-year-old Moran Prairie Farmers' Market. "People like the fact that they can talk to the person who grew or made the food they're purchasing."
With most of our food traveling thousands of miles before it arrives at our tables, it's refreshing to get corn and peas picked just a few hours before from a local farm. But this beloved American tradition that began in the 18th century all but died out 25 years ago. In California and New York in the mid-1970s, farmers and consumers resurrected the custom of having fresh produce available to the public. Now, there's a waiting list to join the more than 350 farmers' markets in California. New York City is studying Seattle's venerable Pike Place Market, begun in 1907, as a model for a market that may rise on the World Trade Center site.
The Kootenai County Farmers' Market in Hayden is one of the oldest markets in our area. Its 70 stalls are shaded by a grove of tall pine trees, making for a park-like setting. On a warm Wednesday late afternoon, I find the prize I've been looking for -- tomatoes. Hankey Farms features vine-ripened tomatoes, and a sample reveals that they're perfectly sweet. Tina Frigge, the owner/baker of Wild Flower Bakery, sells her popular scones and cinnamon rolls, as well as cookies, bars and bread. I couldn't pass up these pastries, and they didn't disappoint, with their moist, chewy sweetness. There's a line at the Killarney Farm booth, a founding member of this market, for its Italian beans, gooseberries, fennel and assorted produce.
I've experienced a sense of local culture, talked to the folks who grow the food I eat and made friends with people I might never have known if I hadn't gone to one of our area's farmers' markets. And I've gotten inspired by the treasures of fruits and vegetables from these bountiful markets. Going to our farmers' markets has become my summertime ritual.
Inland Northwest Farmers' Markets
Spokane Farmers' Market, 2nd and Division, Wednesdays and Saturdays 8 am-1 pm
Spokane MarketPlace, 809 N. Washington, Wednesdays and Saturdays 9 am-4 pm