Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Greening Our Food.

Local Farmers Market Makes Good On The Local Promise.

You may have heard phrases lately in greenspeak… terms such as “food miles” and “eat local.” There’s an effort on nationwide for folks to eat the foods that are raised where they live, rather than whatever comes off a truck from hundred of miles away.

Finding local foods, even a few years ago, was a harder proposition. While there are plenty of farmers markets around, many have become dominated with vendors who bring in their produce from elsewhere. It can be difficult to discover what’s growing right down the road when the markets are inundated with bananas and mushrooms and pineapples, all of a definitively non-Arkansas nature.

But today, it’s not so hard. There’s a new market in town, the Certified Arkansas Farmers Market, which is making it easier to eat local and support local farmers.

Its own statement says it all.

The Certified Arkansas Farmers Market is a closely governed market network that sells only products from Arkansas farms. It was created in 2008 by local farmers as a way to reduce deception at markets and protect their businesses from unfair practices by wholesalers and resellers.

I didn’t realize how prevalent those wholesalers and resellers were until this year, when I went out to cover the opening of the other big market around here, the 35 year old Little Rock Farmers Market over at the River Market Pavilion. My first taste of that experience came on a Tuesday morning in April around 8am. Just a few people were actually out at that point, but there were all sorts of vegetables and fruits and stuff on display.

After having the chance to eat at certain Arkansas restaurants that had keyed me in on the availability of Arkansas-grown hothouse vegetables, I didn’t question much. But when I got back to the house and logged on to show off my photos and share, Facebook fans hollered at me.

And that’s how I got keyed in on the Certified Arkansas Farmers Market.

The next Saturday I decided to check both markets out. I noticed at the Little Rock Farmers Market this time the row of refrigerated trucks, the almost out-of-place fresh watermelons… this time I was paying attention. On the other side of the river at the little lot in Argenta, I found a few farmers trying to sell Arkansas grown potatoes and Arkansas-made cheese, but not a lot else. Needless to say, I was divided.

What occurred to me then and what makes so much sense now was the season. While we’re blessed with winter wheat and oat crops, our growing season doesn’t encompass every month. There’s a time and a place for each Arkansas food, which is why you usually won’t find peaches in the fall or watermelon in the spring, at least not from Arkansas farmers.

Through the summer I’ve found myself straying more north of the river to the little lot at 6th and Main, exploring the palate expanding produce that came in across the season. I enjoyed peaches when they arrived (late) at the end of June, blackberries in mid-July, and big “ugly” tomatoes through it all. I found there was always some form of squash and tuber available, and dinner at Chez Robinson became much more fruit-full. I even took my daughter out in the July 4th heat to experience the first Argenta Foodie Festival.

So, it’s the Certified Arkansas Farmers Market. How’s that work? As Jody Hardin puts it, stringently.

“We have a market manager at each of our three outdoor farmers markets. They are responsible for inspecting each farmer to verify that they are legitimate producers of the items they list on their crop plan. We usually have a second board member of CAFM member go along for the ride as a witness. After the membership form is submitted to the Market Manager, we set up a date for the inspection. It only takes about 30 minutes and gives the market manager a better connection and knowledge of how we can help each farmer at the market.”

Hardin is the Market’s executive director, and the force behind another project that’s been building much anticipation in the Argenta District, the upcoming Argenta Market. This grocery store will also be a deli and catering company, featuring what it touts will be “your favorite new community food source, with the widest and deepest selection of local foods in central Arkansas.” The current opening date should be around Thanksgiving.

That’s a bold plan, but one that could really work. As it is right now, Hardin’s working with several businesses around here to provide farm-fresh produce and products to restaurants such as The House and Ashley’s at the Capitol Hotel. In my recent travels I’ve encountered several restaurant owners who have been seeking out exactly this sort of service. For instance, Lana Campbell at Eureka Springs’ Garden Bistro spends a lot of her time scouring every available farmers market up there just to put together an ever-varying menu each night. I mentioned the Certified Arkansas Farmers Market to her while at her establishment in July, and she remarked about a need for such a place in her area.

For now, though, it’s just the farmers market on Tuesday and Saturday mornings in Argenta, along with the satellite markets in Hot Springs Village and in Searcy. And the markets appear to be growing. I wandered down to Argenta one Saturday morning in August, and found parking to be tight. The market tents spilled out on both sides of the lot, and a smaller local crafts market had popped up just a half-block away. I discovered the joys of lemon green English cucumbers and purple bell peppers, picked up a block of cheese from Honeysuckle Farms and a chunk of goat soap from another vendor. There was a line of folks waiting to pick up the basket each had ordered from the online market.

Hardin is still looking for a few items to sell at Argenta Market. “We have the meat, dairy and produce covered. I would like to find more grains besides wheat and rice... Also, I would like to find more artisan cheeses, more pastured chickens and turkeys and quail and pheasant. Also, in aquaculture, I would like to see more prawns, and farm raised trout and tilapia.”

The local foods movement appears to be alive and thriving in Argenta. It’ll be interesting to see how it spreads through Central Arkansas.

For more information on the Certified Arkansas Farmers Market, check out www.arkansasfood.net or www.cafm.locallygrown.net.

This story appears in the September/October 2009 issue of Emerald City of the South. Pick up a copy at your local newsstand.

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