Urban Gardening

Befriend a Farmer at the Farmers' Market

Adolph has taught me about grapes and lots more at my local farmers' market.
Adolph has taught me about grapes and lots more at my local farmers' market.

Farmers' markets are expanding in cities across the country. As consumers search for quality, affordable produce, local growers have stepped up to fill the need. In August my local farmers' market is a bustling hub of the community. All manner of vegetables and fruits are available. Breads, pies, muffins, dried fruits, nuts, herbs, cheeses, eggs, free-range meats, jams, jellies, sauces, and honey round out the delectable selections. Fresh cut flowers, hanging baskets, annuals, perennials, shrubs, and even orchid pots add a gardening dimension (and typically ensnare me). Musicians, singers, and a friendly crowd complete this idyllic scene.

For most shoppers, the large variety of locally grown produce is the main draw. But for me, the personal relationships with the vendors are just as important. Every week some of my favorite people are there to offer me healthy food and good conversation. As a gardener, that's hard to refuse.

My friends Adolph and Doris are perfect examples. Most of the fruit I buy (cherries, blueberries, peaches, blackberries, grapes, and apples) comes with them from Michigan. This couple (married over 50 years) has made weekly trips to Chicago as long as (or longer than) I've been alive. They remember a time when horses were more common than tractors and sustainable techniques were the norm. They treat me like family, and I return the favor by chatting with them until other customers require attention.

Adolph and I first connected over grapes. I favor native and slip-skin grapes over the more common commercial varieties from warmer climates. Adolph has grown native grapes for decades and introduced me to such a wide selection of grapes that I am forever in his debt.

'Niagara' and 'Concord' grapes are end-of-season treats.
'Niagara' and 'Concord' grapes are end-of-season treats.

The first grapes to arrive at the end of August are the 'Canadice' cultivar. These small, reddish grapes are super sweet and juicy. After a couple of weeks 'Himrod', 'Catawba', 'Reliance', and 'Delaware' begin to appear. Sometime in September the grape season hits its peak, and the sweet aroma of 'Concord' fills the air. Towards the end of the season in October, Adolph brings in musky 'Niagara' grapes along with the last of the 'Concord'.

Besides fruit, Adolph grows organic corn and soybeans. He was an early adopter of organic farming methods and regularly attends recertification classes. Once we found this common interest, our conversations expanded from grapes to sustainable farming, biological pest control, and soil building. On a recent trip to visit their farm, he taught me how to identify an organic field: they're weedy! I was stunned by the ragweed and cocklebur growing amidst the crops. I'm used to sterile monocultures. However, as long as the weeds are cultivated early, they won't affect the harvest.

The wealth of information at a farmers' market does not end with agricultural know-how. Culinary help is available, too. My wife has followed Doris' advice on how to make apple jelly and Concord jam. And we both have learned a lot about our neighborhood's history from listening to Adolph's and Doris' stories. Their best lessons, however, are their lives. Any happy couple that has raised a family and created a successful business from the land offers much to emulate.

Last stop at the farmers' market is for fresh flowers.
Last stop at the farmers' market is for fresh flowers.

These small farmers are like the Ents from Tolkien's stories. They are respected and admired as keepers of noble traditions. But they are trapped between large corporations who want to engulf them (Sauron's/Saruman's mechanistic armies), and the general populace who have forgotten them (elves, dwarves, men). While I have a few friends in their thirties and forties who have chosen to live off the land, many small farms are continually being converted into either mega farms or subdivisions.

These mom-and-pop businesses need our support. Farmers have a wealth of horticultural, culinary, and cultural knowledge. But rarely do city dwellers encounter them during their daily lives. So, on your next visit to a farmers' market to nourish your body, take the time to chat with a friendly farmer and nourish your soul. You could learn a lot and make a lifelong friend at the same time.

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