Even if you personally never shop at farmers’ markets, the chefs whose restaurants you eat at certainly do. After decades of building up an industrial system capable of bringing us any fruit or vegetable at any time of year in a precise uniform state of firm-fleshed flavorlessness, home cooks and chefs alike have begun rediscovering seasonality and the produce of their own region as virtues, and farmers’ markets have bloomed all over the country. In her new book Farmers’ Markets of the Heartland, food writer and blogger (at The Rustic Kitchen) Janine MacLachlan explores the farmers’ market scenes in eight midwestern states and comes back with a report on the state of rebirth for local food communities— and lots of great pictures. She’ll be in Urbana tomorrow signing books at their farmers’ market, but expects to have more Chicago events planned soon. We talked with her about her inspiration for the book.
So what inspired you to go out and hunt up all these farmers’ markets?
You know, for me it was the ultimate road trip. I went to eight states and 76 farmers’ markets, and it’s really a celebration of how farmers get food to the market table.
Chicago really seemed an important starting point because we’re home to the largest CSA in the country, Angelic Organics. And from there I went in a spiral, and took in Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa and Missouri.
I wasn’t sure about giving Chicago its own chapter at first, but it is so different from the rest of Illinois, obviously, in its relation to food, which gave me a chance to talk about urban farming, and then go to Urbana and show what’s different about its farmers’ market. And besides, as my publisher said, Hello, we are the University of Illinois Press.
What’s different about the markets in Chicago as opposed to in smaller places?
One of the great things about Chicago markets is that for the most part there’s everything. We have meat, we have vegetables, we have eggs, we have people selling grains and beans and popcorn.
In a smaller place it might be much more limited. Like— in North Port, Michigan, there’s a farmers’ market with only about half a dozen vendors, which is in this old stone train depot with a sweeping view of Grand Traverse Bay. There’s no meat or eggs, but there’s a wide variety of fruits and vegetables. And it’s just wonderful to be able to enjoy that bounty of the midwest.
There are definitely cultural differences by region. In Indiana there’s a lot of popcorn, popcorn to cook yourself, kettle corn to eat at the market. In Minnesota and in Wisconsin you have a lot of Hmong vendors. For the most part they sell familiar vegetables, but if you go to a Hmong vendor and they’re selling carrots, for instance, they will all be lined up perfectly. You can tell it’s a Hmong vendor before you ever see the people.
Oh, and one thing you always see— cinnamon rolls. You could do a whole visual essay on the cinnamon rolls for sale at farmers’ markets all over the midwest.
Mmm, cinnamon rolls. Which you couldn’t sell at Green City Market here, for instance, because of the cinnamon. There are markets that have very strict rules, like Green City, which is strictly local and organic. But that’s not necessarily true elsewhere, is it? Like there are places like Cleveland where they have an old fruit and vegetable market which is cool, but it’s commodity produce, it’s not about local. How do you know what you’re getting?
It’s a big question. In St. Louis there’s an old commodity fruit market like that, but they have a modern-style farmers’ market on Saturday. So there they’re helping introduce the industrial market buyers to the farmers, and that’s a win all around.
To a certain extent, buyers really need to talk to the market organizers and understand what the rules are. In a smaller town, they may have bakeries that aren’t organic, they’re not using local grain, but they’re nice community places making good scratch baked goods, so that’s fair enough for a farmers’ market. In Michigan right now, they’ve lost so much of their fruit crop, you’ll go somewhere in the south of the state and they’ll have brought in Traverse City cherries, which aren’t exactly local to them. But it’s not like a peach from California, either, so you accept that they’re doing what they have to to make the market pay and keep going.
Animal welfare is important to me, and one of my philosophies is, eat food you can visit. I may never go to a farm, but I want to know that my meat is coming from somewhere that I could go visit. When I would talk to people sometimes they’d come up to me and say "I don’t want to know where my meat comes from!"
Which is kind of an admission that the answer is shameful.
Yes. We’re so disconnected from our food. Well, some people are very informed about food miles, and local economies. Madison, for instance, is a place where everybody has that acclimation to farm to table. But really, all over the midwest, people are supportive of, and proud of, wholesome, handmade food. Everywhere I went, people would tap me on the shoulder, eager to show me something they thought was special.
Okay, so we’ve talked about buyers but obviously, you also talked to farmers. What did you find out about them?
Oh, absolutely that’s a big part of it. I mean, the food’s delicious but I’m enthralled with the stories of how these people get to be farmers. A lot of times it starts with wanting to provide better food for their families, and then that turns into a business.
There’s a family in Ohio named Boehnlein, who have New Creation Farm. They have seven children, six adopted. And some of them had health problems, so they thought, let’s feed them organic food, but it’s pretty pricy. So they became organic farmers.
There was another family I met at the Austin Farmers’ Market here, because this tiny little girl comes up to me with a sample and says, "Would you like to try our pulled pork?" And they got into it for the same reason. They bought one pig, and…
That’s how it starts. Pig is the gateway animal to farming!
Farmers’ markets are great incubators for new small businesses, as we know here from things like Floriole and Hoosier Mama starting at Green City. I think one of the things that helps, too, is that even after World War II, when the USDA was looking at how to feed the country industrially, and basically told everyone to plant corn and soybeans, the midwest was so fertile that these other things weren’t crushed completely, there were always farmers who kept growing some of this other stuff, kept raising pigs, and so on. They didn’t completely lose the infrastructure of local processing plants. So it had somewhere to make a comeback from when farmers’ markets started appearing.
So tell us a couple of your favorite farmers’ markets in this area that people might not know about.
Well, I really like the Logan Square Farmers’ Market. It’s very festival-like and there’s a lot of variety— there’s the people making alfajores, there’s the bangers guy with his cute British accent and so on.
The 61st street market is really inspiring— it has one foot in the Hyde Park community and one foot in an underserved area, a food desert. It’s one that reaches everybody.
And it was too late for my manuscript, it was already turned in, but I want to go check out the Wheeler Mansion one which just started up recently.
It was a great experience writing this book and meeting all these people. To me the farmers’ market is the new town square. You’re in a community of kindred spirits, and there’s always something great to eat. That’s what keeps people coming back.