Nature’s Candy Store: A Trip to a Farmers’ Market
Stands overflow with delicious treats. Racks brim with shiny greens, bright yellows and deep reds. People peer at the tantalizing options. The scene is reminiscent of an old- time candy store. It is a candy story of sorts—nature’s candy store, a farmers’ market.
According to the National Farmers Market Directory, Pennsylvania is home to 254 farmers’ markets. They vary in size and format, from over 200 vendors at Manheim’s Root’s (pronounced like foot) Country Market and Auction and 25 or so at the PA Farmers’ Open Air Market in the parking lot of the Farm Show Complex in Harrisburg to the 70 stands at the indoor York Central Market at George and Philadelphia Streets in York.
What you’ll find
Regardless of size, farmers’ markets offer a variety of products, including produce, wine, cheese, baked goods, herbs, handmade lotions and soaps. “You can find just about anything for your stomach or your body,” noted Bill, a regular to Root’s Market. “Root’s livestock auction and flea market stalls add to its eclectic nature.”
An assortment of whoopie pies, or “gobs,” depending on where you reside in Pennsylvania, are available: mocha, coconut cream and orange creamsicle, for example. Savory items also are well represented. Jars of mustard and pickled and jalapeño eggs line one stand’s shelves and My Aunt Mary’s home-jarred Italian pasta sauce sits on another.
Even as the markets provide a variety of food options, local produce serves as a cornerstone for most markets. “We grow 95 percent of the produce we bring to the PA Farmers’ Open Air Market [Harrisburg],” said Angie Romberger, of Kenny Stehr and Sons Farm.
This fresh, local produce draws people to the markets. When asked why they frequent farmers markets most folks echoed Miles Stahl’s comment: “Because it’s fresh.” That freshness comes in surprising varieties: Crenshaw melons, tumeric root and Turkish eggplant.
Not familiar with a Turkish eggplant? Market vendors supply a wealth of information to their customers, including how items are used and cooking directions. If customers are unfamiliar with an item they can ask for identification. Romberger explained that “Turkish eggplant is favored by the stand’s African clientele and is eaten raw with peanut butter,” shared Romberger. “Customers often ask for specific items and if demand exists, we’ll provide it.“ Farmers also offer nonlocal convenience items, such as bananas, which can’t be grown locally.
Erin, from Root’s Charles Family Produce, revealed that cheddar cauliflower, like white cauliflower but with an interesting orange hue, is sweeter than regular cauliflower and its color is derived from an increase in keratin. Within ear shot, a vendor and customer discussed how to keep chipmunks out of the tomatoes.
All of this conversation offers a connection between the land, the farmers and consumers. Meg Gleason, Market Manager for PA Farmers Open Air Market, said that customers learn “respect for the hard work it takes to get food to market.”
Despite all the labor required to grow it, market produce is reasonably priced, even inexpensive. “You have to be competitive because 30 other vendors could be selling what you’re selling,” explained Nathan Oldesbroth, whose family has exhibited at Root’s market since its 1925 inception. “Customers get the choice and variety at the price they want,” he added.
That variety includes organic products. Markets carry organic produce as well as organic grains, meats cheeses and eggs.
Joe Cocklin and his father run Cocklin Farm, a Pennsylvania Certified Organic farm. Both men left their corporate jobs to farm. This is their first year at the Farm Show Complex market and they brought an assortment of vegetables and fruits, as well as pork and whole chickens.
Penderbrooks Whole Foods at York Central Market carries organic steel cut oats, millet and pearl barley, as well as dried cherries, cranberries, Turkish apricots, figs and much more.
Folks don’t just come to buy ingredients, they come to eat. Markets have a plethora of gastronomic options. One young visitor to York Central Market said, “When I walked in I couldn’t decide what I was smelling—bacon, seafood or fries.”
The Busy Bee, a funky whole foods eatery, serves up its fare under the tag line, “Playing with Knives, Fire and Food since 1969.” Its varied menu at York Central Market includes boiled quail eggs, pickled lotus root and marinated jerk shrimp salad. Fried chicken, fries and Chinese vendors cater to less adventurous appetites.
This buying, selling, eating and advising happens in an upbeat, wholesome atmosphere. Regulars gather with their baskets on wheels, meet friends over coffee and breakfast, and look over the goods. Newcomers experience the adventure of finding new, tasty products while deciding what market booty to take home.
Kathy Gannon of Harrisburg sums up people’s encounters at farmers markets: “I get to meet cool people, good food. It’s a great place.”
The only down side to markets? It’s really difficult to leave.
If You Go: Farmer’s Market Tips
1. Days and time of operation vary. Check an online directory like National Farmers Market Directory for the most up-to-date information.
2. Bring cash. Generally checks and credit cards are not accepted.
3. Ask questions. Farmers have a wealth of information they are happy to share.
4. Leave yourself time. Markets lend themselves to a relaxed shopping experience. Don’s rush it.
Story and photographs by Susan Ryder. A freelance writer and communications professional, Susan lives in New Cumberland with her husband and three sons.