Thursday, April 30, 2009

Gearing up for farmer's markets

Snow in March - not a dusting, but literally inches overnight. Rain in April - not your "April Showers" of rhyme, but buckets of rain, so much that the Illinois river has been at flood stage for the entire month.

And yet, spring has interminably marched on, the crocuses and hyacinth yielding to the tulips and magnolias, and finally this week, to the heady blooms of apple trees and lilacs. On the last day of April, spring - and with it, the growing season - has finally arrived.

Tomorrow will be the first day of the Metro Centre's farmers market. I will have to do some research, but I am fairly certain that this is the longest running farmer's market in the city. According to their site, they were founded in 1977. At any rate, I certainly have fond memories of going there with my father to buy boxes of tomatoes and fresh Manito sweet corn for Stephanie's, along with anything else that looked interesting and tasty.

Now, there are two other farmer's markets in Peoria, and they are certainly worthy of a mention, but as neither of them open until June, I'll talk about them later.

Metro Centre's farmers market is my favorite of the three. The main reason for this is convenience. The riverfront market is only open on Saturdays from 8-12. The Heights market is only open on Wednesdays from 4-7. The Metro Centre market, on the other hand, is open Monday through Saturday, from 8-2 (although I don't recommend trying to go at 1:30 - they are usually packed up and ready to go by around then). So any time that you want to stop and pick up some good fresh produce, you can usually hit up the Metro Centre market to find what you want.

I'm also a big fan of the location, which is a lot more convenient for anyone who lives on the north end of Peoria, especially if you're just stopping in briefly.

Convenience aside, I'm not saying that the Metro Centre market is perfect. Some of the vendors have an annoying tendency to truck a lot of their produce in from alternate locales, either because they want to sell things that aren't ready in central IL yet, or because their farm specializes in only one or two crops, but they want to display more to draw people to their stand. So you have to talk to the vendors to find out where your produce is coming from. I'm not saying that it's bad or wrong for them to sell these things, but if I want tomatoes from Georgia, I'll just run next door to Schnuck's, where they'll be just as flavorless, but cheaper.

Another downside to the Metro Centre market is lack of diversity of offerings, overall. Unless you go on a Saturday, there are only likely to be a few vendors in attendance, and they know what sells well, and often don't bother to try to sell other crops. Try to find young fresh garlic at the Metro Centre market - it's just not to be had. Because the other two markets are one day events, they draw a larger crowd, and some of the farmers who come to them can offer a greater variety of "funky" vegetables and fruits because they're going to get more people willing to purchase something out of the ordinary.

This is not to say that there are not a few gems at the Metro Centre market. You just need to take a little time to learn who they are and seek out their excellent quality and seasonally changing variety.

I will try, over the growing season, to do detailed profiles on some of the vendors at the different farmer's markets in Peoria, and perhaps some of the nearby markets in other cities like Pekin as well. In the meantime, I'll be heading off to Metro Centre tomorrow to see the first offerings of the season!

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