Food & Drink

A way to buy fresh produce, help sustain small growers

Joanne Neft is a cookbook author and former agriculture marketing director in Placer County.
Joanne Neft is a cookbook author and former agriculture marketing director in Placer County. Sacramento Bee file

The Saturday Auburn farmers market just opened at 8 a.m. and it’s already crowded with shoppers. There’s a chill in the air and those with light jackets pull them closer. The tomatoes, sweet corn and summer squash have given way to beets, carrots, pomegranates, persimmons and pears. The bouquets of sunflowers and snapdragons have been replaced with asters, strawflowers and chrysanthemums. People sort through a half-dozen varieties of apples. Someone asks out loud how to prepare turnips. A nearby customer pipes up and shares her mother’s recipe for mashing turnips like potatoes. Neighbors and co-workers bump into one another and stop to chat.

At the Country Club Plaza farmers market in Sacramento, a little girl carrying a bouquet of fresh flowers does a bob-and-weave through the crowd. “Grandma,” she shouts, “look what I’ve got.” A man carrying an 18-count carton of eggs quickly sidesteps out of her way.

A few farmers at the Tuesday morning market in Roseville still have late tomatoes or zucchini. It won’t last long, and when it’s gone, there won’t be more until next season. “No matter,” says one shopper. “It’s time for fall crops. I want ingredients for soups and stews this time of year, not watermelon and cucumbers.”

The same scenario plays out at farmers markets all across the Sacramento region, where shoppers have the chance to meet and directly support farmers like 80-year-old George Suyenaga, who has passionately dedicated his life to growing some of the best carrots you’ll ever taste, or Don Simoni of Mushroom Adventure in Marysville, who tracks every aspect of growing mushrooms via his computer and uses all that data to ensure he is growing the tastiest mushrooms in the most efficient manner.

“This is the definition of the farm-to-table movement,” said Joanne Neft, Placer County’s most vocal supporter of farmers markets, of cooking what’s in season and of buying from local farmers and ranchers. “For me, the word ‘table’ means community and family and neighborhood. It’s about people buying fresh, in season produce directly from the farmer. It’s about people sitting around their dinner table talking and enjoying a meal made from produce grown nearby and picked just a few days ago. It can’t get any fresher or closer than that.”

Neft, who grew up on a farm in Minnesota, rises early each Saturday to be at the Auburn farmers market when it opens. “Shopping at the farmers every week is a way of life for me. I plan my schedule around it.”

So do a lot of other people. A newcomer to the region might assume we’ve always had it this good, with a farmers market open every day of the week some place in the region, showcasing what’s in season in the Sacramento Valley.

But Neft recalls the 1990s as not being so great for Northern California farmers and the public being less aware of the benefits of supporting small farmers and eating fresh, local produce. Small farmers have always faced financial challenges, but in the late 1990s Neft remembers the farming population getting older, and being squeezed out by soaring land prices, especially in Placer County where developers sought to cash in on a wave of Bay Area families looking for cheaper homes. Land prices soared from $15,000 an acre in the 1980s in parts of rural Placer County to more than $80,000 an acre in the 1990s, and a number of farmers decided it was time to give up the farm and retire.

Concerned about the rapidly declining number of farms, Placer County hired Neft to serve as director of agriculture marketing in 2001.

“Every year for five years my mission was to tell the story of Placer County agriculture,” Neft said. “I had a list of 42 organizations and I went to every meeting I could with a lug box of produce. I put it on the table and talked about how healthy this food was and about the farmers who produced it. I talked to anyone who would listen.” Neft even dressed up as a tomato to lure people off the freeway and over to the then-newly opened farmers market in Loomis. She was responsible for opening six farmers markets in Placer County, and for starting the Mountain Mandarin Festival as well as an annual farm and barn tour. More recently, Neft co-wrote two cookbooks dedicated to cooking with local, in-season fruits and vegetables.

Eventually entities like PlacerGrown and Placer Legacy popped up to promote local agriculture or to save farmland from being turned into more golf courses, strip malls and subdivisions. Ever an opportunist when it comes to promoting agriculture, Neft had onesies made with the PlacerGrown logo on them and gave them to all babies born at local hospitals. For the parents, she included a bag with information about local farmers markets, farmers who sold produce from their farms, and the benefits of eating fresh, locally grown fruits and vegetables, as well as grass-fed, free-range meat.

“People want healthy food grown in a safe manner,” Neft said, “and they want to talk to the farmers and ranchers who grow that food.”

The number of certified farmers markets in California and the Sacramento region continues to grow, and the number of organic farmers selling at the markets also continues to increase.

“Placer County has 10 certified farmers markets. Sacramento County has 11 certified farmers markets. We have about 250 individual farmers who sell in Sacramento,” said Danielle Best, market manager at several Sacramento County certified farmers markets. “Many of them have booths at several markets and some participate on a regional basis, depending on what they grow.”

People no longer find it acceptable to buy lettuce that has traveled 1,200 miles to get to market, Neft said, both for the lack of freshness in the lettuce and the burned fuel it takes to get it across multiple time zones.

“We are what we eat,” Neft said. “It doesn’t get any clearer than that.”

HIGHLIGHTS OF FALL FARMERS MARKETS

Summertime seems to move along at a frantic pace. Everyone rushes about, trying to squeeze as much activity into a day as possible. Even summer produce is grab-and-go or quickly cooked. Cherries and strawberries can be popped into your mouth on the fly. Squash and corn can be tossed onto the grill or dipped into a pot of boiling water to be ready in a flash.

Just when we seem to be running out of energy, the comfort season of fall arrives. The pace slows. We snuggle into soft sweaters and old sweatshirts and hunker down with family and friends gathered around the kitchen table. Now we find the time for slow roasting, stewing, baking and simmering, filling our homes with aromas of the rich, savory foods of the season.

Fall is a wonderful time to live in Northern California, according to Danielle Best, a market manager for certified farmers markets of Sacramento County, and Joanne Neft, co-author of “Placer County Real Food, From Farmers Markets” (In Season Publishing, 2010, 299 pages, $28, www.placercountyrealfood.com ) and “The Art of Real Food: Seasonal Recipes for Every Week of the Year” (In Season Publishing, 2012, 304 pages, $29.95, www.theartofrealfood.com).

Here’s what we can look forward to at farmers markets this season:

▪ Apples will be available all through fall and winter. Many types are grown in the Sacramento region. Look for fruit with shiny, clean, smooth skin and no blemishes. Colors vary by variety and range from green and yellow to red and orange.

▪ Pears. Delta pears will be available in the early fall, but many varieties of crisp and juicy Asian pears will last for several weeks. As with apples, color indicates variety rather than ripeness. Look for firm, unblemished fruit. Skins will appear shiny but will become more matte as the fruit ripens. Handle them gently and refrigerate after ripening.

▪ Persimmons. These fall favorites are prized for their beauty as well as flavor. Traditional Fuyu persimmons can be eaten out of hand like an apple, and are both crunchy and smooth. Hachiya persimmons are heart-shaped and gelatinlike when ripe. They are primarily used for baking. To speed up ripening, place them in the freezer overnight. When thawed they will have a jellylike texture and ready to use.

▪ Pomegranates. Both red and white varieties can be found at markets in the early fall. Look for cracks in the peel, which indicate that the fruit is ready. An easy way to remove the seeds is to submerge the fruit in water. As you pull the fruit apart, the seeds will sink and the pithy parts will float. Get all the ruby seeds out at once and store them in the refrigerator.

▪ Greens. Cabbage, spinach, kale and chard are always good finds during fall. They are a great way to boost your beta carotene and vitamin C intake. Look for fresh, crisp leaves. Avoid greens with thick, fibrous stems. Store them in tightly sealed plastic bags in the refrigerator for up to five days.

▪ Mandarins. Mandarins, along with oranges and lemons, are highlights of the fall and early winter season. Most will store for two weeks in the refrigerator or at room temperature. Satsuma mandarins are the most popular mandarins at farmers markets. They’re sweet, juicy and easy to peel. The season is short, so stock up. Choose citrus that are firm and seem heavy for their size. Skin should not be deeply pitted. As a general rule, thin-skinned fruit are juicier than thick-skinned varieties and small to medium-size fruit are sweeter than large ones.

▪ Nuts. All tree nuts, including almonds and walnuts, will be in good supply during the fall. They store easily for about a year so now is the time to stock up. Store shelled nuts in tightly sealed containers in the freezer for best quality. Lightly toasting nuts before using will bring out the flavor.

▪ Winter squash. All sorts of winter squash, including favorites like butternut, acorn and turban, are available in the fall. Winter squash differs from summer squash in that the shells are hard and usually not edible. Choose squash that is rock hard. Matte rather than shiny skin indicates ripeness. Store them in a cool dry place and they should stay fresh for a month or longer.

▪ Root vegetables. Garlic, potatoes, carrots, turnips, parsnips, sweet potatoes. They are available year round, but the peak season stretches from November into January. Look for vegetables with a firm texture, ones that seem heavy for their size. If the green tops are attached, they should look green and fresh.

▪ Mushrooms. The most common varieties available are brown crimini (sometimes called baby browns or baby bellas), white button, oyster, shiitake and portabellas. The portabellas are generally very large and can be used for grilling.

▪ Flowers. Just because fall has arrived doesn’t mean the flowers suddenly disappear. Look for asters, everlastings, chrysanthemums, berries (pyracantha, beautyberry, etc.), ornamental grasses and more. Fall arrangements using brightly colored leaves make beautiful table arrangements. Look for fall arrangements of fresh produce, too.

Gwen Schoen and Pat Rubin Cotton

TIPS FOR SHOPPING AT A FARMERS MARKET

▪ Never go with a list. Let what’s at the market guide your meal planning.

▪ Take along a big bag. Better yet, take two.

▪ Try something new every week.

▪ When you first get there, use the first few minutes to circle the market. Walk around and look at all of the stands. Look to see who is selling what.

▪ If you don’t know how to prepare something, ask the farmer or ask other people buying the same thing. People love to share their favorite recipes.

▪ Simple is better. You don’t need a recipe with 12 ingredients to create something delicious and nutritious for your family. The simple recipes are usually the best ones.

▪ If you want to help make small farming sustainable, be sure to shop at farmers markets in the fall, winter and spring when traditionally fewer people go to the market.

WHAT IS A CERTIFIED FARMERS MARKET?

Certified farmers markets differ from roadside produce stands, according to Danielle Best, market manager at several certified farmers markets in Sacramento County. “At certified farmers markets, farmers sell products they grow themselves directly to the public. For consumers, this is a guarantee that what they buy is locally grown, fresh and in season. We deal only with full-time California farmers who are inspected, registered and certified by the state of California.”

Most California counties have their own certified markets. In Sacramento County there are 11, 10 in Placer County, six in El Dorado County and five in Yolo County.

For more information about regional farmers markets:

Sacramento County: www.california-grown.com

Placer County: www.foothillfarmersmarket.com

Davis: www.davisfarmersmarket.org

Woodland: www.thewoodlandfarmersmarket.org

El Dorado County: www.eldoradofarmersmarket.com

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