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Farmers' market fondness

(post, Caroline Lewis)

The chilly weather has generally persisted this spring, but somehow we really scored with the weather the dates we were invited to join the vendors at the [/market/hfm "Hillsdale Farmers’ Market."] Both days — April 5 and April 19 — were gloriously sunny and over 70 degrees. That was just the first of many surprises we encountered in our glimpse into a world we had only ever seen from the outside, as customers.

Our farmers’-market experience began when manager [/user/eamonm "Eamon Malloy"] invited Verdura to join the regular vendors for both April market dates. Eamon often brings in companies like ours as well as musicians, guest chefs, and others who might enhance the market experience for their customers. 

For those of you who don’t know about our company, Verdura Culinary Gardens, we design, build, and maintain raised-bed vegetable gardens for Portland-area homeowners. In preparation for our participation in the farmers' market, we acquired a 10-foot tent and a banner, and built ourselves a 3-foot-square tiered demonstration garden we planted several weeks ahead of time with a variety of spring vegetables. The morning of April 5, we arrived at the market site — the Wilson High School parking lot in southwest Portland — probably about an hour earlier than we needed to. We had no idea what to expect!

[%image reference-image float=right width=400 caption="Caroline and Larry at market."] 

The whole pre-market setup drill is pretty confusing for first-timers: there are no signs, or people directing traffic, and it’s not entirely clear at which end of the market one should drive in to set up. For that matter, we really had no idea exactly where we should set up. None of this is the least bit confusing to any of the regulars, of course. 

We parked on the outskirts and located Eamon, a charismatic, energetic multi-tasker who immediately directed us to a spot in the center “aisle” of the long, narrow market. We were lucky enough to be next to Tastebud, who tantalized us with aromas from their delicious wood-oven-baked bagels and pizzas throughout the day.

The market is arranged as one long row with stalls on either side, plus additional stalls like ours scattered down the center. Although the layout is perfectly spacious for pedestrians, it’s a bit tricky setting up, as each “lane” on either side of the center stalls is just about wide enough for one truck. There’s no right or wrong way to approach this, just a good sense of timing and a cooperative attitude. We were astonished at how smoothly and efficiently the whole seemingly chaotic setup went, with many vendors not even arriving until close to 9:30 for the official 10 a.m. opening. They made it look easy.

By 10 o'clock, numerous early birds were already strolling the aisles, as a market volunteer walked up and down ringing the opening bell. And the vendors were ready: pizza oven fired up, coffee freshly brewed, glowing amber honey lined up in neat rows, and a surprising bounty of early spring vegetables heaped appealingly in wicker baskets. 

There’s a rhythm to the whole market experience, with visitors coming in waves shortly after it opens, then again around 11 a.m., then the lunch crowd, with everything very gradually dwindling as the 2 p.m. closing time nears. We were impressed with vendors’ ability to handle crowds while maintaining a friendly and seemingly relaxed demeanor.

For our part, we had a wonderful time. Our unusual tiered garden design attracted a lot of attention, with questions on how it’s constructed and on raised-bed vegetable gardening in general. Some of the people we met are already gardeners, from enthusiastic beginners to veterans, many of them laden with at least some of the healthy plant starts from nearby vendor Gales Meadow Farm. Others wanted to talk about which vegetables and fruits grow well here. Many had specific questions: about soil, sun, specific plants, types of wood to use in building raised beds, and organic pest-control techniques. We added quite a few names to our email list and have even since signed on several folks as clients. 

[%image market float=left width=400 caption="A scene from the Hillsdale Market."] 

The diversity of market customers is a wondrous thing. The people-watching was great. It occurred to me that in my own visits to various markets over the years, I haven’t paid all that much attention to the people around me. As a chef and gardener, I tend to get pretty focused on the vegetables, cheeses, and other culinary delights. But behind the table in a booth, there is ample time to just observe — and greet — an incredible mix of interesting people (and their dogs).

The best part of the whole market experience, though, was observing the wonderful camaraderie the vendors share. These farmers, bakers, growers, chefs, fishmongers, and cheese makers may live pretty divergent lives, but they share something I believe is in short supply in our frenetic modern world. They obviously work extremely hard, yet they are really enjoying themselves and their friendship with each other. 

The last-minute bartering and gifting as the market was winding down demonstrated this well, with vendors darting around, exchanging seafood for plant starts, a gorgeous cauliflower for some homemade butter, and pizzas donated to a farmer to take home to his hungry crew. We had nothing to trade, but when Larry and I would buy something from another vendor, we were usually given a discount and were accepted as part of the family. 

Kind as they all were to us, it made me wish we, too, could be a regular part of this unique community.

p(red). Editor's note:  Have you tried out our Farmers Market Finder Tool yet?  Give it a go and see what your market might be up to today.


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