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With spring in full bloom and everyone itching to get outside, the time is ripe for a trip to one of Sonoma County's colorful farmers markets.

Most of the seasonal markets, from Healdsburg and Windsor to downtown Santa Rosa and Petaluma, pop open their tents and umbrellas in May. This year, there are more markets, more vendors and more produce than ever, so make sure you bring a big basket.

"The farmers I work with are more diverse, and they've learned how to extend their seasons by using hoop houses and row covers," said Mary Kelley, manager of the Saturday and Tuesday Healdsburg Farmers Markets opening May 7 (one block west of the Plaza) and June 7 (North and Vine streets.) "Even with the setbacks we've had this season, we'll have a good showing of produce on opening day."

Riding on the popularity of the locavore movement, local farmers markets have been growing faster than a cornstalk in August.

"Right now, we have 15 markets in the county," said Hilda Swartz, manager of two year-round markets in Sonoma and Oakmont. "When I started in 1985, there were two. It's changed a lot."

Last year, Geyserville and Rohnert Park both added evening farmers markets. Starting in June, Swartz plans to launch a new night market from 5 to 8 p.m. Tuesdays at Oakmont. On May 15, Glen Ellen plans to launch its own farmers market from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sundays at Jack London Village's north parking lot.

"I've been getting so many calls from the locals saying how much they've been wanting this," said Kelly Smith of San Rafael, who is organizing the Glen Ellen market. "The great thing about new farmers markets is that more of the smaller growers can participate, because there's not a waiting list."

Farmers markets sometimes have been criticized for not catering to customers from low-income brackets who cannot afford the higher prices. The good news this year is that more of the markets are accepting food stamp dollars through the CalFresh Program, federally known as Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). That's a win-win situation for consumers and farmers.

"Last year, we had $800 worth of food stamps tokens purchased at the market for the season, and a $400 matching grant," Kelley said. "It goes directly into the hands of the farmers, so we're supporting local farms."

This year, a pair of Cloverdale accupuncturists — Laurie Martin and Toby Daly — are breaking new ground with an innovative "Veggie Rx" program. They are buying Healdsburg market tokens to give to their patients to redeem for food.

"We're still having a hard time getting people to make the connection that healthy food makes all the difference," Kelley said. "That's why we want to praise Laurie and Toby for what they've done. They're not sitting around waiting for the government to do it for them."

Despite the tight economy, market managers around the county report that more consumers are willing to pay extra for local, farm-fresh eggs. That, in turn, has resulted in a strong, steady supply of eggs.

"For years and years, I tried to get eggs into the market, and nobody had them," said Erica Burns-Gorman, manager of the Petaluma farmers markets, which open on May 21 (Walnut Park) and June 1 (Second Street, between B & D streets). "Now, just about every farmer has eggs."

Types of troops

Faith-based groups account for nearly two-thirds of the Boy Scouts of America’s 2.4 million youth members. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is the largest sponsor with 437,160 members.

Faith-based groups: 1,580,861

Civic groups: 572,098

Educational groups: 278,206

National total: 2,431,165

Source: Boy Scouts of America, 2013

The demand for local meat, dairy and cheese is also on the rise, for the same reason.

"Starting last year, people were really spending the money on the farm-fresh meat and dairy," Burns-Gorman said. "I didn't see that before."

The farmers also appear to be diversifying their crops, bringing a wider variety of produce to their stalls.

"Before, farmers used to grow two things, and now everybody has a little bit of everything," Burns-Gorman said. "Even my tomato guy is working with basil and cilantro and squash and onions."

Educational activities, such as cooking demonstrations and gardening classes, continue to be a popular draw at the year-round Santa Rosa Original Farmers Market and elsewhere.

At Windsor Farmers Market, Mei Ibach will serve as the official market chef, providing cooking demonstrations with farmers' produce a couple of times a month.

Starting in June, Relish Culinary Adventures will bring a chef to the Healdsburg Farmers Market on the second Saturday of each month as part of its regular paid class schedule.

"Generally, it's free to the public to meet at 10 a.m., shop with the chef and see a brief cooking demo," Kelley said. "Then the paying customers go back to Relish and make lunch."

After losing its long-time manager, Santa Rosa's Wednesday Night Market is re-energizing itself this year. Plans are afoot to bring in more local farmers and artisan-style foods. When it opens on May 11, the downtown market plans to offer wine-tasting with a tasting fee.

"You'll get a glass and a punchcard for five or six tastings," said Chris Denny, a member of the board. "It's an artisan tasting. ... It's not a street party."

This recipe is from Victoria Rezonja of Relish Culinary Adventures.

Early Summer Green Salad with Strawberries, Shamrock Feta and Toasted Nuts

Makes 4 servings

1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil (such as DaVero or Deergnaw)

2 tablespoons Vivo Syrah vinegar

? teaspoon sugar

1 shallot, finely diced

1 basket strawberries

2 cups market greens, washed and dried

? cup Shamrock Feta cheese, crumbled

? cup pecans or walnuts, chopped and toasted

Sea salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

Combine the olive oil, vinegar, sugar and finely diced shallot in a medium bowl. Slice the strawberries and add to the bowl. Let macerate for 5 to10 minutes.

Put greens in large salad bowl. Toss with enough dressing to coat lightly. Top with strawberries, feta and nuts. Serve.

You can reach Staff Writer Diane Peterson at 521-5287 or diane.peterson@pressdemocrat.com

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