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."