UPDATED: In South Florida our farmers markets look different from their counterparts in more temperate parts of the country. They lack the urban cachet of the Union Square Greenmarket in New York City or the colorful variety of Seattle’s Saturday market. And this time of year, our farmers markets can look downright sparse compared to how they looked six months ago, although the best of them are stocked with tropical treasures that rarely make it up north: baskets of spiky rambutan, vivid magenta dragonfruit, pungent jackfruit, mangos and avocados in myriad varieties.
The number of farmers markets in South Florida is sprouting like weeds, just as it is nationally – 8,144 farmers markets are now listed in the U.S.D.A. national directory, a 10 percent increase in just one year. Here, some are neighborhood markets – like the Upper Eastside market, the Southwest Community Farmers Market at Tropical Park, and the seasonal North Miami Farmers Market –that focus strictly on local produce. Others, like the Market Company’s locations, which include the long-running Lincoln Road and Pinecrest Gardens markets, and Hollywood’s huge Yellow Green Farmers Market, feature local vendors but also reach farther afield.
Finding good vendors has been one of the biggest challenges farmers markets face, says Claire Tomlin of the Market Company. “Eighteen years ago, when I got involved with the Lincoln Road Farmers Market, I couldn’t get a farmer to come on a Sunday,” she says. “Now, young people are more interested in farming small scale – 5 to 15 acres – and farmers markets are their best source of sales. Direct sales to the public cuts out middlemen, and farmers can make more money.”
And locating enough local farmers to meet the needs of the many markets is an ongoing challenge. Muriel Olivares, who grows produce at the Little River Market Garden for the North Miami Farmers Market, sees a real shortage. Compared to a few years ago, the state of farmers markets in South Florida is “slightly better,” she says, but only in quantity, not quality. “There is more accessibility, but we are still missing the most important link: the farmers, the growers, the real fresh produce and farm products.”
South Florida is still creating a culture of eating local, says Art Friedrich of Urban Oasis Project, operators of the Upper Eastside market at Legion Park and the Southwest Community market. “Local producers need to figure out ways to meet the desires of our local consumers,” he says. “There’s a big dialogue not happening between the farmers and the common folk of Miami.” He added: I’d like to see farms developing the techniques and skills to grow more common vegetables during the summer, because we can do it and there’s a huge need for it. [We have] very picky eaters and strong food fads – farmers need to crack that code and keep up, while consumers need to accept the realities of what incredible things Miami has to offer, and what it sometimes doesn’t have.”
Educating consumers about South Florida’s seasonality – what grows here and when it’s available – is an ongoing process, market organizers say. “There are still quite a few Floridians who are confused about what is the season for fresh vegetables in South Florida,” says Mark Menagh, general manager of Yellow Green. “A lot of people need to have it explained why you can’t get a head of romaine lettuce or the same spinach at our farmers market in July that you can at Publix,” says Renee Joslyn, spokesperson for the Southwest Community market. Education has to be a big part of our mission.” Olivares says the education process goes beyond what’s in season. “I think in general the people of Miami don’t understand the difference between locally grown or organically grown. Marketing and advertising are a good start, but educational workshops, movie screenings, food demos and farm visits are all effective, too.”
More people do understand that farmers markets provide a source of healthier foods, says Menagh. “A farmers market meets the need for the growing trend of people choosing less processed food in their purchases. Really caring about how your food is grown or made and what the ingredients are have become a driving factor over the industrial food suppliers’ marketing statements of ‘healthy’ food,” he says. “It takes more time and involvement to shop at a farmers market over a supermarket.”
Healthy food is not just for the middle and upper classes, says Friedrich. Some South Florida farmers markets aim at getting healthy produce to underserved neighborhoods by accepting and doubling EBT (food stamp) dollars. “It is a real shame that there are markets that still don’t accept EBT, making them accessible to everybody, he says. “The state tried to give away the needed technology to every market last year, but few took them up on it.” Later in the year, Urban Oasis Project will be launching innovative new strategies, including a mobile farmers market that will tour Liberty City and other neighborhoods beginning in November.
A Community of Markets
Another distinctive feature is the sense of community and sharing the abundance. Annick Sternberg, co-founder of the Southwest Community market, encourages people to grow things to eat in their backyards and then bring the surplus to the market to sell or barter with vendors. “We’d like to see more of a community feeling in the markets. It’s not just a place to shop, but a place to catch up with your neighbors, have a snack and a chat. We’d like to see visiting the farmers market as much a regular part of your Saturday morning routine as going for a manicure or a bike ride.”
There’s even a philosophical motivation behind shopping at farmers markets can be boiled down to a few simple words, says Menagh. “Eat real food, buy local,” he says. “How you spend your money is as important as how you vote.”
Find farmers markets in South Florida with map locations here.