Come the middle of April—no matter how cold the weather or how hard the rainfall, regardless of whether the Lenten rose is blooming, or a single song bird has appeared, shivering, from the south—I can always depend on one harbinger of spring: the opening of our local farmers’ market.
Like an eager baseball fan counting the weeks until Opening Day, I wait impatiently for the outdoor market to reclaim its traditional Saturday spot in the parking lot of the courthouse in Bel Air, our county seat. After spending months indoors, I ache for the feel of the sun on my face as I buy pansies and onion sets, the luxury of walking from vendor to vendor to see what looks tempting, and the simple pleasure of supporting hard-working farmers who are preserving their land by keeping it productive.
By April, I’m ready to abandon my winter laziness for the disciplined rhythm the market instills in me: breakfast at six, to market by seven, back home in the garden by nine. Visit the market on the day it opens, and you might think you’ve come across a large and boisterous family reunion. Customers and vendors exchange hugs, handshakes and warm greetings, and swap stories of time apart. I ask about their families; they inquire after mine.
We touch on the farmer’s perennial favorite subject, weather, and the men prognosticate about the coming season or commiserate over winter damage to greenhouses or barns. If anyone has taken a trip, it comes up right away, and by eleven, when the market closes, everyone knows that Brad was in Australia and Becky went to France. Opening day calls to mind what old-fashioned barn raisings must have been like, when people came together for a common cause, talking the whole time they worked.
A local bluegrass band made up of a few men with fiddles and mandolins usually kicks off the first market day; their portable sound system carries tunes across the length of the market. Their foot-stomping music keeps me moving and staves off the cold. If the notoriously finicky health inspector has consented, some vendors might even offer free samples of baked goods, cheeses and honey.
And if it’s an election year, local politicians will be walking around, overdressed and grinning broadly, pretending not to be campaigning but still shaking all the hands they can, even those already doing something useful, like carrying bunches of beets or radishes. It seems that just about everyone turns out for the market’s opening and no one leaves empty-handed. The market yields seedlings for the garden, tender heads of lettuce and radicchio, crunchy sugar snap peas, tart rhubarb and assorted crops that overwinter well, like winter squash, potatoes and cabbage.
As the season progresses, the Bel Air market offers sweet cherries; black and red currants; hardy kiwis; jostaberries; heirloom tomatoes, pears and apples; edamame; and multiple varieties of beans and squash. Instead of just one type of garlic, I can find six at the farmers’ market, including Russian and German, each labeled for pungency and culinary suitability. People looking for something other than food will find freshly baked dog biscuits, handmade soaps, hand-stitched quilts and tie-dyed scarves—all locally made and reasonably priced.
What I love most about the market isn’t what I buy, however. It’s what I feel: a precious sense of community in an evermore impersonal world. After years of going to the market, I know dozens of people by name and I’m affectionately called “our favorite vegetarian” by the beef farmers. If I run out of money, which has happened more than once, I can still buy things, because my promise to come back and pay for them later is accepted currency.
It makes me happy to see whole families come to the market together, including grandparents, babies and dogs. I savor the knowledge that when I ask Art, the heirloom fruit expert, which apple is tarter, a Spitzenburg or a Gravenstein, that he’ll slice open one of each, and let me decide on my own. I laugh when Becky, the organic grower, urges people to stop and try a few leaves of her lettuce, not because she’s trying to sell them some but because she’s proud of how tender they are.
And I smile when I see that Bill, a longtime local farmer, is grooming his daughter and her new husband to take over growing and selling the greenest beans and the sweetest corn I’ve ever eaten. Everything about the farmers’ market is personal: a smile and a greeting to someone I’ve never met; the offers of help carrying packages to the car; the cow-shaped erasers that the dairy stand hands out to everyone, regardless of age.
And while it takes me all winter to readjust to the sterile produce aisle of my local supermarket, it takes just that first hour of that first market day in April to remind me of what I have missed.