There’s an innate pleasure to eating seasonally, especially this time of year, when berries, stonefruit, peppers, corn, and tomatoes are at their peak. Farmers markets are one of the best ways to enjoy these ingredients, not only because they afford the chance to connect with growers, ranchers, fishermen, and food artisans, but also because they’re a window into the soul of a community.
I’ll be the first to admit I can’t afford to buy all of my groceries from my local market, and I get toilet paper and other household essentials from generic grocery chains. In our present era of food-related pretense, being on a first-name basis with your local farmer has become a form of culinary oneupmanship. Forget all that. The best reason to shop local and grower-direct, besides supporting family farms and local food security, is that you have access to fresh food, which is higher in nutrients, and often just tastes better. The bonus is usually a lively scene, with music, cooking demonstrations, tastings, and seasonal events.
Based on my ten years of working at markets in various states, below are my picks for the top ten farmers markets in the nation. I’ve based my criteria on their “green,” growers only (i.e., vendors must sell their own product and adhere to sustainable practices) policies, diversity and quality of product, and community involvement. If a visit to one of these markets isn’t on your Labor Day travel itinerary, not to worry. With over 5,000 markets operating throughout the U.S., there’s sure to be one near you.1. San Francisco Ferry Plaza Farmer’s Market
Top honors go to this thriving market for its gorgeous food displays, Bayside location, and nationally-acclaimed educational programs. Taste olive oil, cheese from Andante Dairy, June Taylor’s heirloom fruit preserves, and Marshall’s Farm Honey, and ogle the exquisite produce from Knoll Tairwa Farm and Dirty Girl Produce. Afterward, stroll the adjoining Ferry Building Marketplace and visit permanent shops from some of the state’s top food artisans.
2. Union Square Greenmarket, New York
The ultimate urban market boasts everything from Blue Moon’s spanking fresh Atlantic seafood, and artisan cheeses from Cato Corner Farm and Bobolink Dairy, to farmstead maple products and a staggering array of apples and cider from Upstate. Go with ample empty shopping bags; you’ll want souvenirs.
3. Santa Fe Farmers Market, New Mexico
Alongside pristine, high desert-grown produce, you’ll find Native American growers from local pueblos selling grassfed buffalo and heirloom crops descended from 300-year old indigenous seed stock; dried posole, and more varieties of dried chile than you knew existed. Come with an empty stomach, so you have room for tamales, bomber breakfast burritos, or goat milk fudge.
4. Boulder Farmers Market, Colorado
Regional farmers prove that a short growing season can still be spectacular in the form of red sunchokes, fingerling potatoes, maroon heirloom carrots, and peaches to die for from Morton’s Orchards. A kaleidoscope of cut flowers and an adjoining prepared food section make this bustling market a colorful-and delicious- community hot spot.
5. Berkeley Farmers Market, California
Although just 13 miles across the Bay from San Francisco, this revered urban market has a distinct flavor all it’s own. Grab a rustic loaf from Brickmaiden Breads, pâté or charcuterie from Fatted Calf, cheese from Redwood Hill Farm, and some produce, and you have the ultimate picnic.
Even in frigid winters, this college town market keeps on, providing hearty fare such as artisan brats and sausages, rabbit, delicate Fantôme Farm chevre, honey, and sweet, Northern European-style baked goods. This time of year, expect an abundance of produce, including cherries, elderberries, foraged hickory nuts, and other wild foods.
7. Seattle “U-District” Market
Seattle’s most popular neighborhood market is “farmers only,” meaning it’s limited to food products. It hosts over 50 regional growers who gather to sell free-range eggs, hard cider, hazelnuts, a multitude of berries, foraged mushrooms and other wild foods, goat meat, fresh and smoked salmon, and native geoduck clams.
8. Dupont Circle FRESHFARM Market, Washington DC
Credited with teaching Washingtonians to add produce to their agendas, this immesely popular, yearround market offers a regular “Chef in Market” program, and sells everything from ice cream and handcrafted soap to meat, seafood, pasta, and cow, goat, and sheep’s milk cheeses. Most of the product comes from the Chesapeake Bay Watershed, and is grown, raised, or caught within a 150-mile radius.
9. Austin Farmers Market, Texas
This beloved market is limited to local (within 150 miles) farms, and boasts a distinct Southwestern flavor. Pick up Creole pralines, pecans, heirloom zipper, cream, black-eyed, and purple peas, then dive into locally made empanadas and Oaxacan and Cuban food.
10. Kapiolani Community College (KCC) Farmers Market, Honolulu, Hawaii
Co-sponsored by the Hawaii Farm Bureau and the Culinary Institute of the Pacific at KCC, Oahu’s most thriving market requires growers to be in attendance, and provides locals and tourists with a real taste of the islands. Purchase grassfinished beef from Haleiwa’s North Shore Cattle Company, farm-raised moi (a tasty, white-fleshed fish once reserved for Hawaiian royalty), Molokai purple sweet potatoes, vanilla beans grown by the Big Island’s Hawaiian Vanilla Co., and produce like taro, lilikoi (passion fruit), and guava. Finish up with a plate lunch of kalua pig and lau lau, and prepare to tackle a hike on nearby Diamond Head to burn off the calories.