May 19, 2009

Anticipation for Local Crops Continues to Mount

by Nate Rafn

As the earth begins to dry-out on nearby farms and ranches, we find ourselves on the cusp of a seasonal transition for local food.

Vegetable farmers are working fervently to prepare their soil and care for the plants and seedlings that occupy the greenhouses. Ranchers and dairymen have already returned their cattle to pasture, while fruit growers delight in the spectacle of a blossoming orchard.

Now is the time to keep your eyes peeled for farm-stands on rural roads, to plant seeds in the garden, and to talk with those tan, resilient-looking folks at the farmers' markets about what they're harvesting and what's coming up next.

Unfortunately, the vast majority of Oregon's farmers' markets are closed for the winter, leaving a wide gap between consumers and growers for about six months. There is, of course, one exception- the year 'round Salem Public Market on Rural Ave. Aside from that, foodies and locavores are left to their own devises to source local ingredients for holiday meals, gatherings, and everyday survival.

One solution is to connect with a farmer early in the season, to work out a winter schedule for picking up available produce. Another option would be to shop for root vegetables, frozen products, meats, cheeses, and fruit, at grocery stores that commit to buying locally. Yet another route toward maintaining a Spartan-like local foods diet, is to collect as much fresh produce as you can during the summer, and preserve the surplus as you go along. Freezing and home-canning is fun, easy, and above all, totally empowering!

But with winter behind us, it's time to look to the future. Farmers' markets are finally open again, community gardens are bustling with activity, honeybees are out-and-about, and Community Supported Agriculture programs are kicking into full gear.

Seasonal products to look out for:

There are a few noteworthy food items available in May and June that deserve mention.

Rhubarb is often associated with those fleeting, joyful feelings of early summer. Their long, red, bitter-tasting stalks are harvested at around 12 inches, and sold, along with a pint of strawberries, to bakers and pie enthusiasts alike.

Leafy green vegetables are superb this time of year. Arugula, orach, mustard greens, spinach, and lettuces are practically exploding out of the ground, giving salad lovers everywhere their healthy fix.

Members of the onion family are also well represented at farmers' markets, grocery stores, and in backyard gardens right now. Look for chives, leeks, scallions, and garlic whistles.

Other spring vegetables to look forward to are artichokes, asparagus, fennel, kale, Swiss chard, bok choi, broccoli, radishes, and peas. Gardeners should ask farmers about herb cuttings, along with tomato and squash plants.

The Willamette Valley is famous for its early fruit crops. Cherries, currants, strawberries and raspberries are first to arrive, with blueberries to follow. Pancakes anyone?

In the case of animal products, dairy foods are at their very best in late spring, as cows graze on rapidly growing, green grass. Also, since daylight hours are increasing, eggs from free-range hens will be easier to find through "small" producers.

The foods listed above represent just the tip of the iceberg. One month from now, we'll be up to our knees in tomatoes, zucchini, cucumbers, fruit and berries of all kinds. How exciting is that?

For more information on farmers' markets near you, visit

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