My first trip to a farmers market felt like grocery store hooky.
I wandered around a Mexican-style courtyard giddily, soaking in live music and a gentle breeze, and I had to ask myself, “How did I not know about this loophole?”
I love the local foods scene. I love the mounds of robust vegetables in every hue, the trusting farmers who let you fill your bags before you pay, and, more than anything, the simple elegance the scene brings to my life.
I take my farmers market bounty home and arrange it in a shallow cardboard crate – my palette for the week. For dinner, I select my colors — an orange sweet potato, a white onion — and add my extras. Garlic, perhaps a sprig of rosemary, most certainly olive oil and salt. A flame bursts from my stovetop, and I feel like a magician. From a humble potato, behold this.
Once upon a time, I doubted you could eke much food out of our desert. When you live hundreds of miles from the nation’s breadbasket, I reasoned, aren’t you just lucky to have a Fry’s?
That’s before our very own New York Times best-selling author and Pulitzer Prize nominee Barbara Kingsolver turned me on to the locavore lifestyle through her book “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle.”
Now I know how much agriculture a desert can support: lots.
In 2002, the year of the most recent U.S. Department of Agriculture census, Pima and Cochise counties sported 166 small farms that sold to consumers directly — at farmers markets, roadside stands, U-pick orchards, and the like.
And unlike in the Breadbasket, the 15 farmers markets in sunny greater Tucson stay open year-round.
If you’re looking for farm adventures, Southern Arizona has those, too. You can go to a working olive mill to find out how extra-virgin olive oil is made, and you can go to a family-owned dairy to try your hand at milking a cow. One apple orchard in Willcox even let customers use its apple press to make their own cider for a while. The owners found the endeavor a hassle, but they said they may try again someday.
In this column, I will connect readers with resources for eating locally. I’ll introduce our farmers and their farms, and I’ll talk with experts to explore issues related to eating locally. For example, is this practice even an environmentally sound one in the desert, given that much of our water for irrigation comes all the way from the Colorado River?
My hope is that these vignettes will imbue the simple act of eating with greater meaning, for me and for others. After all, it touches every single day of life — thrice.
Monday through Tuesday, Sept. 15-30
• The Food Conspiracy Co-op will play host to the Eat Local America Challenge. Participants bump up their intake of local foods for two weeks and have access to activities, including a local farm tour. For more information, visit www.foodconspiracy.org.
Saturday and Sunday, Sept. 20-21
• The Oro Valley and Tucson farmers markets will hold a chili festival from 8 a.m. to noon at Oro Valley Town Hall, 11000 N. La Cañada Drive, and St. Philip’s Plaza at the southeast corner of Campbell Boulevard and River Road, respectively. For more information, call 918-9811.