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Thursday, May 22, 2003 02:20 pm

Red, ripe, and ready

Old Capitol Farmers Market grand opening May 28

Rosemary Garrett
Nick Steinkamp

Twice a week Rosemary Garrett carefully loads about 500 pounds of her freshly picked tomatoes into 20-pound containers and drives them from her home in Chambersburg to Springfield. Garrett is just one of 36 Illinois growers who will be selling produce at the Old Capitol Farmers Market every Wednesday and Saturday from now until October 29.

For those who crave fresh produce, and like to look into the eyes of the person who grew it, nothing compares to planning your menu according to what you might find at the open-air market. The city's third annual edition is already under way, but it will "officially" open May 28 with a ribbon cutting ceremony and entertainment by children's groups from 10:30 to 11:30 a.m.

"You're buying direct from the producers," says Barb Elbrecht of Downtown Springfield Inc., which coordinates the event with the city. "You know when you're buying a tomato, you're talking to the person who actually grew the tomato. The market only accepts Illinois-grown produce from personal growers. We're promoting that fact."

Garrett and her husband, Estel, began picking their tomatoes in late April in preparation for the market. Their business, Garrett Hygroponics, has been growing produce for 23 years. Since Garrett's tomatoes are grown in climate-controlled greenhouses, they ripen earlier and have a longer growing season than other local garden varieties. "We think we have better flavor and better quality," Garrett says. "And we don't have to use chemicals like pesticides and we seldom use sprays."

She shifts to other produce such as seedless cucumbers when the regular season brings an abundance of tomatoes from competitors in late August. "I love Springfield," she says. "On Wednesdays we have a lot of office workers, and on Saturdays we see people from the area driving in.

"For us, it's a rush from the start. We are busy from opening day. We start out with 500 pounds the first day. By the end of July, we take 1,000 pounds and we can sell out in five hours."

Garrett's growing method may fool Mother Nature to bring just-picked produce to customers' tables earlier than normal, but it doesn't come easy or cheap. Her tomatoes sell for $3 a basket, which hold almost two pounds. "It's expensive," she says. "We have high utilities and it's labor intensive" to keep 5,000 tomato plants growing through the cold weather. The tomatoes that will be sold this month began life as germinated seeds January 3.

This year shoppers will have more room to maneuver, because the Farmers Market has been extended an extra block on Adams Street, between Third and Fifth streets. Vendors will parallel park on the north and south sides, so customers can walk down the middle of the road and survey the offerings on both sides of the street. Other produce fresh from the fields will include lettuce, radishes, onions, strawberries, asparagus, and rhubarb in the spring and continue through the fall with pumpkins and squash. Items will change as the season progresses, and there'll also be herbs and baked goods.

In addition to local growers selling produce, Robert's Seafood will hold chef demonstrations the first Saturday of each month, with local cooks showing off and giving away samples.

Also generating more interest this year are handmade crafts, which will be sold on the third Saturday of each month. Elbrecht says farm crafts, such as dried flower arrangements and barnwood art, have always been a part of the market, but more people are taking advantage of the special day to sell other crafts such as jewelry. More people are also interested in selling baked goods, she says.

This year reusable canvas bags are being sold for $5 apiece, in response to requests by shoppers who found the plastic bags used in previous years cumbersome, especially with the heavier produce available in the fall months.

During the height of the growing season, the Farmers Market draws 2,000 people a day to downtown Springfield. "It's a nice community event that has been well-received," Elbrecht says. "People come who may not have been downtown in a while. The market does two things: it draws people to the market itself and also makes them aware of the changes downtown. For a lot of people, the market has become part of their daily routine on Wednesdays and Saturdays.

"We have fruits and vegetables, meat vendors, free-range chickens, and eggs and flowers. They can get a lot of shopping done on two blocks of Adams. We hear from customers how friendly everyone is, and the vendors comment how wonderful people are. They enjoy talking. It's just a nice environment."

The Old Capitol Farmers Market is held from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. Wednesdays and Saturdays, west of the Old Capitol Plaza. More information is available by calling Downtown Springfield Inc. at 544-1723.

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