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Thursday, May 12, 2005 03:59 pm

appetite 5-12-05

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Hill Street Gardens owner August Jones is a regular vendor at the Old Capitol Farmers’ Market. He sees it as an opportunity to introduce customers to a wide variety of organic produce: “We have to get over this corn-and-bean thing and show peopl
PHOTO BY PENNY ZIMMERMAN-WILLS

When August Jones moved back to Springfield from California three years ago, he immediately went to work farming his grandparents’ land. During that first summer, he was selling organic tomatoes and other fresh produce at the Old Capitol Farmers’ Market.

The market not only provided an outlet to sell his crops but also introduced him to a network of like-minded people who enjoy tilling the land and promoting fresh food. The market is where Jones, who owns Hill Street Gardens, met business partners Joseph Bartletti and Andrew Heck, who farm in Buffalo. Last year they decided to join forces to share both the work and the rewards.

Hill Street Gardens is one of just a few organic growers in Springfield. This week, during the first of four market-preview days, Jones was selling native wildflowers, perennials, and early-season crops, including radishes and rhubarb. He and his partners plan to offer more than 200 varieties of organic produce throughout the season, including spinach, lettuce, onions, collards, kale, cardoon, garlic, leeks, chard, and melons. They also grow 44 varieties of heirloom tomatoes, 27 kinds of peppers, and 20 types of squash, in addition to fingerling and blue potatoes, golden beets, and burgundy beans.

“We’re just trying to grow lots of different things,” says Jones, who tries to educate people about the benefits of organic food. “We’re at the very basement level of the movement. It’s catching on here, but we have to get over this corn-and-bean thing and show people we have plenty of fertile soil here to grow other things,” he says.

The market not only provides local residents with a source of healthy food, says Jones, but also introduces them to growers. “They see that these people do exist that like to be out in the country and spend days in the soil growing food. That’s my network. The farmers’ market is where I met most of my friends.”

Jones is one of nearly 50 vendors who will be offering everything from flowers and honey to fruit, vegetables, and baked goods. Shopping at the farmers’ market is the next best thing to having your own backyard vegetable patch. In fact, it’s much easier — no tilling, weeding, or planting is involved. You can browse tables loaded with tender baby carrots and arugula, mounds of melons, and boxes of fragrant strawberries picked by hand.

Many local chefs, such as Maldaner’s owner Michael Higgins, shop at the market and plan their menus around what’s in season and abundantly available. The market has grown from its original 12 vendors and a few tables to two whole city blocks showcasing approximately 60 specialty-crop growers throughout the season. More growers are on a waiting list. The Springfield farmers’ market, which is committed to offering only locally grown products, is similar to markets across the country, indicating a nationwide, grassroots effort to strengthen the bond between growers and customers in a cost-effective, efficient way. Not only does this ensure the continued viability of the small family farm and supports environmentally friendly farming practices, but it also boosts the local economy.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the number of farmers’ markets in the United States has grown dramatically — increasing by 111 percent in the past 10 years. More than 3,700 farmers’ markets are in operation, indicating that these venues are meeting the needs of a more and more farmers with small- to medium-size operations.

“The Old Capitol Farmers’ Market promotes healthy and active lifestyles. We strongly believe in the health benefits of farm fresh produce, meats, and eggs and want to share these specialty crops with a diverse and increasingly dedicated audience,” says Megan Derrig-Green, the market coordinator.

“Farmers’ markets are not only the best place to buy fresh, seasonal fruits, vegetables, herbs and other food products,” Derrig-Green says, “they are also part entertainment and a pleasure for your senses.”

The fifth annual Old Capitol Farmers Market will operate 8 a.m.-1 p.m. Wednesdays and Saturdays, May 18-Oct. 29. The market is located on Adams Street between Third and Fifth streets, just west of the Old State Capitol. Early-season crops, herbs, baked goods, and crafts will be offered at a market    preview day 8 a.m.-1 p.m., Saturday, May 14, on the south side of the Old State Capitol Plaza.

Hill Street Gardens is located at 1400 Hill St. (From Clear Lake Ave., go north on Dirksen Parkway, then east on North Grand Avenue, and turn north on Hill Street.) Phone: 217-891-1277, 217-891-3570 or 217-415-1044.

Market tidbits

Coffee — Caffeine is now available at the farmers’ market. Freshly roasted and brewed espresso drinks will be served by vendor Terri Woodliff of Woodliff’s Bloomin’ Garden in Springfield. Woodliff, who sells homegrown fresh flowers and craft items made from pressed flowers, will offer iced drinks as the weather gets warmer.

Chef demos — On one Saturday each month, chef Michael Higgins of Maldaner’s will sponsor a cooking and sampling event, focusing on seasonal foods found at the market.

Music and more — Live music will be presented at least one Saturday a month, coordinated by Music in Communities and Education. The St. John’s Hospital tent will again offer health information and recipes.

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