Why-owa? My Thoughts on the Farmers Market State

My Connection to the Hawkeye State

In the early aughts (2002-2003), I spent a year as a visiting instructor at the University of Iowa, which meant living in the Iowa City area. Having known very little about the Midwest (except that it was some place I never imagined living in), I was beyond pleasantly surprised by Iowa City (although, as a student told me, “Iowa City is not what you think of when you think of Iowa”). I really loved my year here, even those winter mornings featured a few too many temperature readings below 0°F.

In Which She Marvels at the Food Available to Her

Let it be said at the time, I was (and still am) what would be termed a “healthy eater”. Definitely a food lover (why else would I write this blog?), but certainly leaning toward the healthy end of the spectrum. At the time, that was high-fiber, low-fat, semi-vegetarian (today such a diet is no longer the sin qua non of healthy eating, as meat and butter and such have made quite the comeback). But I had no trouble finding organic vegetables, tofu, tempeh, exotic cheeses, interesting grains and the like. In fact, I joined the New Pioneer Food Co-op within 6 hours of moving to Iowa. What a magical place that was for me! Two branches—one (complete with a bakehouse turning out marvelous and inventive breads) within a short walk of my apartment and one within a short walk of my campus office. I was in gustatory heaven!

Then there were the restaurants. Spanning the globe in terms of cuisines, as well as ways of eating (e.g. vegetarian), I had numerous choices on the days I opted not to cook (which were many, given that I was finishing a dissertation at an East Coast school and teaching a full load of mostly new classes at Iowa). Granted, Iowa City is a Big Ten (or 11 or 12—I’m out of touch with this now) with a large medical school (and dental school and law school) to boot, so I shouldn’t have been surprised. But (and this was probably some residual East Coast elitism) I was nonetheless pleasantly delighted at my options!

But one of the things I really loved were the farmers markets. Yes, plural—I shopped at the Iowa City one (open twice a week) and the Coralville one (once a week). And now there’s a third one in the old Sycamore Mall location. Anyway, the array of produce options and other goods (breads, etc.) was wonderful. So, when I ran the numbers for farmers markets, I really wasn’t that surprised. There’s clearly a market for farm-fresh products in Iowa. Iowa has a food-aware populace (why else would my coop—and I’m still a member—have two locations, with a third on the way). And, also important, there are actual farmers there as well. So to me it makes sense that Iowa leads the farmers market charge!

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And Something Else: Seed Savers Exchange

Iowa is also the home of the United States’s premier organization devoted to the preservation of heirloom varieties of produce and plants, as well as heritage breeds of animals, Seed Savers Exchange. This nonprofit has been around since 1975. I’ll post about it some other time (as I was fortunate to visit this past summer), but to me it is another indication of the food (and food-issue) cognizant people you find in Iowa. No, it’s not all heirloom peaches and heritage cream (I drove by a Monsanto plant and did give them the finger), but there is a critical mass there.

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Why-Owa? Iowa!

In short, finding Iowa front and center in the number of farmers markets per capita is almost expected. There’s farmland, farmers, and a ready (and educated) populace—ingredients for a successful farmers market locus!

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Iowa—The Farmers Market State?

Increasing attention is being paid to local food, as evidenced by the proliferation of farmers markets. Ostensibly where producers come together to sell their meats, cheeses, produce, etc., farmers markets connect us to the bounty surrounding us, acting as a respite from the sterile environments of a supermarket or megastore. Many of us—perhaps even MOST of us—have at least weekly access to a market where we can buy local goods. For me, it’s party of my weekly routine. I take my reusable bags and fill them with beets and salad greens from Christopher Farms, pork and Oyster mushrooms from Eli Creek Farms, honey from Dale Scheidler, grassfed beef from To Tend and To Keep Farm, apples from Richie Stegmaier, lamb from Russell Sheep Farm and so on. Farmers markets are certainly landmarks on the terrain of the Flyover States.

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So, Who Has the Most Markets?

According to the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture), there were over 8000 farmers markets across the country in 2013, a 5-year increase of nearly 40%.1 The 10 states with the most markets are:

  • 1. California (759 markets)
  • 2. New York (637)
  • 3. Illinois (336)
  • 4. Michigan (331)
  • 5. Ohio (300)
  • 6. Pennsylvania (290)
  • 7. Massachusetts (289)
  • 8. Wisconsin (286)
  • 9. Missouri (246)
  • 9. Virginia (tied with Missouri) (246)
  • 10. Iowa (229)
  • 10. North Carolina (tied with Iowa) (229)

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Well, if you’re a geographer, you’ll recognize that there is another factor at play here—the number of people living in these states. California, New York, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, and North Carolina are also among the United States’s 10 most populated states. In essence, we are looking at a list of the most populated states. So we really can’t compare these states directly. Well, what do we do now?

In Which We Normalize Our Data

To enable use to compare our states, we need to look at the number of farmers markets relative to population, which we do by normalizing our numbers. Normalize , in our case, means that we are going to take our raw numbers (count of farmers markets and the absolute populations of the states) and generate values for the number of farmers markets per population. Here’s how we do it:
Number of farmers markets in a state/Population of state
This will give us the number of farmers markets per capita (or per person). However, that’s going to yield a small number. So, we will multiply that value by 100,000, which tells us the number of farmers markets per 100,000 people.

So, NOW Who Has the Most Markets?

Surprise, surprise—looks like Iowa is the clear winner! Yes, the Hawkeye State has an astonishing 7.41 farmers markets per 100,000 people! If we look at the top farmers market states on a per population basis, the list looks quite different!

IowaGglE

  • 1. Iowa (7.41 markets per 100,000 people)
  • 2. Wisconsin (4.98)
  • 3. Massachusetts (4.32)
  • 4. Missouri (4.07)
  • 5. Michigan (3.35)
  • 6. New York (3.24)
  • 7. Virginia (2.98)
  • 8. Illinois (2.61)
  • 9. Ohio (2.59)
  • 10. North Carolina (2.36)
  • 11. Pennsylvania (2.27)
  • 12. California (1.98)

Wow! California actually drops to the bottom of the list (remember, though, that I’ve only examined the states with the most farmers markets). But still—an truly incredible showing! In another post, I’ll explain why I’m not all that surprised that Iowa is at the top. But it certainly is surprising to me the magnitude of this! And the Flyover States fare quite well here–4 out of the top 5 (Iowa, Wisconsin, Missouri, and Michigan)!

1Farmers market data sourced from here. Population data are from the US Census Bureau.

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Ground Cherries—Undiscovered Fruit Gem of the Midwest

Until this summer, I’d never eaten a ground cherry. In fact, I didn’t even know what they were. But my local farmers market had baskets of them for sale and the grower gave me a sample. Pleasant sweetness, with flavors of mango and melon—I thought they’d be nice in a jam or in muffins. I bought a couple of boxes, a ground cherry virgin no more.

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Ground cherries in need of some husking!

Ground cherries, also known to some as Cape gooseberries or husk tomatoes, aren’t cherries (and they aren’t gooseberries, either.) A perennial native to the Americas, ground cherries are fairly common; in fact, the plant is considered to be a weed by many and might be found growing along roads or other disturbed areas. They can grow in fairly poor soils, too. The ground cherry is part of the Nightshade family (Solanaceae), which also includes potatoes, peppers, tomatoes, tomatillos, eggplants, and tobacco. Indeed, the ground cherry resembles a tiny tomatillo, as it is encased in a heart-shaped papery husk. Once ripe, the ground cherries fall to the ground. The husk can then be removed and the fruit eaten or incorporated into a recipe.

Ground cherries should only be eaten ripe. You’ll be able to tell if they are, as the color will be a golden orange-yellow. Unripe ground cherries, which are green, are said to be somewhat toxic, no doubt due to the presence of solanine, a type of natural defense common to nightshades (and the reason you shouldn’t eat the green parts of potatoes). Ripe ground cherries, with their myriad tiny (edible) seeds, however, can be safely eaten.

While they were a Midwestern favorite of yore (older cookbooks have recipes for ground cherry pies), they seem to have fallen out of favor. I assume it’s because of the work involved husking them. You have to remove the papery husk which, since they are small, can take some time and yield you less than you’d expect looking at the carton. But the task isn’t all that onerous and you do wind up with, well, ground cherries!

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Unhusked (left) and husked (right–in the bowl) ground cherries.

In my next posts, I’ll share with you my recipes for Ground Cherry-Coconut Jam and Ground Cherry-Lime Muffins. The coconut and lime are nicely complementary to the flavor of the ground cherries.

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Using Up Your Market Bounty—Gado Gado

Hopefully those Dane County Farmers Market posts have inspired you to seek out your local farmers market or farmstand. If so, you’ve probably returned home with a veritable plethora (oh, how I love that word) of produce—the bounty that is late August and early September. Cucumbers and zucchini crowd your vegetable crispers. Tomatoes of many colors and stripes fill your bowls and counters. Basil and parsley and thyme add their herbaceousness to the scent of your kitchen. You tear up in poetic appreciation for the abundance bestowed upon you by the hard work of your local farmers. You sit back, satisfied.

Okay, maybe not. But you came home with a few tomatoes and cucumber. Perhaps you even grew them yourself. As you eat your fill of this fresh produce, you may be looking for an usual treatment for it. Enter Gado Gado, an Indonesian peanut-coconut sauce served with rice and vegetables.

Wait, you say. Hold on. Indonesian??? How is that Flyover? Well, dear readers, the Flyover parts are your local vegetables. And it may come as a surprise to some, but the Flyover States are home to people of non-European ancestry or origins. To wit, the largest concentration of Hmong Americans are found in Minnesota. Fort Wayne, Indiana, is host to the largest concentration of Burmese immigrants. A vast number of Arab Americans reside in the Greater Detroit area (specifically Dearborn). So, a look at Flyover Food incorporates some global cuisines. And while the Indonesian American population isn’t found in the Midwest and Plains, this dish serves to showcase the gorgeous local produce that IS Flyover in origin. So, here’s a version of Gado Gado for your Flyover Culinary Enjoyment! And it’s vegan, to boot.

This serves 8

What You’ll Need

  • chopping board and knife for vegetables, garlic, and ginger
  • garlic press (optional)
  • 2.5 quart saucepan
  • whisk
  • wooden spoon
  • measuring cups and spoons
  • grater—box or Microplane

Ingredients

GadoIngredients

  • 1 onion, diced
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced or pressed
  • 1-2 Tbsp vegetable oil (peanut, roasted peanut or canola—not olive)
  • 1 or 2 dried, crushed hot chile peppers (or more if you like it spicy!)
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 1-2 Tbsp minced ginger
  • 2 cups coconut milk (lite is okay) or 1 14-oz can
  • 1-1/2 cups water
  • 1 cup natural peanut butter (can add a little more to make it more peanutty)
  • grated rind and juice of 1 lime
  • 1 tsp. salt
  • 1 Tbs. brown sugar
  • 1 Tbs. soy sauce (regular or wheat free)

How to Make the Gado Gado

  1. Saute onion in 1 or 2 Tbs. vegetable oil in a saucepan over medium heat.
  2. When onions soften and become transparent (don’t let them brown), add garlic and saute for another minute or two.
  3. Add all of the other ingredients EXCEPT for the peanut butter and stir to combine.
  4. Add the peanut butter, whisking so it is fully incorporated in the sauce.
  5. Turn up heat to high and bring to a boil. Once at a boil, turn down heat to a simmer.
  6. Simmer for 20-30 minutes, stirring or whisking often. The sauce becomes thick and can stick to the bottom of the pan, in which case you run the risk of it burning. So pretend this is like a Chicago election—stir early and often.
  7. Remove from heat, let cool for 10 minutes, and serve with some combination of rice, vegetables (e.g. cucumbers, steamed carrots or cabbage or cauliflower, bean sprouts), fried tofu cubes, and (if it doesn’t have to be vegan) slice hard-boiled eggs or cooked shrimp.

I actually prefer to make this a day ahead. I find the flavors blend together better with the benefit of an extra day. This also freezes beautifully—you can divide the sauce in half, serving one and freezing the other. Additionally, this is nice tossed with rice noodles.

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Here I’ve used the sauce on a salad with greens, cucumber, and heirloom tomatoes.
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Dane County Farmers Market, Part 2

Okay, the Dane County Farmers Market is a riot of color, from potatoes of every hue to a veritable psychedelia of mushrooms,

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Somewhere Over the Potato Rainbow
OysterMushrooms
Make that Somewhere over the Oyster Mushroom Rainbow
from blazingly golden sunflowers to the rich rubiness of cherries.
Sunflowers
These flowers just look so HAPPY!
DoorCountyCherries
Door County is known for its cherries. Not surprising, given that it’s a peninsular county by Lake Michigan. It’s across the lake from Michigan’s Leelanau Peninsula, the subject of previous cherry posts.
It’s also a riot of local color, in the form of people and events. There’s the bee man Dale Marsden, whose beekeeping and honey-producing have kept him busy for decades!

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I say, Mr. Marsden, that is a mighty fine chapeau you are sporting!
There’s the annual Paddle and Portage, with pairs of canoers paddling across Lake Mendota, foot-racing with their canoes (the “portage” part) across Madison (and crossing Capitol Square), then finishing by paddling across Lake Monona. There’s even the occasional protest or demonstration!

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And you thought hauling all of your market produce was difficult!
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The Speedo Tuxedo Team
You see, a good farmers market can be more than just a place to purchase food—it can (and should be!) a community center!

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