Published on 08/14/02

Football season brings 'wait till next year'

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By Wayne McLaurin
University of Georgia

No, this isn't a football story. My lament is that with the start of football season, my favorite shopping place for vegetables, the downtown Athens farmers market, no longer exists.

The farmers market is actually an informal hodgepodge of pickup trucks, vans and cars on the north side of College Street, two blocks from the University of Georgia campus.

If you aren't already aware, Athens is awash in football fans on fall weekends. College Street is put to other good uses on the weekends the Dawgs are on their home turf. Starting the Saturday before the first football weekend, the farmers market must give way to parking.

Early riser

But until then, I get downtown about 6:15 a.m. with my coffee in hand. The market's official opening time is 7 a.m., but if the produce is unloaded, I can exchange my money for the very freshest, tastiest produce available.

Every year as it closes, I begin to miss the people I see at the market. There are joggers running by who go home with a few veggies. Some folks come in cars, others on bicycles. And those living near enough just walk to the market.

They come in all manner of dress, from coveralls to high fashion, some with children in strollers, others with dogs or briefcases.

Many motivations

They come out of curiosity, attracted by the hubbub, or just saunter up the street from coffee shops, the Saturday newspaper rolled up under their arms.

The one thing they all have in common, regardless of what they wear or how they get there, is they're quickly seduced by the farm-fresh, local produce. Well, one grower brings beautiful flowers and produce from Elberton, but we still consider that local.

One family comes with the very best blueberries, and I buy and freeze them and make muffins until I see them next year. During sweet corn season, farmers show up with their pickups piled high. What a treat! Sometimes I've been tempted to have it for breakfast but have been deterred by "she who must be obeyed" until the midday meal.

Favorite farmers

Yet my favorite folks are the farmers who bring tomatoes. I get to peruse the many cultivars: old and new, heirloom and hybrid. Pinks, reds, yellows, greens and stripes. Black Krims, German Pinks, cherries, yellow plums, Arkansas Travelers and others. Not a bad one in the bunch. Let's see, I'll have a few of these and some of those....

Both conventional and organic farmers display their harvest. Often the produce is sold out by 10 a.m. The first butterbeans that showed up at the market only lasted through 3 buyers -- I got the last of the batch. They sure were good with the fresh sliced tomatoes and cornbread. You got to be early.

The market is not only about selling produce, but about visiting with other producers and voicing concerns about the weather, the best ways to irrigate and the cultivars they may want to include in next year's garden.

It's not the price

One interesting thing I've observed is that I seldom hear anyone ask, "How much are the tomatoes per pound?" It's always, "I want 4 pounds of tomatoes," or, "Are those German Pinks?" I can't tell you how many times I've heard one of the farmers say, "Take one of these and try it -- I think you'll like it." How many times do you get that in a supermarket?

The farmers markets throughout Georgia are growing in number and size. Plan to visit them and get the freshest, best and often the cheapest produce available.

"Wait until next year," what I say about having that ultimate bacon, lettuce, and tomato sandwich. It gives me something to look forward to next summer when the lady from Elberton shows up with the German Pinks.

Wayne McLaurin is a professor emeritus of horticulture with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.