Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Preserving the Seasons: April, Week 3

Here in Wooster, we've got a mere month and a half before the farmers' market returns for another season. I'm getting excited already!

But the start of a new harvest season means it's time to start thinking about a new preservation season, too, and considering where you'll find all your local produce and other products.

Last week I mentioned the possibility of starting your own garden with plants started from seed. Having your own garden can be a very satisfying way of sourcing local food, but until you build up more experience with it, it most likely won't fill all your preservation needs for the season.

That's why this week I'll review some ideas of where to look for local foods in preparation for your food preservation efforts.

First of all, the farmers' market is generally the best place to start. (Not sure if there's one nearby? Check Local Harvest.) With multiple farmers and vendors bringing a variety of goods to one centralized market place, you're likely to find almost all the fruits and vegetables you could hope to want. If you particularly like the produce a farmer sells and would like to buy larger quantities for preservation, talk to him or her. In my experience, any farmer will be thrilled to have a large order placed in advance for fresh produce: guaranteed sales!

While you're at the market chatting up the farmers, start looking for or asking about other local foods. Do any of them also sell meats, poultry, eggs, or the like but can't bring them to market due to health code restrictions? Do they know of anyone else who sells those items?

Look around also for staples such as honey, maple syrup, nuts, pasta, grains, or flour. In recent years, I've been able to find all of those items at my local farmers' market, and even though one or two of those vendors no longer come to market, I have their phone numbers and can call to place an order. (If you like what they have to offer, get their contact information and ask if you'd be able to order larger quantities in the off-season.)

If you enjoy making that contact with the farmer, you might find that a weekend drive in the country takes you past a number of farmstands where you can buy more produce directly from the farmer. In some areas, you're likely to stumble across some specialty vendor, like a local winery.

And while you're wandering the back roads, look for a local orchard or country market: these small places generally have other local food products available for sale. I've been able to find cider vinegar, sorghum molasses, maple sugar, and popcorn at places like these.

Like getting out to visit the farms themselves? Look for a local farmers' organization, like the Grange or (here in Ohio) OEFFA, where you can meet and talk with the farmers. Check their web sites: OEFFA, for example, has a guide to finding organic and sustainable farms and businesses around the state.

If you prefer to limit your wanderings to town, check at the local grocery store -- especially if you have one that is locally owned -- and ask about what local foods they might carry. You may be surprised at what you can find, and if they hear enough customers asking for it, they will provide it.

Talk also to your neighbors, co-workers, friends -- anyone you have a regular or passing acquaintance with -- if they know where you can find such and such items of local produce. If they garden themselves, they may offer you some of their surplus, or they may give you tips on other places to go. (Hint: it's always charmingly polite if you thank them with food you've made from some of that local harvest, whether it's a gift or a whole meal.)

As you discover new products and new sources, keep a list. Did you like particular varieties? Did you especially enjoy something preserved or cooked a certain way? Is this something you'd want to preserve in large or small quantities? Keep notes and add to your list every year, stretching your palate and your preservational repertoire as you go.

It may take a couple of years for you to switch over to mostly local foods (if that's what you want) and perhaps a couple more until you're preserving the quantities you need to get you through winter. It's a process, not an end goal, because some years some produce will see better harvests than others, and your tastes may change, too. Give yourself time to explore and experiment.

The more you enjoy eating local foods, the more this will become a delightful game for you. It's a joy to learn about new sources of good food and to try new dishes, so little by little, stretch yourself. Try something new!

And before you know it, you'll be more than ready for the farmers' market to begin!

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