“Oh, look at the baby watermelon!” a woman coos as she passes by Bob and Linda Tucker’s produce stand.
Another woman hands Bob Tucker $25 for a big box of tomatoes. “I’m taking them to my kids in New Mexico,” she says as she carries them away. “They don’t get good tomatoes there.”
They do here, at least most years. And that’s why more and more growers like the Tuckers and buyers like the woman headed to New Mexico are crossing paths at Wichita’s farmers’ markets. The Tuckers have been bringing their produce to the Old Town Farmers’ Market, the city’s second biggest, for a decade. They say business has never been better .
At the city’s biggest farmers’ market, held at 21st and Ridge, market manager David Franz said the number of sellers and buyers has probably doubled since he first became involved as one of the former in 2002.
Besides the simple consideration of flavor, factors like concern for the environment and a desire to buy locally seem to be driving the trend, Franz said.
“There are a lot of people that want to put a face to their food,” Franz said. “We’ve become so disconnected from our food through the factory system.”
At another outlet for local produce, Beck’s Farm, Sarah Beck senses a similar feeling among customers.
“A lot of people care about what they’re eating, and all of a sudden they’re really showing interest,” Beck said. “They like to know where it’s from and some of the history of it.”
If you haven’t visited one of the area’s farmers’ markets or orchards, your window of opportunity this year is still open for a couple of months. August is usually considered peak season, but September is not far behind. Most favorites — from watermelon and tomatoes to peaches and cucumbers — will continue to be available for much of the month, with fall fruit and crops taking over in October.
The markets and orchards try to make produce shopping fun as well. Both the Old Town and west-side markets have entertainment most Saturdays, and Beck’s offers a playground and tours. The Old Town Farmers’ Market has its annual Iron Chef competition on September 5, while the west-side market will stage its yearly “stone soup day” on October 30. In addition to fresh produce, there are vendors selling everything from grass-fed lamb and free-range chickens to necklaces, soap and caricatures.
The festive atmosphere is part of what attracts regulars like Carole Ronek and friend Esther Koehn, who have been visiting the Old Town market for years. But more than anything, it’s the food. They had a bag full of eggplant, tomatoes, corn and more on a recent trip.
“I’ve got everything,” Ronek said. “I’m going to make ratatouille!”
AREA FARMERS’ MARKETS
1st and Mosley
Open 7 a.m. to noon Saturday,
through October 16
21st and Ridge Open 7 a.m. to noon Saturday and 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. Wednesday,
through October 30
21st and Rock
Open 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesday
800 N. Baltimore
Open 8 a.m. to noon Saturday
East of Andover Road on Central
Open 3:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. Wednesday,
through September 29
3-IN-1 TOMATO TOPPING
This mixture of ingredients from the farmers’ market can be used for three different and delicious dishes. Top toasted bread with it for bruschetta, toss it with pasta for a light entree or thin it out with cold tomato juice for gazpacho.
6 to 7 tomatoes (use a variety of colors and types if you have them)
1 cucumber, peeled and seeded
1 bell pepper, any color
1 bunch basil
Salt and pepper
Directions: Chop and combine vegetables . Season to taste with balsamic vinegar, salt and pepper. For best results, let sit at least 30 minutes before serving.