Fall brings bumper crops of fresh fruits, vegetables, and flowers to local farmers markets. The season is ripe for just-picked produce from a grower near you. What's more, your family might have as much fun here as at an amusement park. Okay, maybe not, but there are no lines, no waiting, and no hefty admission fees. Plus it's much healthier and more educational, right? Here are some of our favorites.
State Farmers Market, Raleigh
The capital city has a capital farmers market too. Huge open-air sheds hold a cornucopia of fruits, vegetables, flowers, plants, imported items, and flea market finds. Handmade signs show price per pound, basket, or bushel, often with a peck of commentary. One sign reads: " 'Maters' taste like they did when you were a child growing up [with] your parents!!!" Another announces: " 'Cut Collards.' They may be better after FROST, but delicious NOW."
Free samples abound too. Not sure if those cherry tomatoes will be sweet enough in your salad? Well, just pop one in your mouth--no charge--and decide. This method is impractical with pumpkins, but you get the picture.
Barter with these ol' boys--you might get a discount if you buy in quantity or bat your eyelids.
Location: south of downtown, off I-440 and Lake Wheeler Road (look for signs on the interstate). Hours: 5 a.m.-6 p.m. Monday-Saturday year-round; noon-6 p.m. Sunday. Call (919) 733-7417 for more information.
Western North Carolina Farmers Market, Asheville
This place is huge-36 acres--and well stocked with the mountains' best fruits, vegetables, jams, preserves, and locally made crafts. Open-air truck sheds glow with the fiery colors of fall: orange pumpkins, speckled gourds, yellow squash, and the season's last red and yellow tomatoes. Speaking of trucks, you might want to consider renting a moving van to haul off your loot. Our favorite booth is Jesse Israel & Sons Garden and Nursery Center. Why? You get to take a pretty plant home and put it in your garden.
Location: between I-26 and I-40 on Brevard Road (there are signs on the interstate). Hours: 8 a.m.-6 p.m. daily. Call (828) 253-1691 for more information.
City Market, downtown Winston-Salem
This seasonal market is pretty small, especially compared to those in other major cities. Still, we like it for that very reason. Plus it's located downtown, surrounded by a collection of cool shops.
You're not overwhelmed by the choices here, and you can pretty much visit every vendor in a couple of minutes--at least that's the theory. The reality (in my experience) was an hour or more, buying pots of herbs, a couple of sunflowers, a sack of ornamental gourds, and a half basket of tomatoes. Practical? Well, yes and no. One thing is for certain--that basil plant made my car smell so good.
Location: the corner of Cherry and Sixth Streets in the downtown arts district. Hours: 9 a.m.-2 p.m. Tuesday and Thursday May 1-October 31.
For more information on farmers markets in your area, contact your local county Extension agent or county government office, or visit the North Carolina Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services Web site, www.agr.state.nc.us.
"Take the Harvest Home" is from the October 2002 issue of Southern Living. Because prices, dates, and other specifics are subject to change, please check all information to make sure it's still current before making your travel plans.