The South is full of farmers' markets—let's support them.

D. Paul Jones III

If you want to go to The Market at Pepper Place in downtown Birmingham on a summer Saturday, you'd better get there early. By 10 a.m., it's hard to find a place to park, and the prettiest tomatoes are usually long gone. By some estimates, The Market brings in over 10,000 people every weekend, some coming for the produce and others just there for the party. Strollers and dogs are everywhere, artisans are selling everything from homemade soaps to pottery, and a few energetic people are often dancing in the parking lot to a New Orleans-style jazz band. It's not just a place to buy groceries; it's the biggest social event in town.

This wasn't always the case. About 18 years ago, Frank Stitt (the visionary chef and proprietor of Highlands Bar and Grill, Bottega, and Chez Fonfon) started talking to Cathy Sloss Jones, a real estate developer who wanted to reenergize downtown Birmingham. Together with local chefs, community leaders, and seven North-Central Alabama farmers, they opened The Market at Pepper Place in 2000. It has since grown to include over 125 small farmers and vendors and now encompasses two city blocks. Stitt is there most Saturdays, talking to farmers and wandering among the peaches and blueberries, some of which will appear at his restaurants that night. "When you shop at a farmers' market, you have produce that was just picked and hasn't spent several days losing its nutrition and flavor," he told me recently. "You have your finger on the pulse of life."

WATCH: Farmers' Market Pasta Salad

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, there are 2,620 farmers' markets across the South. Each one supports a network of growers who are producing some of the freshest, most nutritious foods you'll find anywhere. If that's not reason enough to go, you can also enjoy some old-fashioned face time with your neighbors. These places are as good for your soul as they are for your body. What's even better is that the most delicious recipes for fruits and vegetables tend to be simple, so we created Fast, Fresh, 5-Ingredient Farmers' Market Recipes. If we did our job, it'll help you enjoy farmers' markets even more—and if there isn't one in your city or town, perhaps it's time to start one.

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