Review: Farmers’ Markets of the Heartland

September 12, 2012 at 12:14 pm

Editor’s Note: In support of the Green City Market’s Locavore Challenge, we’re dedicating well-deserved real estate this week at the Beet to kindred spirit, Janine MacLachlan, and her book, Farmers’ Markets of the Heartland. She has a book signing this Saturday, September 15th from 9:30 am to 12 pm at the Green City Market. Also, we’re giving away an autographed copy of her book to someone who tells us what their favorite farmers’ market is, and why. So read about her book, then go this page, and enter to win!

While promoting her book, Farmers’ Markets of the Heartland a few months ago at a special dinner at Floriole, Janine MacLachlan said she wrote this book as a “love letter” to the farmers’ markets. However, after reading the book, I think that the book functions as much as a useful primer to farmers’ markets as a reverent homage to the markets themselves.

MacLachlan is not only a friend but a kindred spirit — like me, she splits her time between Chicago and Fennville, Michigan, a small, agricultural town on the edge of the touristy beach towns of Saugatuck and Douglas. Using Fennville as a part-time home base, MacLachlan was able to delve deeply into the patchwork of farmers’ markets throughout the Midwest. She includes large well-known markets like the Dane County Farmers’ Market in Madison, Wisconsin, and small ones like the Northport farmers’ market and its six vendors on the far Northern tip of the Leelanau Peninsula.

Although Farmers’ Markets of the Heartland is not a comprehensive guide to all farmers’ markets in the Midwest (and it’s not meant to be), she covers more than the four-state region represented at Chicago farmers’ markets, including markets in relatively distant Minnesota, Ohio and Missouri. Her enthusiastic tone begs us to take a road trip, and discover the rural, simple beauty and culinary treasures of the areas about which she writes. About the Broad Ripple Farmers’ Market in Indianapolis, she writes, “The Broad Ripple Market boasts a lively mix of anything you would like to eat, including My Dad’s Sweet Corn, which comes with a pledge that it was picked within the past twenty-four hours.” About the Mill City Farmers’ Market in Minneapolis, she writes that “The Mill City Farmers’ Market puts forward a striking presence on a cloudless, windswept, autumn day and seems to be the quintessential Minneapolis experience.” MacLachlan starts her book at the Green City Market, because that is where her “romance with farmers began.” Although she allows that Chicago’s gritty urban landscape is not the most evocative start to a book on farmers’ markets, she writes that it is the “center for food advocates dedicated to bringing fresh, nourishing food to its citizens.”

MacLachlan doesn’t eschew food politics entirely, but she doesn’t focus on it to the point of preaching. Instead, she gently educates people on shopping at a farmers’ market, highlights the various roles in local eating (farm foragers, the “best gig ever“), provides key facts (the average age of American farmers is 57), and a glossary, which, at first glance seems pedantic, but recognizes the reality in that the terminology associated with small-scale farming (like biodynamic or closed herd) is not easily defined or in our regular lexicon — at least not yet.

Even a part-time Michigander and farmers’ marketer like myself can be enlightened by Farmers‘ Markets of the Heartland, as I was after reading her brief history of the evolution of Michigan’s diverse fruit crops, an engaging story of individual grit and innovation. MacLachlan writes, “My home state of Michigan may always be the Automobile State…[a]nd yet many people do not know that Michigan is a food powerhouse, second only to California in terms of crop diversity.” She talks about Stanley Johnston, head of Michigan State University’s extension in South Haven from 1920 to 1969, who was the cultivator of the beloved Michigan Redhaven peach, and helped Michigan to be number one in blueberry production.

It’s not all lovely praise for the innovators; her discussion of Illinois agriculture takes a dark turn. She states, “In the 1970s, federal farm policy encouraged farmers to consolidate their crops and focus on commodities. Illinois farmers tell me that at that time, the United States Department of Agriculture decided the fertile soil of Illinois was best suited for corn and soybeans. In an ironic step, a state with great soil and ample water stopped producing food for people to eat and focused on commodity crops used primarily for manufacturing or for animal feed.”

Her book advocates for organizations that use agriculture to serve the greater good: the Resource Center, which operates the Farm Stand at City Farm, and which gathers and composts restaurant scraps used to nurture a farm in vacant lots in underserved areas, and Rick Bayless’ Frontera Farmer Foundation, which in its first five years, gave more than $500,000 to small farms that supply restaurants to expand herds of pasture-raised cattle, installing irrigation systems, and building hoop houses, are two such organizations discussed.

I anticipate that I will find myself going back to this book for inspiration, to help nurse me through a gray winter, or even to find a seasonal or heritage recipe or two. (The book contains several recipes from locavore chefs like Bruce Sherman of North Pond, Tory Miller from L’Etoile in Madison, Wisconsin, and pie woman extraordinaire, Paula Haney of Hoosier Mama, and her recipe for her splendid vinegar chess pie.) It is an honorable, just, and heartfelt homage to the hard work and determination of people who continue (or are new to) the Heartland’s centuries-old farming traditions.


One Comment

  1. Janine says:

    Wendy, thanks for the lovely review!

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