There are variety of farm food markets in Berks County, but only three within a reasonable driving or bud-riding distance for the Reading city resident to patronize on a regular basis.
The Fairgrounds Farmer's Market in Muhlenburg is the largest, open every Thursday, Friday and Saturday. It really bustles on a Saturday morning. There are a mix of vendors. The meat vendors and bakeries tend to be local (or at least no further than Lancaster), but not organic. One of the butchers has an on-site smoker. There is an "organic stand" that sells meat, dry goods, produce, dairy, etc - but it is pricey and mostly not local. There are three large produce vendors who carry some local produce in season, but often just carry the same stuff as a grocery store. There are specialty stands for candy, snacks, ethnic food, seafood, lots of prepared food, etc - but almost none of it is either local or organic. I do buy a lot of food there, because the vendors themselves are local businesses. The bulk product stand is a good place to try a half pound of some new ingredient. Jambalaya Jay's Cajun food stand has an excellent Blue Plate Special: two crab cakes on jambalaya for $7.95. I get nice day-old loaves of bread from a Mennonite bakery for $1, and $0.25/lb pork bones to roast for stock. There are a number of local sources for my favorite cured meat: smoked ham shanks. It's just a better shopping experience than a grocery store. We snack on broasted chicken drumsticks and bottles of locally-made Sarsaparilla. DD15 used to work at a fish stand here, and we see a lot of regulars that we know.
The Shillington Farmer's Market is smaller and the building newer. Same Thursday-to-Saturday schedule. It tends to have somewhat more expensive vendors, and includes a local organic poultry stand where I buy chicken backs for making stock, a 3-4 pound bag for $2. Again, the meat is mostly local, the produce is mostly not, but the stand owners themselves are local businesses I want to support. One of the produce vendors has a half-price clearance of most produce on Saturday afternoons. They also have a bulk vendor, but I noticed the ground flax meal is not refrigerated, so it makes me wonder what else is stored poorly and thus lower in nutrient value. I must admit that part of the draw of this market is the Good Will clearance center down the block, where we like to rummage.
By far, my favorite market is the smallest, the West Reading Farmer's Market on Sundays from 9 to 1 PM, it is set up outside on a sidewalk, across from a handy parking lot. A policeman crosses you to the market side of the street. There areabout a dozen vendors, but every one of them grew or produced the food they sell. I heard someone call this market "a joke," and maybe it is, compared to larger city producer markets. But I prefer to call it "a start." It is the only place I can go and really feel like I know where the food came from. We try not to miss a market day, and to buy something from as many stands as we can within our budget.
We usually start from the east end, at B&H Produce, Erica Bowers' stand (above). She and a partner run an organic farm and CSA in Morgantown. We get their organic beef hot dogs at $3/pound, sold frozen. They have beef, whole chickens, soap, and a lot of nice heirloom produce. She is also my spelt source. Last week, I bought lemon cucumbers to try pickling. The week before I bought a pretty Italian zucchini, which she told me was not woody at a larger size than most other zukes.
Walking down the block there are a few more produce stands. where I often buy corn from Fisher's Farm and peaches from Stoudt's Produce (above). Then we come to my favorite herb lady, Carrie Rose (below). She sells generous 50 cent bundles of herbs, cut flower bunches, herb plants, and bamboo poles and stakes. Last week, she also had fabulous blackberries. I've been drying her nice sage all summer, and I am trying to root a piece of her fine-leaf basil.
There is a musician in the middle of the block, Bob Hassler (below), who sometimes brings other musicians. We usually put a dollar in his guitar case. We always stop at the Faller's Pretzel table. They produce crisp pretzel sticks in a historic brick oven, now fed with biodiesel. We will visit the bakery one day soon and I will post about it. We buy a $3 bag of pretzels every week.
We pass the cookie lady, the dog treat maker, and the cheese maker - not in our budget. Shollenberger is here, the organic chicken man from the Shillington market. Then we come to the Two Ganders Farm stand. I like these two young guys from Oley, who sell produce and honey. They sell interesting veg - garlic scapes, asian melons, bok choy. They plan to offer a winter CSA I will look into. They are another example of why I like this kind of shopping: when I bought a Tiger Melon, the guy could discuss which melons are more susceptible to wilts, which is useful to my gardening self.
Next door is the other herb lady that we like, from Creekside Gardens. She brings her two little red-haired boys (below). They often try out their own sales pitches if their mom is busy selling her herbs, flowers, and handmade soap. I've started to grow so many herbs of my own that I don't always need more, but I try to buy something if it fits into my budget.
At the far end is another favorite stand, run by the Reigel family, who drive from Kempton (25 miles) each week to sell eggs, produce, and jelly. They are another family with kids, which we like to support. I buy two dozen eggs and some produce next week. She has pullets laying small eggs that she feeds to the her dogs as a treat. We plan to visit their farmstand when we go up to County Line Orchard to pick organic apples later in the season.
See? I know these vendors far more intimately than a grocery store clerk. I see them every week, and they remember us. We chat. I *trust* their food. I want to see them succeed, and to see the market attract new customers and vendors. We need these local growers to sell us the Berks County produce that so often ends up in the organic markets of other cities.
Note: I have added a link to this post at the Farmer's Market Report. You might want to look for other market reports there. Philly-area market blogs: Farm to Philly does CSAs and local food reports; Robert's Market Report covers Headhouse, Reading Terminal, Clark Park and other Philly markets.