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Clayton Farmer's Market
gourmet articlesarchiveclayton farmer's market

Clayton Farmer's Market, located in Clayton, Missouri (a small township located in central St. Louis) seemed like the best solution for introducing the St. Louis populace to our local farmers.

The local chapter of Chef's Collaborative had done a series of cooking demonstrations at Soulard Market, one the the oldest continuous farmer's markets west of the Mississippi. What I discovered during Soulard's 10 weeks of operation was that most people couldn't tell the difference between locally grown produce (or the farmers that grew it) and the out-of-state produce or cast-offs from produce row that was bought by the brokers.

Missouri is in the heart of the midwest and has an incredible array of local products. Our local farmers raise fraise du bois (Swiss strawberries that sing in your mouth), black, gold and red raspberries, green garlic (actually 20 varieties of garlic) fingerlings, salad mixes that are exceptional, and much more. I'd personally seen this produce growing on their farms or in the CSA bags I'd bought from two farmers that arrived every week. I knew that what was being served at 99% of our restaurants did not compare with this opulent, gorgeous produce since there was no real wholesaling happening between the family farmer and the chefs (there were only a few exceptions). It appears that family farms have run their course, and are most definitely on an endangered list.

You must remember that I cook for a living; plus I have an innate passion and appreciation for wonderful food. To help save the wonderful resource of locally grown, farm-fresh produce, I concluded that if the public were made aware of the quality of products "our" farmers produce, they couldn't help but buy their products and keep them in business.

Therefore, the mission statement for Chef's Collaborative is supporting local sustainable agriculture and educating ourselves and the public about clean and healthy eating practices. Taking this principle to heart, I invited the founder of New Orleans's farmer's market, Richard McCarthy, to speak to our group in the Fall of 1999. By Spring of 2000 we were itching to set-up an educational market. Strictly a "you sell it, you raise it" market, in the heart of an upscale downtown area that had limited Saturday morning traffic. The location was set because the population was buying from the farmers in Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) lots. There was a Wild Oats nearby and a Whole Foods coming in to the area, so it was a great fit. (By the way these two operations do not buy much from local farmers, and the wholesale grocery store price is not enough to keep the farmer in business). From April through August, chef Ed Neill and I worked on designing, buying equipment, staffing, going to city meetings and working through regulations, until finally lining up the farmers.

As an educational market I knew we wanted cooking demonstrations using market products. I use products because we have beef, lamb, eggs, honey and various other non vegetable products for sale too. Set-up begins at 6:00 a.m., with the market opening to the public at 8:00 a.m. The beverage booth has organically grown, FTO coffee available by 7:45 (Thank goodness!). This year we are adding an omelet booth that will have a chef preparing omelets from market produce and eggs. Each week we will have a farmer speak about his growing practices; why birds, bats and bugs are good for a farm, mulching and composting, crop rotation, and piggies eating Johnson grass rhizomes (my personal favorite!). We will also have a local chef cook with products off the market, supplying sumptuous recipes. Last year we had butternut squash risotto, sweet potato soup, buckwheat yeast pancakes, and shiitake duxelle. Selected chefs make one recipe and hand out samples. Other chefs will also give tours of the market discussing different ways to prepare produce. Another chef at the market has a "to-go" food booth where food is purchased and eaten on-site or taken home. So not only are we educating the public on how to prepare fresh local seasonal foods, but our farmers are networking with a variety of chefs and developing a wholesale relationship. Several of our chefs are buying whole lambs and breaking them down themselves! Every Saturday morning from May 12 until October 27 we will close off North Central Avenue in downtown Clayton, Missouri. We will line up our offset green umbrellas eight foot long tables and have an incredible time keeping our farmers in business and cooking glorious foods. If you happen to be passing through Clayton, Missouri during that time, please join us!

Julie Ridlon
Clayton Farmer's Market Master
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