In Alaska, farmers' markets sprout 'like weeds'
In the past two summers, the number of farmers' markets in Alaska has grown from 16 to 27.
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One day Ms. Stramp was driving around town and saw a sign advertising the ruby-red fruit. She pulled over for a taste test.
From then on, she was hooked.
"There's nothing like it. They taste like strawberries all the way through, not just on the outside," says Stramp.
She and her daughter, Robin, will drive from their south Anchorage home to a farmers' market on the north side of town just to get some, she says.
On Wednesday afternoon, the mom and daughter team walked the farmers market at the Northway Mall, searching for strawberries. They bought them, as well as some Mat-Su vegetables.
The Stamps' passion for locally grown strawberries helps explain why produce stands are sprouting like weeds in Alaska. In the past two summers, the number of farmers' markets in Alaska has burgeoned from 16 to 27, according to the Alaska Division of Agriculture.
Anchorage has seven markets. Just a few years ago, the city had only two.
"There's still room for more, if we had more produce to sell," says Bill Webb, who 17 years ago started the granddaddy market, the Anchorage Downtown Market & Festival, which attracts tens of thousands of tourists on weekends and some locals, too.
That market offers fewer vegetables these days, but has spun off several other markets around Anchorage, including a Wednesday midtown market at the University Center that opened last month.
Why the growth? Trend-conscious magazines in the Lower 48 have been touting the health and environmental benefits of locally grown food for some years now, and farmers markets have been propagating in the Lower 48 at a fast clip.
In recent interviews with customers at Anchorage markets, most cited the flavor of fresh, local produce and their interest in buying something grown in Alaska instead of barged up from Seattle.
"I started going because everything tastes better," saysd Susanne DiPietro, who scours the market at 15th Avenue and Cordova Street about once a week. She says she tries to buy something from every vendor — whatever looks best — because she wants them all to do well.
She cooks differently with market produce, to take advantage of its freshness. Broccoli, for example. She roasts it in the oven, without adding any of the seasonings she'd usually use on store-bought broccoli. She doesn't want to mask the stalks' fresh flavor, she says.
It's no secret – Alaska-grown produce costs more. Depending on which farm stand you buy from, a bunch of broccoli can sell for $2.99 to $4.99 per pound, more than at the grocery store.
Still, the markets aren't the exclusive domain of upscale foodies. People from many demographics were evident during recent visits to markets around town: stay-at-home moms, Alaska native elders, young professionals, baby boomers, immigrant families.
On a Wednesday afternoon, Betty Leonard, who grew up in the village of Koyuk, brought her $25 senior food coupon to the Northway Mall market, where she bought carrots and turnips, planning to use them in soup.
Coming to the market reminded Leonard, in her 60s, of growing up in Koyuk, where her mother had a large garden filled with rhubarb, cabbage, and other vegetables.
"It's good to see a variety of fresh vegetables," she says, resting on a bench, waiting for a ride home.
Alaska farmers have noticed a change in people's attitude toward local produce and they are responding by opening up the new markets, says Patricia O'Neal, a specialist for the state agriculture division.
Her office recently led a daylong shuttle bus tour of Valley farms to give residents, mostly hailing from Anchorage, a chance to learn about local food production. All but one of the farms visited during the tour, which cost $45 per ticket, sell their produce at Anchorage farmers' markets.