My favorite day of the week is also the longest: market day. It’s the only day I wake up early enough to see the moon and Venus before daylight obscures them. There’s a familiar rhythm: The silence before birdsong. The deer and fawns, confident the gravel roads and city lawns are theirs at this hour. The still-empty highways threading through rolling farmland. The changing sky, the Iowa City exit, the first stoplight, the left turn at Natural Grocers, the gym sign that reads “Love / Your Workout / Every Age Every / Stage.” Finally, the Chauncey Swan parking garage that has become my home away from home, where I help staff the Pickle Creek Herbs booth on Saturdays at the Iowa City Farmers Market.
Iowa City is home to dedicated market goers, the kind who start perusing before 7:30 a.m. and are ready to pay up when the official start whistle blows. The market is a social place, with duos, gaggles, and impromptu reunions in the wide aisles. From sporty bikers and bohemian undergrads to yogis sipping iced lattes and wearers of cat meme T-shirts, there’s no one who doesn’t belong here. “Iowa City has always been adventuresome,” says shopper Robert Fox. “They are wonderful people.”
Generations commingle, and young children with silent, dramatic faces make for some of my favorite people watching: The solemn boy with a croissant far bigger than both his hands. The girl with big brown eyes who gazes tenderly at a small basil seedling as though it’s a puppy, and gently clutches it against her heart when her mom buys it. The raucous siblings battling with balloon swords.
“I started coming here as a family affair with my young toddler,” says a shopper named Angela, who has been a regular since she moved here 20 years ago. “She enjoyed it so much, and it was a fun family thing to do. Recognizing the same vendors and the community atmosphere is just really enjoyable. And, of course, the fresh produce is always lovely.”
There is produce in abundance: huge cabbages, stacks of carrots, tubs of specialty mushrooms, collards, kale, and potatoes galore. There’s purple perilla that tastes like licorice and all manner of sprouts. Summer brings squashes, melons, and sweet corn.
The vibrant vegetable stands zigzag through long aisles between candles and croissants, beef and bouquets, handmade jewelry, potted plants, and all kinds of art. “There are always unique people down here,” says Robert Fox, who lives in Oxford and has been making the weekly drive for 30 years. He has many favorites. “The French bakery guys are amazing. I love their stuff. Then Rehberg’s Pork, I’ve been buying from him for 20 years. I buy my honey from Noble Bee Honey. I’ve known him for 20 years. I run under Michael Pollan’s theory about wanting ingredients as short and legible as possible. When you talk to the producer, that’s a great thing. You trust them.” Vendors have a similar appreciation of customers.
Chris at Snapper City Gardens doesn’t hesitate when I ask him the best thing about the Iowa City Farmers Market. “It’s a community of people. Even when you’re not selling, if you get a good conversation with somebody, I think that makes it a market, you know? Good conversation about the plants, the environment. It’s nice to have a little common bond. Sometimes that’s even better than selling out on all your veg. It’s the community.”
In spite of the market’s size and variety, with everything from peonies in five-gallon buckets to bright macarons and bouquets of leafy greens, the Iowa City Market has a small-town feel. We may not know each other’s names, but we recognize each other’s faces. There are random intimate facts you learn about a customer: their favorite soap, their favorite vegetable, that it’s their mother’s birthday, how much they love garlic or habaneros on everything, their go-to salad recipe. There’s the woman who always buys salves for her first-aid kit, the man who goes into a trance smelling soap, the look of surprise when someone tastes something better and more flavorful than they expected.
A great deal of thought goes into making it easy to shop without vendors losing a percentage to electronic payments. Customers can use wooden market coins, cash, EBT, or various kinds of vouchers. “The multiple ways that people can pay here is phenomenal,” says vendor DeAnn Johnson who grows microgreens and creates one-of-a-kind art pieces from barnwood.
As the wooden coins and dollar bills change hands and cabbages and potatoes leave tables, there’s a feeling that something more than a sale has taken place. “It’s lovely here,” Dylan tells me. He’s new in town and this is his first visit to the market. “I’m super impressed by how friendly and just amazing it is in general.”
As I ask more people their favorite thing about the market, I’m less surprised to hear the same answer again. “I love the community aspect of it,” Matt Georges of Griddle Me This tells me. “Seeing a lot of the same people, a lot of regulars, all the vendors that are great. We utilize a lot of the vendors’ products here in our stall. All our omelet ingredients are locally sourced from the market. There’s a lot of camaraderie between the vendors.”
Buying from local farms, bakeries, food trucks, and crafters is important to many customers and core to the market’s mission. “I always love to support local,” a shopper named Victoria tells me. Environmentalism is also a core value of the market, and plastic bags are banned. Many tote large canvas bags, baskets, or even pull wagons to fill with groceries for the week.
Many come to meet friends for a meal and live music in the park. There are multiple cuisines to choose from, including breakfast fare, Jamaican, Guatemalan, Korean, Indian, vegetarian and vegan, tacos, and kabobs. Several bakeries offer dessert and breakfast pastries, and there’s hot and cold locally roasted coffee with ethically sourced beans from small businesses around the world.
But among all the treasures, from handcrafted jewelry to pastured pork, the over-riding feeling that the Iowa City Farmers Market creates is its sense of camaraderie. “I really love the community gathering aspect of the farmers market,” says market facilitator Sarah King. “I think it’s amazing to show up every Saturday and see the wide range of people who come to the market and enjoy the fun.”
The Iowa City Farmers Market is open 7:30 a.m. to noon on Saturdays through the last weekend in October.