Farmers markets can flourish for a number of reasons.
Kathleen Huser of Wright City held up one reason Saturday morning at her booth at the Lake Saint Louis Farmers and Artists Market. It was a bundle of red radishes.
"We picked these this morning at 6 a.m.," said Huser, who was selling plants along with herbs and a few vegetables. "You can't get this kind of freshness at a grocery store."
Huser was among 20 to 30 vendors selling vegetables, baked goods, farm-raised meat, mushrooms and crafts in a cluster of booths in the southeastern corner of The Meadows at Lake Saint Louis shopping center's parking lot. Many of the booths had a canopy to provide a little shade from an unseasonable hot morning sun, which didn't seem to discourage customers from strolling booth to booth.
That scene will be played out on weekends from this month through summer and into fall in at least four locations in St. Charles County. The farmers market season has arrived.
The Lake Saint Louis market, which moved from O'Fallon this year, opened April 14 and will be open from 8 a.m.-noon Saturdays until mid-October.
A farmers market opened Saturday at the Wentzville Community Club flea market grounds, 500 W. Main St. Hours there will be 7 a.m.-noon Saturdays through Oct. 27.
The St. Charles Lions Club will open its annual farmers market from 6 a.m.-noon each Saturday, rain or shine, May 19 through Oct. 27 on a city parking lot in the 300 block of Riverside Drive in St. Charles.
Another farmers market is scheduled to open from noon-4 p.m. Sundays, May 27 through Nov. 11, at Chandler Hill Vineyards in Defiance.
Farmers markets aren't new. But Greg Krueger, who operates Back Pasture Farms in Troy, sees urban people longing a bit for the rural life.
"People are kind of wanting to reconnect with farms, and this is one way to do it," said Krueger, who was selling eggs at the Lake Saint Louis market and later in the growing season will offer berries, vegetables and honey.
Some people also like to support local farmers. "It's really buying food from what amounts to your neighbor," said Carl Saunders, who is with Yellow Dog Farm in Warrenton and serves on the Lake Saint Louis market's board of directors. "You're buying local and the dollars stay local."
Another reason is that the food is good. As the growing season progresses, people can buy varieties of tomatoes they don't often see in grocery stores, along with asparagus, berries, squash, lettuce, sweet corn and even pumpkins, Saunders said.
Saunders and Huser say people have become more educated about food through the media. "People understand the importance of organic now," Huser said. "When we first started, everybody said, 'What do you mean by organic?' And now we don't have to explain the term."
Huser's company, Environmentally Sound Products of Missouri, raises worms and fertilizes its vegetables and plants with worm manure.
"Our feeling is that if you put chemicals in the ground around your tomato plants, you are going to get those chemicals in your tomatoes and you are going to eat them," she said.
The food is also fresh. "People understand and love the fact that the produce they are eating this evening could have been pulled from the ground that morning," said Tony Anderson, director of business development for the Missouri Department of Agriculture.
Farmers markets have broadened what they sell. And their role in a community has changed. More booths at the Lake Saint Louis market were selling products rather than produce. Demi Sanders, owner of Made in the Shade, was selling handcrafted and eco-friendly gifts, including indoor outdoor lamps.
"It looks like a burning rock," said Sanders, who has been selling crafts at various markets for several years. The market provides a venue that otherwise wouldn't exist.
In past years, an average of 300-500 people each Saturday have shopped at the Lions Club market in St. Charles, said Gerry Shatro, who has worked at the market for 20 years and coordinates vendor recruitment. He said patrons typically buy more corn and tomatoes than anything else, though too much rain last year reduced the usual robust supply for corn on the cob.
"We hope we have a better year," he said. "People love corn."
Shatro said he mailed 53 letters to potential vendors, but on a good weekend there will be 20-25 selling green peppers, onions, beets, lettuce, cabbage, cantaloupes, strawberries and other fruits and vegetables. Vendors also sell homemade jams and jelly and crafts. For those hankering to make their own strawberry jam or other dishes from the sweet, juicy fruit, the opening of the Lions Club's market will coincide with peak strawberry season, Shatro said.
Shatro said he also has a repeat vendor who sells different types of soap. "She does pretty well down here," he said.
Anderson said farmers markets offer an inexpensive place to develop a business idea. "They've become small business incubators," he said.
In Missouri, farmers markets are growing at a rate of about 10 percent a year, Anderson said. In 1997, there were 57; now there are about 220, he said.
The markets also provide something else. "They are being organized as a community space," Anderson said.
Larry Marshall, who helps organize Wentzville's market, said it may have seven or eight vendors. But, he said, "We're also trying to provide a place where people can get together."
Customers talk about all of those reasons when asked why they visit a farmers market. "The fresh produce, fresh plants, just the ability to support local farmers and local people," said John Simmons of Lake Saint Louis.
Charmaine Kovaluk of Lake Saint Louis grew up on a farm. On Saturday, she bought eggs and baked goods, including fresh cookies. Will she be back for fresh vegetables?
"Oh definitely," Kovaluk said. "That's the plan."
Journal staff reporter Russell Korando also provided information for this story.