On April 16, "guest ringer" J.V. Evans, executive vice president of D.L. Evans Bank, grabbed the wooden handle of a brand-new brass bell, lifted it over his head and ceremoniously rang in a new season at Boise's Capital City Public Market. Along with the opening of the Eagle Saturday Market the same day, it was a prelude to a record number of farmers markets scheduled to open across Idaho this season.
"We've seen a tremendous amount of growth in farmers markets over the last few years," says Laura Johnson, with the Idaho State Department of Agriculture. "The number of markets has more than doubled since 2006. In 2006, we had 26 markets and in 2011, we're looking at having 55 markets around the state."
Johnson opens a copy of the Idaho Farmers Markets Guide, a yearly directory the Department of Agriculture puts together, and runs a finger down a long list of markets--from Bonners Ferry to Soda Springs--that keeps growing longer each year.
Together with venerable markets like Boise's and Eagle's, Johnson says new farmers markets are popping up in Meridian's Generations Plaza, in Marsing, Arco, Idaho Falls, Montpelier and elsewhere.
And with that growth, she says, comes new market innovations. For instance, the Emmett market has become a leader in using Facebook and Twitter to communicate with customers.
"They can do things like blast out, 'hey we're going to have asparagus this week' or 'it's cherry season,'" Johnson says, "and that's a real interest to consumers."
Idaho farmers markets are offering other embellishments, too. Five or six have already set up Electronic Benefits Transfers (food stamps), allowing low-income shoppers to buy fresh, locally grown foods at farmers markets. As the season progresses, Johnson says more markets will be equipping themselves for EBT sales.
Markets are also putting together classes and special events.
"One of the things we decided to implement is what I like to call Dirt to Dishes," says Melissa Nodzu, the new manager for the Eagle Saturday Market. It's a short little gardening series that will be held weekly starting near the end of April.
Nodzu is also putting together a Chef at the Market cooking series. Guest chefs will demonstrate cooking techniques with various kinds of fresh market produce.
And since the Eagle Arts Commission founded and sponsors the Eagle Saturday Market, another series called Artists in Action will be part of the market's program.
"With Artists in Action, there's going to be a working artist every week doing demonstrations and providing an opportunity for patrons to participate in the activity and create their own artwork," Nodzu says.
At the venerable Capital City Public Market in downtown Boise, things are also changing. Where a grand total of 12 vendors opened the market on its inaugural opening day in 1994, market manager Karen Ellis says closer to 130 vendors committed to the 2011 season opener.
Not only is the Capital City Public Market growing in size, Ellis has planned her own set of new services and special events for the 2011 season. To illustrate, she pulls that aforementioned brass bell out of a box.
"We're having a guest bell ringer every Saturday morning," she says. Locals like new market sponsor Evans and Trey McIntyre of the Trey McIntyre Project will ring the market open.
"And believe it or not, there are a lot of people who actually want to ring that bell," Ellis says. She has ringers booked into 2013.
The Capital City Public Market is also debuting an online market map this year.
"It will be a link on our website that takes customers to an interactive map that will allow them to plug in a product to see who's carrying that product at our market and when it's available. The map will also allow the customer to plug in the name of a vendor and it will take them to the spot on the map where the vendor is located," Ellis says.
Ellis and her staff also dreamt up--and this might be he most elegant market innovation yet--a free "Veggie Valet" service. After shopping the market, customers can check their produce-stuffed bags at a special booth and wander off to brunch or a Saturday morning stroll, hands free.
As for special events, on Saturday, April 23, the Capital City Public Market is putting on the Farm to Table Tour, a nationwide tour of farmers markets sponsored by Toyota.
"They pay the chefs a stipend to purchase food from our local farmers market farmers," Ellis says. "And then the chefs will prepare food samplings that will go on all day during the market."
Participating chefs are Christine Reid from Locavore, Dustan Bristol from Brick 29, Andrea Maricich from Salt Tears Coffeehouse & Noshery, Paul Faucher from Wild West Bakery & Espresso, Abbigail Carlson from Peaceful Belly, David King from The Modern Hotel, Alex Cardoza from Red Feather Lounge, Shane Day from Jenny's Lunch Line and Mathieu Choux from Le Cafe De Paris.
These events and the expanding list of innovations at Idaho farmers markets are impressive, says the IDSA's Laura Johnson, but the simple fact that they bring people together over food is still the farmers market movement's most compelling draw.
"You know," she says, "it's great to be able to meet with an individual farmer, to know more about your food and to take children to a farmers market, to see where their food really comes from."