Restaurant Reviews

Miami Farmers' Markets: The Fresh, the Local, and the Bargains

At the Coconut Grove Farmers Market, Tracy Fleming reaches for a bucket of melted ice that sits beneath a propped-up cooler. Wearing muddy blue jeans and blond hair pulled back in a loose ponytail, the 52-year-old dumps cold water onto a stretch of marshy grass behind her. It's like a momentary waterfall.

Fleming turns and navigates her way back through rows of California strawberries, organic rutabagas, and prewashed salad greens before setting the bucket on the ground.

"Farmers' markets?" she asks rhetorically. "There aren't any farmers' markets around here, except for this one." Like other producers across Miami, Fleming has a strong opinion about what should or shouldn't constitute such a place. Many people believe they should be producer-only venues.

As the weather cools in Miami-Dade, markets such as the one in the Grove are becoming more widespread. There are 18 of them registered locally with the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

What you might not know, however, is that ten belong to a single firm called the Market Company, which was founded in 1995 by Claire Tomlin. The original aim was promotion. "People would call us wanting an event in their community that was going to draw in people," Tomlin recalls in a thick Southern accent.

Soon she started her first farmers' market, a venue on South Beach's Lincoln Road where vendors sold flowers, processed foods, and produce. Gradually, the company began taking over other markets in the area and initiating new ones.

Tomlin's firm now has an office in Miami Beach with teams for marketing and recruiting. They are responsible for farmers' markets across Miami-Dade, including Aventura, South Beach, Brickell, South Miami, and Pinecrest.

Each market functions with different guidelines. "An honest-to-goodness farmers' market is just producers," she explains. "But here in South Florida, you just don't find a lot of that."

What you do find is a variety of vendors selling everything from local produce to handmade bread to imported products. What follows are our conclusions about a few of them.

Pinecrest Gardens Farmers' Market, 11000 Red Rd., Pinecrest. Open year-round, Sundays 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.

This market inside the lush Pinecrest Gardens is home to as many as 65 vendors during the high season, which begins December 1 and ends in mid-May. One of them is Copperpots, a tiny company owned by Tom Wilfong and his girlfriend, Vanessa Safie. Together, they produce jams and marmalades with flavors including rum raisin, apple butter, jalapeño, and pineapple five-spice. The pair also prepares local strawberry and mango jams when the fruits are in season.

Copperpots products are always made in small batches with all-natural ingredients. An eight-ounce jar goes for $7, and a four-ouncer costs $4. By 2 p.m. the day we visited, the couple had already sold out of their most coveted flavors: apple butter and pineapple.

Another vendor is Zak the Baker, a bread-maker who specializes in handmade sourdough. Zak Stern, who founded the bakery, arrives at the market at 9:30 a.m. His breads typically sell out within a few minutes, and by 10 a.m. he has already cleared his stand and left.

Shoppers should arrive as early as possible. The first hour is the best time to grab locally produced foods.

Later in the day, the market is studded with tents peddling a variety of items, such as imported Tuscan olive oil and commercial Colombian Oma brand coffee. "There are many vendors at Pinecrest making so many different things," Wilfong says. "It's important to find the people who are there because they are passionate about what they do, not the ones that are there just for the buck."

The Market Company's mission is to attract people from the surrounding community. So it offers variety: olive oil, coffee, barbecue, smoothies, ice cream, jams, bread, produce, and many other items. It's a model that the company has already perfected. It's also another reason why you have to show up early. By the afternoon, the parking lot is typically full.

Sunset Marketplace, 5701 Sunset Dr., South Miami. Open year-round, Saturdays 10 a.m. to 7 p.m.

This market is located in the middle of a walkway at the Shops at Sunset Place. Like Pinecrest, it is operated by the Market Company. This location is much smaller, with only about ten tents.

Near the Atelier Monnier cart that sells macarons, Laura's Fresh Fruit and Vegetables offers okra, nopales, eggplant, squash, and other items. Run by Laura Ramirez and her extended family, the stand offers a mix of Florida and out-of-state produce.

The family operates a modest five-acre farm in Homestead. At the tent, Ramirez sells avocados from her back yard for $2, medium papayas for $3, and two-pound baskets of Italian eggplant for $4. More local produce will arrive once the high growing season begins later this month, she says.

A nearby stand offers baked goods, including red velvet whoopie pies. Others sell dried fruits, candles, and soaps.

At Sunset Place, there's a bit of everything. But overall, the market is small in scope and, therefore, small in its lure.

Vegetable Market at Redland Market Village: Bargain Town, 24420 S. Dixie Hwy., Homestead. Open year-round, Wednesdays through Sundays 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Including stands selling everything from mattresses to cotton underwear, Bargain Town continues to be one of the best sources of cheap produce in Dade. Located across from a village of flea-market-like shops, the produce market occupies a large warehouse. It's full of dozens of types of fresh fruits and vegetables. While most farmers' markets and grocery stores sell avocados for $2 to $3 apiece, this market prices them around $1.

Amid bountiful stacks of tomatillos, jackfruit, and okra are sacks of dried cinnamon, Jamaica flowers, and peppers. Most vendors sell a similar variety of goods, but some also stock queso fresco and pico de gallo. The majority of stands sell fruits and vegetables from out of state.

During weekends, Roque de Castro, a 26-year-old University of Miami student, tends to his family's stand at the busy venue. "The more affordable prices here have to do with the demographics of the consumer," he explains, adding that most customers are immigrants from low-income families. The Lucky Meat Tortilleria accepts electronic benefits transfer (EBT) cards for purchases of sausages, meats, and poultry.

"Miami has become all about the service industry," he says. "Now farmers have to become businessmen in addition to farmers."

At the Redland Market Village, that business involves selling fresh jalapeños, Dora the Explorer towels, and car alarms. Nearly everyone converses in Spanish. Bachata music blasts, and food trucks sell elote.

It's like a quick getaway to Central America without the need for a passport.

Glaser Organic Farms at the Coconut Grove Farmers Market, 3300 Grand Ave., Coconut Grove. Open year-round, Saturdays 10:30 a.m. to 7 p.m.

Glaser Organic Farms occupies the largest tent at the Coconut Grove Farmers Market. Tracy Fleming, who has owned the farm with her husband, Stan, for more than 30 years, sells a variety of local and nonlocal produce. The tent is widely recognized for its locally processed, organic raw and vegan foods. The enterprising farm also sells to Whole Foods locations across South Florida.

"We are a farmers' market because we actually grow. We don't outsource any of this," she says, referring to the organic fruit salads, pickled vegetables, and juices stacked across the expansive tent. "This is all prepared on-site, on our farm."

Prices are high, especially for the prepared foods and specialty products. Tables are topped with 17-ounce jars of Italian acacia honey for $16 and 16-ounce bottles of organic nut butters for $16.75. Nut milks, processed at Glaser, cost $5.50 for 16 ounces. The majority of the prepared foods are made with certified-organic ingredients.

The produce, in general, is more reasonably priced. Organic avocados grown at Glaser retail for $1.60 a pound, which means about $3 apiece. (At Publix, an organic medium-size avocado from Matt's Organics sells for about $2.99.)

Fleming also offers conventional produce, especially when the prices for organic vegetables are too inflated. When organic heirloom tomatoes are at $6.40 a pound, she sells a conventional option for $1.60 a pound. Depending on the season, both types of tomato might be grown out-of-state.

Unlike most farmers' markets, Glaser accepts credit cards and EBT cards. So maybe it's best to think of it as a local, outdoor version of Whole Foods, one that happens to be run by an organic farmer. Like Whole Foods, the prices are high, but that $5.75 container of sprouted hummus — amid dewy piles of plums and peaches — just looks too enticing.

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Emily Codik