In tropical South Florida, it's when all the vegetables that disappear in most other climates begin to thrive. Farmers' markets swing into full gear, and the small but growing community of cooks who rely on this bounty begin planning what are some of the most exciting dishes of the year. Meanwhile, CSA boxes are flying, and home gardeners are pulling their own produce.
As April gives way to May, the region begins what's called the "shoulder" season — those final few weeks when growers can squeeze a bit more out of the ground. After that, for most small-scale organic farmers who care about their soil, it's time to clean up the farm, store the gear in preparation for hurricane season, catch up on paperwork and other life projects, and plant a cover crop to return some nutrition to the ground for the next growing season.
"It's important for farmers' markets customers and shoppers to know that once you get into very late spring, it’s not the height of the season," says Tiffany Noe of Little River Cooperative. "So if they go to a farmers' market and they see a table with every type of fruit and veg they're interested in eating today, they need to ask the person, 'Did you grow this? Is this local? And if not, where's it from?'"
Yet hope for local produce is not lost. Mango season in its full force is nearly upon us, as are months of mind-blowing tropical fruit. Down in Homestead, no place holds the tropical fruit flag better than LNB Grovestand, the 15-acre, certified-organic farm that is loved equally for its turmeric tonics and its smoothies, which can be found at the Pinecrest Gardens Farmers' Market. If you look closely between gulps of smoothie samples, there's a small card outlining each tropical fruit's season that should be tacked to your refrigerator. Mamey comes into season in May and lasts until October. In June, jackfruit and bananas hit and last until December. In July, star fruit, avocados, and lychee-like longans come into form.
Tropical fruits aren't the only thing thriving, though. There's plenty of the conventional tomatoes that are shipped north, but okra also grows in the hot summer months, as do boniato, juicy malabar spinach, and the whole range of Asian greens that make your closest Asian market a best bet for local food.
There are also organizations thinking beyond the constraints of the local growing system and widening their efforts to fill the year with better eating. Art Friedrich's Urban Oasis Project is well known among Miami's farmers' market regulars. The decade-old organization serves people who usually cannot afford good, local produce and has doubled its food assistance programs thanks to state and federal aid.
Urban Oasis runs the Arsht Center's Monday afternoon market, the Legion Park Farmers' Market on Saturday mornings, and the Southwest Community Farmers' Market at Tropical Park. Rather than run farms itself, Urban Oasis partners with local farms, who keep its tents filled with up to 95 percent local produce during the height of the season. As the calendar slides toward summer, there's a new mix of produce that includes greens found throughout the Caribbean like callaloo, okra, and collard greens. There's also some of the traditional produce people demand, which is sourced from organic farms in North Carolina. Most importantly, it's always listed as such.
"For us, the most important thing is to keep things labeled," Friedrich says. "We really want to create that transparency, and we talk with people al the time to ask where things are from."
That connection between the food's source and its ultimate destination is what farmers' markets are truly about.
Pinecrest Farmers' Market. 11000 Red Rd., Pinecrest; 786-367-8274; greenmarketco-op.org.