Before supermarkets, highways and urban sprawl, farmers rode into town on horse-drawn wagons and sold their produce to city folk.
Now it seems good old farmers markets are making a comeback, sprouting up around here faster than tomatoes on Miracle-Gro.
Clearwater launched a farmers market 10 years ago, and this is Safety Harbor's fifth season. Palm Harbor and Dunedin recently opened their own markets, and Largo organizers say one should take root in the near future.
"We're hoping to have one on Thursdays," said Anne Buck, promotions director for the Downtown Largo Main Street Association. "We just need to find a location."
This local phenomenon is part of a larger trend. More than 3,100 farmers markets are operating nationwide, a 79 percent increase from 1994 to 2002, according to the U.S. Agriculture Department.
Never mind that Pinellas is the most densely populated county in Florida and lacks any significant farmland. Much of the produce is imported from Ruskin and Plant City.
"Everything here is fresh," said Joe Osmani, owner of Joe's Market, a produce center at several local venues. "I get up at 1 o'clock in the morning and go to Plant City and the Tampa markets. I'm here by 7."
Farmers markets are a way of luring shoppers to downtown areas, said Bob Fernandez, 69, organizer of the Downtown Clearwater Farmers Market.
"The concept is to provide fresh foods and unusual items you can't get anywhere else," he said.
Dunedin opened its Green Market, which organizers say emphasizes produce, greenery and organic products rather than crafts, on Dec. 17.
Many of the 20 or so vendors seemed pleased with the first-day turnout. Michael Romeo, owner of In Your Basket, said he had counted 67 shoppers at his booth by noon.
"The traffic was better than I expected," orchid dealer Kathy St. Onge said.
Shoppers say they like the open-air feel, the down-home friendliness and, in many cases, the good prices.
Cindy and John Beil of Oldsmar shop at the Safety Harbor Farmers Market about once a month. On a recent Saturday, they purchased some chocolate Christmas trees as gifts, along with some produce.
"We like to shop outdoors, the prices are good, and the fruits and vegetables are fresh and good quality," she said.
At the colorful fruit and vegetable stands in Friday Farmers Market in Old Palm Harbor, hunters and gatherers inspected the veritable cornucopia of corn, carrots, cabbage and cauliflower. They mulled over the poinsettias and Christmas cacti.
With bananas at 30 cents a pound, tomatoes at $1.50 a pound, and poinsettias at four for $10, most shoppers left with a bag or two on their arms.
Mary Wyrozemski, 68, stopped at Bob and Daughter's produce stand at the Clearwater market.
"I come every Wednesday," she said. "The people are so friendly."
Farmers markets allow buyers to ask questions and get answers.
Tom Howe, 37, wanted to know how to cook brussels sprouts during a recent visit to the Clearwater market.
"(The owner) just gave me a recipe," he said. "I like the people equation here."
Regina McDaniel, 26, added, "Everything's a little slower here. People have time to talk to you. The prices are better, and I can ask where it came from."
If produce is the star of the farmers markets, the typical chorus includes flowers and plants, herbs, baked goods, seafood, sauces, organic products and homemade craft items _ sort of a showcase for things you grow, catch, make or bake.
At the It's Our Nature booth in the Clearwater and Dunedin markets, Linda Taylor sells items made from organic cotton such as socks, shirts, underwear and washcloths.
"These products are made from cotton grown in chemical- and fertilizer-free soil and with no dye," she said. "People don't realize it, but cotton is one of the most chemically treated crops in the U.S."
She said her string shopping bags are popular sellers for the environmentally conscious crowd.
"In Europe shoppers bring their own bag," she said. "No one uses plastic or paper."
Kathryn Gassaway, owner of Plantopia in the Dunedin marketplace, sells all-natural handmade soaps and botanical gifts, as well as note cards made from recycled junk mail. Her boxes are printed with soy ink and 100 percent post-consumer fiber.
Other natural products you might see at the markets include soy candles and lotions, organic coffees, jams and jellies, and eggs.
"Everybody wants farm-fresh eggs that come from free-range chickens," said Cliff Chichester, owner of CJ's Bread and Pastries in the Clearwater market, which also sells pies, breads and pastries made fresh from a local bakery. Sugarless pies are available on special order.
At the market in Palm Harbor, Lesley Klein, owner of Oak Trail Books, "a metaphysical store" in the historic downtown, sells such herbs as lavender, eucalyptus, chamomile, catnip and lemon basil. "It's hands-on aromatherapy," she said.
Davida Johns offers items from around the world at her booth in the Safety Harbor bazaar, including cinnamon bark boxes from Vietnam, carved salad servers from Kenya, candlesticks from Pakistan and mugs from Mexico.
She said the items come from a "global fair trade market."
"Everything here is made by artisans from developing countries who are paid a fair wage," she said. "In the context of local society, that is a living wage."
A bumper crop of farmers markets
North Pinellas has four farmers markets, with a fifth possibly on the way in Largo. Products available are subject to change.
1. Downtown Clearwater Farmers Market: 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. Wednesdays through April 6 in the City Hall parking lot at 112 S Osceola Ave. Produce, baked goods, cheeses, breads, seafood, organic cotton, plants, flowers, jewelry, crafts. The fountain area with benches features laid-back live entertainment. Special events include a Super Soups Festival Jan. 12, Strawberry Festival Feb. 16, Chili Extravaganza March 9, and ice cream social March 30. Call (727) 461-7674.
2. Dunedin's The Green Market: 8 a.m. to 1 p.m., Fridays until April 29 in Pioneer Park on the northeast corner of Main Street and Douglas Avenue. Produce, flowers and plants, seafood, organic products, soy candles and lotions, jams and jellies, garlic products, gourmet dips and sauces, baked goods, coffees, teas and cigars. Call (727) 733-6450 or (727) 733-4215 for vendor information.
3. Safety Harbor Farmers Market: 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturdays year-round at the Gazebo at John Wilson Park, 401 Main St. Produce, herbal skin care, magnet jewelry, arts and crafts, global fair trade items, chocolates, seafood, baked goods. Call (727) 726-2890.
4. Friday Farmers Market in Old Palm Harbor: 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. through April 1 in the parking lot of the Old Palm Harbor Main Street Center, 1190 Georgia Ave. Produce, spices, herbs, flowers, baked goods, butterfly gifts and garden materials, arts, antiques, collectibles, and crafts. Call (727) 934-7001.
Sources: ESRI, GDT
Kurt and Lexie Jensen, winter residents of Clearwater, browse the orchids at Kathy St. Onge's booth at the Downtown Clearwater Farmers Market on Dec. 22. St. Onge was also one of about 20 vendors at Dunedin's first Green Market on Dec. 17.
The Safety Harbor Farmers Market, now in its fifth year, offers crafts, like this yard ornament for sale in December by Fernando and Valentina Mosquera of Tampa. The market is open Saturdays at John Wilson Park from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Farmers markets are springing up in communities across the Tampa Bay area.
Shannon Tamme, 3, helps her mother, Sue, pick out pomegranates from the Joe's Market booth at the Safety Harbor Farmers Market on Dec. 18.
Vendor Errol Bishop, right, learned Caribbean-style cooking from his family and turned it into a business, Hey Mon! Caribbean Cooking Magic, with his wife and son. On Friday, shoppers try his sauces at the Dunedin Green Market. The market emphasizes produce, greenery and organic products rather than crafts.
From left, vendor Lesley Klein of Oak Trail Books sells live herbs on Dec. 17 to Elizabeth Karanikolas of Tarpon Springs and Libby Grant of Palm Harbor at the Friday Farmers Market in Old Palm Harbor.
Joe Osmani wakes up at 1 a.m. to buy produce in Plant City and elsewhere for his Joe's Market booths at several morning farmers markets. On Dec. 17, he offers portobello mushrooms and more in Old Palm Harbor.
Richard Schramel sells stone crab claws at his stand at the Downtown Clearwater Farmers Market on Dec. 22. The market is held Wednesday mornings next to the city hall.