In the markets: Discover what Ohio really tastes like at these standout farmers markets

G.A. Benton, Columbus Alive

As colorful things explode overhead this weekend, don't ignore the colorful things that come from beneath, because the farmers market scene is blossoming all over Columbus right now. Once few and far between, these now-bustling groups of fresh-and-local producers currently dot the city.

No wonder it's a growing movement. Whereas grocery shopping is a chore, visiting a farmers market - where live music usually plays, and you never know who or what you'll run into - is more of an "event." Plus, it's how you get the good stuff.

Now that it's July, this includes a bright and flavorful haul of fruits and vegetables that taste so much better than the tired and unripe fare grown far away and peddled in impersonal big box stores. But at farmers markets, you'll also find fresh meats, flavorful cheeses, artisanal breads, pickles, jams, clothes and arts and crafts. And you'll meet the intriguing people who have become specialists in producing these things.

Though inventories change quickly during this peak time of summer (expect to soon see a lotta vine-ripened tomatoes, berries, corn, et al.), here's a snapshot of a few prominent farmers markets. You'll notice their personalities vary by location, but they're all places where you'll find the kind of high-quality goods you deserve, where you'll strongly support the local economy and where you'll discover what Ohio really tastes like.

Clintonville Farmers' Market

Where: N. High St., between Orchard Ln. and W. Dunedin Rd.

When: 9 a.m. to 12 p.m. Saturdays (April 25-Nov. 21); 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. Wednesdays (July 1-Sept. 16)

How long: Since 2003

Rain orshine

The "foodiest" of all the markets is in Clintonville. A "producer-only" operation (meaning vendors must grow or make their own wares to sell them), here you'll bump into big-time restaurant chefs, talented pop-up specialists and various other flavors of the terminally food-obsessed. Another big lure for cheapskates like me: You'll also bump into the most generous assembly of free samples. Some of these gratis treats will undoubtedly be served in a trendy restaurant soon - I first became familiar with the great fare from Portia's Cafe and Dan the Baker at CFM. Among many farm-to-teeth outfits worth seeking are (along with some recent offerings): certified organic Rock Dove Farm (herbs, lettuces, beets, radishes and more); certified organic Swainway Urban Farm (fancy mushrooms and microgreens); Blue Jacket Dairy's addictive cheeses; Lucky Cat Bakery and Farm and its justly beloved no-eggs/no-milk breads; plus Ohio Bison Farm and its lean, mean and healthier red meat. CFM is also rife with inspired start-ups, such as local-and-organic-focused Two Daughters Kimchi (loved the surprisingly not-fiery ghost chili kimchi); The New American Deli (enjoyed the peppered turkey and smoky ham from this made-from-scratch sandwich and charcuterie newbie that uses locally raised meats). If any of this makes you thirsty, The Winemaker's Shop produces out-of-the-box/non-alcoholic sodas (e.g. one starring hops or a delectable, pomegranate-zinfandel pop); Kombu-Tea, aka "Kombucha Bob," has kicky, locally brewed quaffs (and lots of stories); and Silver Bridge Coffee Company brews the kind of good joe you need to keep you on the go.

400 Farmers and Makers Market

Where: 400 W. Rich St.

When: 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. 2nd & 4th Saturdays of every month, all year long

How long: Since 2012

Rain or shine

400 West Rich - the building - is an immense, once-blasted-out warehouse reborn into an edgy artists enclave containing about 100 art/design studios and a hip restaurant (adult-beverage-friendly Strongwater). This rambling complex, along with Franklinton, the burgeoning artsy district it anchors, embodies a new Columbus that will never again be mistaken for a "Cowtown." When I last visited, the late-starting market was enlivened by DJ George Brazil's soundtrack, and the scene kinda reminded me of PS1 in New York - where the cool, smart kids hang out during Saturday "happenings." German expressionist-type murals led to a backlot with a nutty, non-functioning "art car" (resounding metaphor: rubbish reclaimed, aesthetically transfigured). This lot is the sparse outdoor portion of the funky, indoor/outdoor 400 West Rich market. Informed by its arts-facility setting, growers take a backseat to local artists and artisans, but they are strongly represented by Shady Grove Farms,who offer a pick-it-up-here CSA; Shady Grove's recent goodies included non-GMO cabbages, in-shell peas, pickled peppers and fresh eggs. Tiger Mushroom Farms sells shiitake and oyster mushrooms (and others), but also neat, DIY grow kits. Cooke Forest Edibles and Medicinals offers feel-better plants, herbal teas and cute bouquets in little milk bottles, and Nova Terra Farms will take care of your homemade pie needs. You can also score a great pour-over from Mission Coffee Roasters and nibble a world-class, small batch (fair trade and organic) candy bar from Ohiyo Chocolate while perusing: sharp, local indie publishers Two Dollar Radio; Frida Katrina Mexican Folk Art's Frida Kahlo and Day of the Dead bags and other great stuff; plus dozens of open-on-market-day artist studios.

Pearl Market

Where: Lynn and Pearl alleys between Broad, High, Gay and Third streets

When: 10:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Tuesdays and Fridays from mid-May through October

How long: Since 1996

Rain orshine

The Downtown hustle and bustle is part and parcel of this midday market. Catering to time-restrained urban shoppers seeking retail goods (e.g. handmade jewelry, belts and soaps) as much as farm-fresh dinner ingredients, Pearl offers an al fresco mall-type experience. So you can get just-picked salad greens, cage-free eggs and edible flowers from pesticide-free Columbus Growing Collective;strawberries, tomatoes, green beans and pies from Dutch Heritage (an Amish family operation); organic/grass-fed cheeses from Ohio Farm Direct;plus brats, sausages and ground lamb from Taylor's Tunis (they focus on prized, specialty pork and lamb breeds). But you can also cop some pamper-yourself spa products from Spiral Touch (goat's milk soap!), a $3 temporary Indian-style tattoo from Henna Fashions,and a tarot card-reading from Elsa Deutschbein. Looking to spiff up? Leather or Knot Leather has handmade belts and wallets and such, and Beads Bracelets N More offers self-explanatory accessories. Two extra-interesting stalls are: NEMI Project - elegant and sophisticated, hand-stitched shoes and lovely jewelry imported from Mexican artisans; and Root 23 - a cleverstart-up selling intriguing, cocktail-ready simple syrups fashioned with organic and all-natural ingredients. Outta cash? Another great thing about Pearl Market: You can purchase stall-accepted tokens with a credit card (good for double-their-value for EBT cardholders).

Worthington Farmers Market

Where: Downtown Old Worthington (epicenter at N. High St., and New England Ave.)

When: 8 a.m. to 12 p.m. Saturdays from May through October; winter (indoor market) hours are 9 a.m. to 12 p.m. November through April

How long: Since 1987 (or thereabouts)

Rain or shine

This is the largest and busiest of the markets, and possibly the most diverse. Reflecting its quaint, upscale location (it's concentrated in the parking lot opposite The Worthington Inn), along with an abundance of great groceries, you can purchase a lotta handsome boutique goods, plus on-the-go food and even quickie Bloody Marys. Attention gift shoppers: Zemnicki Farms and Greenhouse offers charming succulent plants, From My Garden has pretty herbs-included bouquets, and Southern Girl Biscuits offers neat-looking breakfast kits. Provision-wise, keep an eye - and mouth - out for Wayward Seed Farm,a certified organic, doing-it-right, only-hereoperation very mindful of heritage and heirloom Ohio vegetables. The haul at Wayward's big stall recently included basil, purple scallions, turnips, kohlrabi and much more. A couple other organic outfits to track down are Toad Hill Farm (I recently eyeballed groovy pattypan squashes there) and Dangling Carrot Farm (saw colorful Swiss chard and lettuces). If cage-free, Ohio-raised chicken sausages in multiple, delicious flavors are calling, check out Speckled Hen Farm's Cluckwagon. Hungry right now? Kokoborrego produces killer cheeses, Bak (pronounced bake) makes not-fooling-around treats such as intense brownies and wonderful coconut-key-lime pound cakes (remember, this is the market that launched Sassafras) and Rivage Atlantique will set you up with ready-to-eat sausage/biscuits and gravy, lobster rolls and just-shucked oysters (and fresh-sliced, ready-to-cook seafood). Working up a thirst? House Wine's $5 Bloody Marys can help. Feeling more ambitious? The Worthington Inn offers an excellent Saturday brunch.

Bexley Farmers' Market

Where: 2111 E. Main St. (across from Gateway South)

When: 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. Thursdays from mid-May through October

How long: Since 2011

Rain or shine

This laid-back, happy hour-timed market - which takes place in a parking lot near Capital University, and is equipped with a few picnic tables - offers a modest but nice blend of retailers and farmers. As always with these markets, part of Bexley's draw is its live entertainment aspect: Musicians play while members of the community rub elbows with each other and the hardworking people facilitating their meals. When I recently visited, sweltering weather and threatening skies didn't stop a respectable group - singles, couples and a lotta families - from milling about. So, while kiddies energetically grabbed for crowd-pleasing samples of cake pops at Sadie Baby Sweets, parents were shopping for sustainably grown and chemical-free produce (e.g. kale, onions and Swiss chard) from Gerry's Garden; rummaging through a red riot of strawberries and tomatoes at Hirsch Fruit Farm;planning in-a-flash dinners with the jarred sauces and fresh noodles from Ohio City Pasta; and getting to the meat of the matter with Oink Moo Cluck Farms and Cedar Cress Farm Pork. But wait, there's more! Because the friendly, little Bexley Market even caters to Fido (treats from Nom Nom Nom) and hippy-happy, tie-dye fans (Ohio sports team shirts from L. Todd Design).

North Market Farmers Market

Where: 59 Spruce St.

When: 8 a.m. until the farmers are out, Saturdays; market season is variable, starting "when things start growing (so April, May or June) through December"

How long: Since 1876 (on and off)

Rain orshine

History clings to the North Market like dew on a just-plucked blueberry. The granddaddy of all Columbus farmers markets - which proudly adheres to a "you have to grow it to sell it" policy - is also the most user- and novice-friendly. Don't get me wrong: It can, and does, get super-congested. But NoMa has its own parking lot, is state-of-the-art-modern now, and offers diversions galore. So if you aren't vehemently shopping for fresh fruits and vegetables at any particular moment, you can hang out on picnic tables overlooking the stalls and soak in some live tunes - or retreat into the market's air conditioned interior for more shopping (growlers of beer!) or a meal from the city's best food court. On a recent visit to this produce-heavy market, while a how-cute-is-that? army of kids sang rock'n' roll songs and strummed ukuleles, I bumped into: organic-practicing Franklinton Gardens,where I enjoyed trying the bitter-grape flavor of goumi berries; Procter Center Farm (great-looking carrots and enough salad stuff for a huge ukulele crew); and non-GMO/pesticide-free Blossom Acres (lettuces, spinach, asparagus and more). Some other draws are raw local honey and soap handcrafted with it from Honeyrun Farm; the rare jerky that's low-sodium, preservative-free and made with Ohio Proud beef from Simple Man Foods;beautiful flowers from Anderson Orchard; rejuvenating and "100% organic" smoothies created by Organic Green Fix;plus fragrant plants - and free catnip - grown by Somerset Herbs.