How To Navigate The Farmers Market

To get freshly picked fruits and veggies, we used to have to journey out into the countryside and find farm stands. Not anymore. These days, local farmers are bringing their produce into cities to sell at open-air markets.

Buying local food allows us to feast on the bounty of our regional produce. It reminds us of the flow of the seasons and encourages us to get creative and try new things. The local harvest affords health benefits, such as fewer pesticides and greater nutritional value than the pre-packed veg we find in the supermarket. And last but not least, freshly harvested food has a lot more flavor.

Many of us have gotten used to the “global” marketplace – it’s hard to complain about eating a mango in Colorado in December. But experiencing seasonal food means you’re getting it at its flavorful peak. When weather and ground conditions are perfect for the fruits and vegetables growing somewhere, they will inevitably taste delicious.

If you’ve ever wondered why supermarket tomatoes and peaches are often so disappointing, a report by the Harvard Medical School Center for Health and the Global Environment provides some explanation. Large farms that distribute globally focus on fruits and vegetables with high yields and durability rather than taste, as their produce must travel long distances without spoiling. Many supermarket fruits and veggies travel over 2,000 miles by truck to get to your table. To survive these road trips, the crops are picked before they ripen, which is also before they reach their nutritional peak. This can diminish nutritional value and certainly affects taste.

Small farms can’t compete with the big suppliers in a global market, but locally they can’t be beat. Because their produce travels shorter distances, these farmers tend to focus on growing heirloom varieties, which they can pick at their flavorful and nutritional best. Unlike supermarket produce, the fruits and vegetables you find at your local farmers market are just hours old, not days or weeks old.

Buying local produce might reduce your pesticide intake, too. Big commercial growers farm “conventionally,” meaning they use pesticides and spray their crops preventatively for pests.  Local “conventional” farmers usually spray only when harmful bugs strike or if a crop is threatened, not as a preemptive measure. This means that you could be paying “conventional” prices at your farmers market for produce grown with significantly fewer pesticides.

It might feel unfamiliar, even daunting, if you’ve never shopped the farmers market before. But don’t let that scare you away. Here are a few hints to help you become a successful shopper.

Let what’s available inspire your recipes.  The best thing about the farmers market is that what’s for sale on any given day is what’s in season. It may take you some time to think of recipes that utilize seasonal ingredients. For ideas, check out our recipe slideshows for seasonal produce, including spring and summer recipes.

Take a walk around the market before you purchase anything. A farmers market can be overwhelming. Typically there is a dizzying array of food. So take a lap around the market before you buy to scope out the differences in price and quality between stands. Sometimes you can even get samples. Depending on how big the market is, you may want to jot down the farmers’ names you like on your list.

Start simple. To avoid buying too many vegetables and fruits that you aren’t sure what to do with, start simple. Choose vegetables you recognize and have used before when you first start shopping at your market. If you buy a few things you’re used to, then you can try choosing a few new items just for snacking and experimenting. Eventually you will be willing to try new recipes and heirloom varieties.

Don’t be afraid to ask questions. One of the best parts of the farmers market is that the person running the booth may very well work on the farm or know those who do. If you want to know whether pesticides were used, ask. If you want to try a bite of something before purchasing it, ask. If you want a recipe idea, ask. And don’t be embarrassed if you need to know what a leek looks like or simply must know the name of the chicken that laid those eggs – just go ahead and ask.

Be patient. Just like it took you a while to figure out where everything was in each aisle of you favorite grocery store, it will take time to determine which stands you like the best, so take your time if you can. Since farmers markets are more chaotic than a supermarket, it’s best to leave plenty of time to shop around.

Enjoy it while you can. Not all areas of the country have farmers markets open year round, so take advantage of them when you can. Use the National Farmers Market Directory to find a market near you.

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