Think Globally, Act Locally. Nowhere is that 1970’s saying more relevant than with food. Locally grown food are picked at their peak, get to your table fresher and chock full of vitamins and minerals, and don’t waste a lot of the crop and fossil fuels getting from the field to your fork.
Plus farmer’s markets are a great fun gathering place. That’s one reason they’ve been flourishing since the mid-1990s. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, local growers markets swelled from 1,755 to 4,385 between 1994 and 2006. Chances are there’s one in your neck of the woods.
Yet there is an art to shopping a farmer’s market. Our friends at FruitandVeggieGuru had a great piece recently on how to get the most out of all the farmer’s markets that will be popping up across the land as this seasons produce begins to roll in.
1. Find out if all vendors are grower/producers. Some markets allow sellers with overstock, distressed or supermarket-rejected produce to unload it cheaply at fruit and vegetable stands. While the price may be a deal, it’s not fresh local produce. If that’s what you want check with the market manager to determine if that’s what you’re getting.
2. Shop early in the day. The early bird gets the apple without the worm. The first-of-season blueberries, peaches or Winesap apples often disappear from market tables fast. It’s a long wait until next season. The choice foods you want might disappear if you wait until late in the day. The early shopper gets the best choice.
3. Let what the season offers guide your meal planning. Farmer’s market selections come from within 100 or 200 miles. Your local climate determines what you’ll find on any given day, week, month. But eating in season is a real treat. Leafy greens, herbs, radishes and sprouts come out early and help clear out the winter crops in your system. Midsummer you’ll have corn, berries, summer squash and tomatoes, and fall will bring apples, potatoes, onions, squash and winter greens. Build your menus around what’s in season to take full advantage of the earth’s bounty. You’ll begin to know what month it is without looking at a calendar.
4. Buy for value, but don’t balk at prices. Some crops like corn, green beans, herbs, squashes, cucumbers, tomatoes may be less expensive than in the supermarket. Other items may be more expensive due to economies of scale, expensive heirloom seeds, and caring for crops by hand rather than machine. But the value is in the just picked flavor and nutrition that’s hard to find at MonsterMart.
5. Learn the difference between heirloom and mass-produced produce. Many local farmers use heirloom seeds stock passed down through generations. The look, colors and flavor of these boutique varieties will be better than crops bred mostly for yield, long-distance travel, and appearance.
6. Shop for what’s not available in stores. When I was a kid I could buy Golden Russet apples at the grocery store. No more. These beauties are only found now in local farmer’s markets and coops, plus the ones on my old trees up the hill. Same goes for those sweet, juicy berries your grandmother remembers from her childhood. From peaches to pumpkins, you’ll find variety and flavor that’s not available elsewhere.
7. Look for organic growers. You’ll usually find some, offering foods that are grown and processed without artificial ingredients, preservatives, hormones, antibiotics, irradiation, and most pesticides and fertilizers. But don’t expect to find the “certified organic” label. Many smaller producers just can’t cut the expense of getting certified under the National Organic Program. Ask them about how they grow their food. A local apple grown without pesticides is usually better than an “organic” one trucked across the globe.
8. Ask when it was picked. Sugars in many foods turn to starch soon after picking, so find out when they were harvested. My wife refuses to eat corn not picked that day. Some vendors pick fresh in the morning, some the night before because they have to drive for hours to make a 7 am market. Avoid anything older.
9. Take cash and a reusable shopping bag or shopping cart. While larger farmers markets may take debit/credit cards, most neighborhood markets are cash-on-the – barrelhead deals. Your big shopping bag or wagon holds your purchases so you needn’t struggle with plastic bags on each finger, and can eliminates the bags altogether for a more earth friendly experience.
10. Make friends with farmers. The people you’re buying from are usually the ones who grew the food. They can show you their best buys, teach you how to buy and prepare new foods like daikon or fennel, and sometimes put aside something special for you next time. And face to face time with farmers is what it’s all about. Local is up close and personal, building trust, community and knowledge of where your food comes from. And we can all use a lot more of that. Happy Market Day!