It is officially the beginning of Farmers Market season. With the unseasonably warm winter, many fruits and vegetables have hit their peak performance weeks ahead of schedule. If you are like me, you have been impatiently waiting on this unofficial start of the summer cooking season. Here are 12 secrets to making the most out of your Farmers Market trip.
1. Stop by the info booth – Most markets will have a special booth with information, maps, recipes and other helpful information. Ask if they have specialty areas such as a designated organic area for vendors who sell Certified Organic produce.
2. Take your time – Shopping at a farmers market should be a pleasure not a chore. Carve out a couple of hours to stroll around, talk to vendors, and taste samples.
3. Look around – Never buy from the first vendor that you see, no matter how good the produce looks. Take time to look around and see all of your options before buying. You can always go back to that first vendor.
4. Dirt is your friend – Remember most of this produce is fresh from the fields of nearby farms. They have not been waxed and polished to catch the eye of bulk buyers like the produce at your grocery store. Also, this produce has likely been harvested ripe and taken directly to market. Your grocery store produce has likely been harvested weeks before their ripeness to withstand the rigors of transport and then gas ripened. So, if you see a little dirt, a few bumps and blemishes here and there or a couple of bugs, remember that this is actually a good thing!
5. If it looks perfect be wary – By the same token, produce that looks so perfect it could be made of wax, may well have been shipped in from a factory farm. It takes years of development and genetics, not to mention gallons of chemicals and byproducts to make fruits and vegetables look that perfect. If the produce appears to have a waxy coating, this may also be a sign that it was not locally grown. (I will have more on Wax Coating later)
6. Ask questions – While most vendors sell produce they have grown themselves, some do buy from local farmers and resell the produce and others may even buy from farms in other states just like grocery stores. Be sure to ask where the food came from. Most vendors will be honest. Other question you may want to ask: How to prepare an unfamiliar item. Is the produce organic? When was it harvested? Where did it come from? What is the exact name of the variety (there are literally hundreds of different types of tomatoes, each with their own unique qualities)?
7. Sample – Never be afraid to ask for a sample. Some vendors may welcome you to sample, some may decline, but sampling is always the best way to judge the quality of produce.
8. Cost – Do not be surprised if the cost of some items is a few cents more than your neighborhood grocery store. Most groceries make around $0.20 margin on produce. They count on volume of sale for their overall profit margins. Local farmers do not have the same sales volume as grocers or factory farms, so they have to sell their produce at slightly higher prices. But remember, you are not only supporting your local farms and your community, but you are also feeding your family higher quality foods and that is well worth a few more cents.
9. Go often – The greatness of Farmers Markets in that the food is fresh. Take advantage of this and go once ever week or so. By all means buy extra to freeze or can, but save it up for the winter months when you can not buy farm fresh produce.
10. Relationships – One of the best things about Farmers Markets is the relationships that you build with the farmers who grow the food you feed your family. They know (or should know) almost everything about the produce they offer. Take advantage of this. Let them educate you, find out when they will have the best stuff, check out their other offerings. Remember, you are building relationships with the men and women who produce the food you feed your family.
11. Be loyal – Once you have developed a relationship with vendors that you trust and who sell quality produce, learn their names (or at least the names of their farms), know when they will be at your local market and make sure to continue to shop with them. Your loyalty should be amply rewarded and they will take care of you.
12. Not Just for Produce – Farmers Markets are not just for fruits and vegetables. You can also buy locally raised (preferably grass fed) meats, and local cheeses, milk, eggs, jellies and jams, honey and much more. The same rules above also apply to these vendors as well.
Happy Shopping and SEE YOU AT THE FARMERS MARKET!!!