Farmers markets can be daunting for first-timers. Instead of coming home with produce that you don’t know how to cook or a headache from circling the stalls fruitless-ly, prepare for your fresh food adventure and plough through with confidence with these helpful hints.
Farmers Market Fundamentals
- Do your homework. “A little bit of research on what’s in season can help shoppers make the best decisions,” advises Chef Michel Nischan, founderof Wholesome Wave, a nonprofit that helps needy families access fresh local foods.* He recommends visiting www.localharvest.org to find farmers markets near you, and http://wholesomewave.org/blog/ for what’s in season, recipes and tips.
- Arrive early. “Many restaurants source the best local produce at the start of the market day,” says the two-time James Beard Foundation award winner. “Consumers get the best of the best by arriving first.” For bargains, go late; vendors prefer discounting rather than hauling back food.
- Cultivate relationships. “Getting to know the farmers is an excellent way to learn about fresh produce, what’s arriving soon and tips to prepare unfamiliar foods. Ask any questions; they want to share their knowledge,” advises Nischan.
- Bring cash (and change!) for easy transactions. Don’t forget sturdy, reusable bags, too!
- Buy in bulk for best deals. Freezing, canning and drying all help preserve seasonal tastes year-round. For large loads, invest in a cart that maneuvers easily between booths.
A New Crop of Lingo
When you’re in a foreign land, understanding the mother tongue helps you get around. The same is true for navigating a farmers’ market. Here are some useful terms to help you understand what you’re buying.
- Sustainable agriculture — farming without depleting natural resources or polluting the environment.
- Local food — seasonally and regionally grown (usually within 150 miles). “By supporting local farmers’ markets you’re supporting your community,”says Nischan.
- Organic food — produced without synthetic additives or processing;growers meet strict standards for USDA organic certification
- Organically grown — produced with organic practices, but without certification.
- Whole food — in its original state, unprocessed; requires trimming, peeling, cutting, etc. (Not necessarily organic.)
“For some people, organic is very important. For others, supporting local is most important or having variety, which is why many markets feature both local and imported food. But, you won’t know unless you ask,” Nischan adds.
Go With the Flow of Freshness
- Keep an open mind. “Most people avoid rhubarb, a nutrient-rich vegetable because in its natural state, it’s super tart,” Yet, Nischan continues, “Rhubarb’s healthful and versatile, one of the many interesting players in the world of farm fresh foods. Open the door to a whole new world of flavor.”
- Walk the market twice. First, compare prices and products, tasting everything; second time, buy. But, be flexible and ready to modify recipes if you can’t find your favorites or can’t resist the plump figs or other inviting food.
Supermarket vs. Farmers Market
When deciding where to pick up some produce, take a look at the side-by-side comparison of supermarket vs. farmers’ market to see what you can expect from each.
Super: More travel time and handling of produce increase opportunities for contamination and flavor loss
Farmers: Less time from harvest to table means more freshness and taste.
Super: Food is processed and packaged for extended shelf life; produce like apples and cucumbers are coated with wax, which also improves appearance
Farmers: Whole food and heirloom varieties (generations old) may look different compared to processed versions, and have shorter shelf lives.
Super: Prices are nonnegotiable
Farmers: Less middle men and quick turnovers mean variable prices.
Super: Produce is picked before ripe and nutrients don’t fully develop
*Wholesome Wave’s Double Value Coupon Program doubles the value of food stamps at participating farmers markets. Visit www.wholesomewave.org for information.