Spring has swept in and Summer is knocking on our doors. The farmers’ market season has kicked off. It’s time to dust off your market basket and head to your nearest farmers’ market (go hungry, please!). Whether you’re a seasoned market shopper or a novice, it’s a good time to get the 411 on this. And yes, I know you’ve seen this kind of info before but guess what happens during the off-season (between fall and spring)? Holidays, new years, cold weather, busy households… So let’s fine tune our memories shall we?
1. Who are you buying the food from? You can always ask the vendor, but I know there are folks out there who are used to shopping for food no questions asked, so this is for you. Take a good look at the fresh produce vendors. Spot some gritty fingernails? How about their produce? Is most of this displayed loose and is it of varying shapes, sizes, varieties, and dusted here and there with a little soil? Consider the season. We’re in early spring, so if you spot lush leafy greens, radishes, carrots, and turnips, and you take all of the above into consideration, you’re bound to be buying from a local farmer. Now quit being shy and ask them about their farm. You’ll see their eyes light up. They’ll tell you what they grow, how they do it and what you can make tonight. Yay! You’ve met the face behind the food. A farmer! You go you…
Now, be mindful of other vendors. Do you see some tomatoes? Summer squash? For many parts of the country, these aren’t quite in season yet. Check how these are stored. If you spot a cardboard box that brags ‘California’ but you’re thousands of miles away from this sunshine state, know that you may be buying your goods from a produce wholesaler. Nothing wrong with this. They offer some produce at lower costs, but their produce may not be local and may have travelled the infamous 1500 miles to get to this market. I’m all for making healthy food accessible to all, but it’s just good for you to know what’s out there and to make some philosophical decisions. Supporting local farmers is a great investment in your local economy, and the wholesaler may very well have some items they source locally or regionally, so just ask them. Otherwise, learn what’s in season in your neck of the woods, and that way you’ll be able to discern the local ‘growers’ from the wholesalers.
It turns out buying from local farmers is pretty affordable. After all, you’re happy to spend three bucks on a beer, coffee, or dvd rental, so three bucks for a bag of locally grown greens is fair game to me.
Now, some farmers may not have the man power to be at the market, and this has created the ‘distributor‘ channel. Distributors are handy. They go from farm to farm to gather the goods and then sell these on behalf of the farmers. This enables farmers to keep their resources on the land, to maximize their growing, and be able to market and sell their products without having to spend hours attending to this. And some farmers will admit that they are not the most adept in marketing and distribution.
2. Plastic bags are at Farmers’ Markets too. Most of our farmers do a sterling job in following growing practices that are kinder to our planet. The only reason why they have plastic bags is because of you. So note to dear consumer… save them the hassle, and save the environment by bringing your market basket. We have to rely on each other to be more conscious of our environmental impact.
3. Which leads me to how your food is grown or raised (I call it ‘graised’). Most but certainly not all farmers are certified organic, and in a nutshell (I know… You don’t want to have to read a compendium) this means no synthetic fertilizers and chemicals, no hormones and antibiotics for livestock, and no genetically modified organisms (GMO) (and the latter takes a compendium to explain so click here to learn more). But it doesn’t stop there. These farmers follow diverse growing practices, including crop rotations, using cover crops during winter (which give the soil a great nutritional shot), and increasing the biodiversity of crops. This certification process is regulated by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). While very beneficial, some farmers opt out of this government regulation for Certified Naturally Grown, which is pretty much organic but farmers are accountable to each other rather than the USDA. So either way, you’re supporting growing practices that our grandparents and generations before applied to food production. It’s how food should be grown, and mother nature prefers it too.
4. Cash, credit, or debit? Some markets can facilitate all forms of payment, others are strictly cash, so check ahead and be prepared because you won’t be able to barter your car, children, or pets for yummy food. I have been to markets where you can pay credit and receive cash ‘discs’ at $2 each to go around and pay the vendors. I have paid vendors credit and cash directly. I like to carry both forms in case. In fact, some farmers’ markets are set up to accept Electronic Benefits Transactions (EBT), which is part of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) (commonly known as the Food Stamp program). My personal favorite is markets which double up SNAP dollars through programs like Wholesome Wave. So for every dollar, you get an extra dollar to spend! This is a super way to encourage all folks, regardless of socioeconomic status, to access and participate in their farmers’ markets. And the cherry on top? We all get to eat delicious and nutritious ware.
And last but not least…
5. Behind every great market is an equally great person. Every market has a manager. If it wasn’t for their year round efforts, there would be no market. They are the ones who plan the season, communicate market events, source and retain vendors, seek funding, coordinate the smooth operation… and the list goes on and on. So if you know your market manager, be sure to thank them and maybe offer to volunteer some time. If you don’t know your market manager, find them and give them a big thankful hug. They, and the farmers, artisans, artists… make your market happen.
Happy shopping, happy noshing, and happy season folks!
Jess Avasth MS, RD, LS & Mindful Eater
Keeping Food Real and Lover of Farmers’ Markets