Sunday, May 2, 2010

How to Shop at a Farmers' Market

Shopping at a farmers' market is not the same as shopping at a supermarket. You'll enjoy the experience more and get a lot more out of it -- more than you're expecting, perhaps -- if you keep a few things in mind.
Get in the zone. The farmers' market is not Kroger. Knowing how your food was raised and buying fresher, tastier, sustainably-raised food that supports your local farmers is balanced with some things you might at first see as disadvantages: it takes longer, some items might be more expensive (especially at certain times of year), and you can't always find exactly what you're looking for. But after a while, if you're in the right frame of mind, you'll see that these are actually advantages, too. When you spend more time shopping, you tend to get to know the farmer and the food better. When you pay a fair price for food, you tend to start eating in a way that is sustainable (and healthier.) When you don't find what you were looking for, you tend to broaden your food choices and discover new food items you may not have used before. Shopping the farmers' market is part of an entirely different way of looking at your food, one that allows you to become part of the process rather than simply being the end-consumer.

Show up early. Especially if you're looking for something early or late in its season, as many farmers will run out right away as early birds snap up the less abundant items. Plus lines are likely to be shorter and farmers will be able to spend more time with you talking about their offerings.
Or, come late. Often late in the day is a great time to get deals on stuff the farmers don't want to take home, especially anything more perishable or difficult to transport.

Be prepared to spend some time. This isn't a supermarket where you zip up and down the aisles throwing boxes and cans into your cart. Here, you can ask about the items. The grower or producer of the item knows more about it than you might imagine -- after all, if they're growing it, they're almost certainly eating it. And the people in front of you want to ask some questions, too, so try to be patient.

Accept the seasons. You won't find apples or tomatoes at the farmers' market in May, or asparagus in August. One of the joys of eating locally is that the start of each item's new season is a cause for celebration. In May at the farmers' market, that gorgeous bunch of asparagus was probably in the ground a few miles away last night or maybe even this morning. During asparagus season you can have asparagus every night for a week and not get tired of it because you know you aren't going to see fresh local asparagus again until next year. Come September, an apple that was picked yesterday will spoil you forever for what you can find at the supermarket in June. You may just decide that picked-yesterday-ten-miles-from-here apple is worth waiting for.

Be flexible. If the spinach is all gone, consider kale or chard, which can often be used interchangeably in recipes. No Granny Smiths? Ask the farmer which of his varieties will make a Granny Smith eater happy.

Try something new. At a farmers' market, you'll often see things you'd never see at the supermarket. Pea shoots, garlic scapes, squash blossoms, green garlic, chive blossoms, sorrel -- for the most part these are too perishable or too difficult to transport to show up anywhere but at a farmers' market. Pick up a bunch and ask the farmer, "How do you use this?" He'll be happy to tell you how he likes to prepare it, and he may even have a recipe copied off.
Don't expect perfect beauty. The blemish-free produce at the supermarket was raised in a monoculture, sprayed to kill every possible threat whether present or not, chemically fertilized to encourage growth, and the variety was chosen for beauty and ease of transport, not taste. At the farmers' market you'll find varieties the farmer chose because they grow well in his particular conditions and he thinks they taste good. Most don't spray, or spray only when disease or insects are actually present. Most fertilize only with compost, not with chemicals. The end product doesn't always look exactly like the perfect produce you'll find at the supermarket, but it tastes better and is fresher, better for you, and better for the environment. There's a beauty in that imperfection.

Ask questions. Where is your farm located? Do you grow or raise what you are selling? (If you don't feel comfortable asking a farmer this, ask the market manager whether there are rules about this for farmers at their market -- there often are.) What are your growing methods? Can people visit your farm? Why did you choose to grow a particular variety? What's good today? Do you have any cooking tips? Do you know if anyone else here today might still have some radishes? Will you have tomatoes next week?

Develop relationships. If you visit a market regularly, you'll see the same farmers over and over. Some of them will be happy to save things for you next week if you've become a regular and they know you'll show up. Some farmers change their planting plans in response to requests from regular customers -- one farmer I know has developed a specialty in Japanese vegetables because he's developed relationships with several transplanted families. If you'd love to be able to find a certain item at the farmers' market, tell a farmer! You'll be much more likely to see it in his stall next year if you've developed a relationship with him this year.
Be prepared to pay the true cost of producing your food. It's not a garage sale, where you can expect to pick up stuff cheaper than at retail. Most farmers at farmers' markets are not producing on a large scale. They're not receiving subsidies on their products to help lower the price. They're operating small diversified farms, which is better for the environment. They are trying to do the right thing, but they still need to make a living. You can help by being willing to pay a little more for your food, especially early or late in the season. It tends to balance out in high season for produce. In August and September when everyone has tomatoes coming out their ears, you can buy tomatoes cheap. In late June, not so much. But for certain items -- mostly animal products -- you'll almost always pay a little more at a farmers' market. That's because raising animals on pasture without subsidized grain and water costs more than conventional CAFO'd meat, dairy, and egg operations. Learning the true cost of meat has encouraged my family to treat it as an ingredient rather than as the ingredient in our meals. It's better for us and better for the environment.
Bring a friend. Know a foodie who doesn't shop at the farmers' market? Or maybe just someone who is always saying, "Wow, I really should check out the farmers' markets, too." Offer to take them with you. Last time I took a friend she bought so much food I ended up with a dinner invitation.

Become part of the process. When you shop at a supermarket, you're simply an eater. You have a very limited part in the process of bringing food to your table. When you shop at a farmers' market, you have an opportunity to become part of the process, but only if you take advantage of that opportunity. If you treat the farmers' market like Kroger, you'll probably be disappointed.
Reprinted from Cincinnati Locavore. This post was featured at Vegetarian CarnivalCarnival of Improving LifeMake It From ScratchFestival of Frugality, Homesteading Carnival and Carnival of Tips.

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