Monday, April 18, 2011

Mastering the Farmer's Market

     With Spring reaching just about every corner of the country, we will be welcoming back a true friend to the Clean Eater : the local Farmer's Market. Your choice of locally sourced, fresh off the vine produce and handmade artisan items. If you have never visited a farmer's market, or have been reluctant, now is the time to brush up on a few key things to know about shopping at a local farmer's market.

1. Before heading for your local farmers' market, do some research on what's in season in your area — don't expect to find avocados in Maine or oranges in Iowa. Head out with realistic expectations about what you know can grow locally in your neck of the woods. And since all fruits are not created equal, make sure you know what everything you want looks like at its peak. Bigger isn't always better, so find out the ideal color, size and texture of what you'd like to buy beforehand. Some good resources include:

2. To avoid a nasty collection of tiny plastic bags, bring your own backpack or large canvas tote bags with comfortable handles for easy transport, along with small reusable plastic bags to protect more delicate items like herbs, fruits or potted plants. Have a reusable bottle of water and a few paper towels on hand to keep extremely perishable items like fresh herbs and asparagus hydrated. Also, most vendors are cash only, so come prepared with small bills to speed up your shopping.
3. No matter where you live, the early bird gets the goods, so get to the market early before eager chefs and foodies have bought all the best stuff. Also, remember to make a quick loop around the entire market before buying anything. There's nothing worse than making a purchase only to find that it's better and cheaper four stalls down.

3. No one knows the ins and outs of food like the people who grow it, so get answers straight from the experts by asking the really important questions. Find out exactly where your food comes from by asking where the farm is located, how far it is from the market, and if it's organic. Ask if they use any chemical pesticides and if their farm is USDA certified organic (if the answer is no, find out why not—it may not be a deal-breaker, since certification is pricey and may not be worth it for a small farm). Don't be shy about asking for specifics. Most farmers are proud of their products and don't mind detailing exactly how their food is grown and what to do with it—so if you don't know how to cook artichokes or what to do with rutabagas, ask how he or she likes them prepared.

4. Fresh, organic food and plants are easily damaged and bruised, so treat purchases with care while transporting them home. Store herbs in a zip top bag with a damp paper towel to keep them from wilting on the way home (and continue storing them in the fridge this way). Make use of extra plastic shopping bags by using them to protect delicate items, and remember to rearrange your bags after each purchase with heavy ones on the bottom, and more fragile items on top.

5. Some farmers sell different items on different days, so if you're a fan, find out if they have stalls at other markets or in other locations. Or, if you don't get to visit the market as often as you'd like, find out if they participate in Community Supported Agriculture (CSA), and buy a share of their harvest. You'll get a presorted box of seasonal goodies delivered to your neighborhood, and your money will go directly toward growing the farm's crop. For more information on finding and joining a CSA near you, visit Local Harvest,