By Barbara Kessler
Green Right Now

Shopping at a farmers’ market is certainly more of an adventure than trekking the familiar tiled aisles of your local supermarket.

At a farmers’ market, you need to be prepared. You’ll want to take, for example, a tote bag. And you’ll need to step aside as that 18-wheeler loaded with cantaloupes pulls in.

So we asked a few informed folks – at The Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture in San Francisco and at the Dallas Farmers’ Market and others – for their tips on how to get the most out of your farmers’ market foray. (Don’t know where your farmers’ market is? Check our list.)

And here they are:

1 –Get to Know Your Local Farmer: Visit with the vendors and talk to them about how their food is grown. If it’s not certified organic, it may still be grown in an environmentally friendly way. Most farmers will be happy, if the market’s not too busy, to fill you in. Increasingly, too, farmers’ markets are requiring disclosure signs from vendors to help buyers know more about their food and the route it has taken. Consider those signs conversation openers. Roger Heddin, a farmer selling black-eyed, purple hull and cream peas at the Dallas tomatoes-with-signs.jpgmarket, says the beauty of the market is that discerning consumers can pick their favorite produce and growers. Farmers can seal the relationship by offering a fair deal. “As long as you do people right,’’ he says, “your business just gets better and better.’’

2 – Learn the Seasonality of Produce: With few exceptions, all produce has a finite season in a given area. Learn what you can about what’s in season at your local market and you’ll be better equipped to plan your menus. And remember, fruits and vegetables at the height of harvest taste the best.

CUESA, which runs the Ferry Plaza market in San Francisco, posts a chart on iys website showing when local fruits and veggies are in season. The Food Network has compiled a general list of fruits and vegetables by season. People wanting to know more about local produce harvest times should ask at their farmers’ markets.

3 – Buy with Friends: Be your own mini co-operative even if you don’t belong to one. Buying in bulk when certain fruits and veggies are at peak harvest can be efficient. Call your church or school or a few friends before you trek to the market. (Better yet, carpool with them.) If you can buy bushels instead of pints, you’ll get a better deal for sure, says Tony Johns, farm and resource coordinator at the Dallas market.

4 – Consider Eating It Raw: Raw foodism isn’t for everyone. Only a tiny minority of people follow this discipline. But health experts are advising that the rest of us would be smart to eat more of our food au naturel. A fresh apple, well, we all get that. But how about a medley of fresh sliced tomatoes, zucchini and peppers for tonight’s side dish? Your digestive system would be appreciative. So don’t be insulted when dinner mates ask you to bring the veggie tray – “As if I can’t cook!” huffs one friend – instead, head to the farmer’s market and impress your pals later with your best veg tray yet.

5 – Consider Cooking It (a new way): CUESA Executive Director Dave Stockdale believes it is no coincidence that farmer’s markets and food shows have been growing simultaneously over theimg_7216.JPG past decade. He suspects Americans are getting serious in the kitchen as they’ve become fans of Emeril and Rachel. If you live in the Bay Area, you can see cooking demonstrations with local chefs, working with local farmers, at CUESA’s Ferry Plaza Farmers Market at the Ferry Building on Embarcadero in downtown San Francisco. (Picture at left courtesy CUESA.)
The Dallas Farmers Market also hosts cooking classes. On the web, the Centers for Disease Control’s nutrition section operates a recipe finder based on your selection of which fruits or veggies to incorporate.

6 – Sample the Exotic: Get in touch with your inner local food-self. In the Southwest, take home some cactus fruit (yes, that’s it pictured on the right) to make jelly or a smoothie. In California, try a paw paw, a Native American fruit. cactus-fruit.jpgIn Minnesota, try a new variety of sweet corn (hopefully one that’s not genetically altered). You can extend yourself at a farmers’ market in ways you can’t at the supermarket. You can ask about it. You can probably sample it. And you’ll likely wind up discussing what to do with it with another customer, if not the seller. One study found that a person has 10 times more social interactions at a farmers’ market. So go, eat and be chatty.

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