If you’ve been reading the blog for any length of time, you know that I get stupidly excited about farmers markets. And why not? There are so many reasons to love shopping at these unique local venues. This time of year is especially fun because, at least here in the Northeast, the winter markets are moving outside and the seasonal markets are just starting up.
With all the markets that have sprung up across the country in recent years, it’s easier than ever to find fresh, local produce and one-of-a-kind artisan goods right in your own backyard. If you haven’t checked out your local market yet, here are five great reasons to make this year the year you become a regular!
How many times have you seen a suncrisp apple, purple pepper, speckled heirloom tomato or celeriac (10 reasons, n.d.; Dansereau, 2012) at the supermarket? You’ll come across all this and more on a typical visit to the farmers market. Produce grown for chain stores has to conform to certain specifications so that it can be packed and shipped all over the country (or the world), and farmers growing for “Big Ag” are focused more on profitability than diversity. Small farms, on the other hand, tend to grow a vast range of fruits and vegetables in multiple varieties. There are no restrictions on size or appearance, so these farmers are able to aim for flavor and quality (Alterman, 2012).
Diverse planting also helps to preserve heirloom strains that would otherwise be lost. Some of the plants that farmers are growing now have may have been handed down for over a hundred years and offer truly unique flavor that you won’t find in supermarket produce.
When you’re wandering the farmers market, take the time to stop by vendors selling locally produced goods such as jams and nut butters, hummus, pesto, soap and bread. You might even find gems like homemade pasta and granola or be able to grab a bite at a vegan-friendly food vendor. Many of these products are starting to make their way onto grocery store shelves, but you’ll find the best selection right at the market.
2) It’s Easy to Shop With the Seasons
Many a food writer has made the point that there are no seasons at the supermarket. You can buy salad mix in the dead of winter and potatoes in July. Strawberries, apples and mangoes are always available no matter what the weather. To provide this ever-constant selection, produce is often picked before its prime, ripened artificially, packed into trucks and shipped as far as 1,500 miles to reach the shelves. The result? Poor taste and poor quality that detracts from the enjoyment of the food.
Greenhouses and cold storage make it possible for farmers market vendors to offer some items, such as fresh greens and apples, out of season, but in general what you see at the market on any given day is what’s at peak. Vendors pick produce the day before or sometimes even the day of the market and rarely travel more than 50 miles to sell it. That’s why a tomato you buy at the farmer’s market in July or August tastes so much better than one you get off the store shelves in December and the asparagus you enjoy in your spring salad blows the imported midwinter crop out of the water.
To know what’s in season, all you have to do is take a stroll around the market as the months go by. You’ll be treated to a rainbow of colors and tastes from spring to fall, starting with fresh greens and ending with squashes and root vegetables.
3) The Food is More Nutritious (and Tastier!)
The “seasonal and local” combination brings you food that not only tastes better than supermarket selections but is also better for you. Fresh food starts to lose its nutritional value the moment it’s picked, so if the apples you’re buying today spent a week being shipped halfway across the country and another several days on the shelves, chances are there’s not much left to benefit your health. Plus, since most of the produce in supermarkets is picked before it’s completely ripe, flavor and nutrients aren’t given the time they need to develop to their fullest.
Farmers market produce, on the other hand, is picked exactly when it’s supposed to be and sold within a day or two of leaving the field. As you enjoy the delicious flavor, you get an infusion of nutrients that comes both from the freshness and the fact that small farms tend to practice much better soil management than big agribusinesses. Instead of planting hybrids and GMOs made to withstand unnatural conditions and excessive chemical treatments, local farmers focus on tried and true methods of fertilization and pest management.
Look for certified organic and certified naturally grown vendors to find food grown without the use of chemicals. If you’re not sure about a product, ask the vendor. Organic produce has been shown to have a higher nutritional value than conventional due to better soil quality and farming practices. To ensure you’re getting the most out of your fruits and veggies, choose the brightest produce possible and check for ripeness. Nutrient content peaks around the time that produce is meant to be picked and eaten (Alterman, 2012), making the farmer’s market your best bet when it comes to eating healthy.
4) You’re Supporting Local Farmers
The buzz surrounding local food is about more than flavor and nutrition. When you buy produce and goods from nearby farms, you’re supporting people who live and work in your community. Your money goes into the local economy rather than funding the inefficient and environmentally damaging practices of the standard agricultural system. Each purchase at the market helps to keep small farms in business, and buying local shows that you care where your food comes from and how it’s grown. It also conserves a great deal of resources since what you buy is grown in viable farmland in your area rather than a large-scale farm that then ships its yields to far-flung areas.
Shopping at the farmers market gives you a chance to get to know local growers and develop lasting relationships. You can pick up interesting tidbits on how to prepare unfamiliar ingredients and get alerted to when new products are on the way. As you strike up conversations wiith more people, you’ll find that visiting the farmers market becomes the highlight of your week.
5) You Can Get a Great Deal
Comparing prices at the farmers market to those at the grocery store gives many people the mistaken impression that it’s too expensive to eat healthy and local. Remember that the produce on store shelves is the result of large-scale international agriculture with a focus on high volume. Locally grown food, on the other hand, requires more personal care and attention, and you get much more out of it than something you grab from the supermarket. Looking at it that way, you’re getting quite the bargain.
There are ways to stretch your market day budget even further. “Seconds,” items that are cosmetically flawed in some way, generally cost less as do late-season items that are starting to go past their prime. Some vendors will sell large amounts of produce in bulk such as 50-pound bags of potatoes or entire bushels of apples at discounted prices. Shopping seasonally comes in handy here as well; abundance and availability may drive down prices (Henry, 2014). Striking up a relationship with farmers could earn you a little extra here and there as well, but don’t try to haggle for lower prices (Crouch, 2014). Everyone at the market works hard to bring you the best of the best, and their livelihoods depend on people like you choosing to buy food at a local market rather than chain grocery stores.
Of course, these are just a few of the perks of shopping at a farmers market. If you want to discover more for yourself, check out the USDA Farmer’s Market Directory to find the locations and hours of farmers markets near you! Remember that some run all year, so you can always find fresh, local produce to enjoy.
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10 reasons to support farmer’s markets. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.cuesa.org/learn/10-reasons-support-farmers-markets
Alterman, T. (2012, November/December). The benefits of eating locally grown, seasonal food. Retrieved from http://www.motherearthliving.com/food-and-recipes/sustainable-food/locally-grown-seasonal-food-zmoz12ndzmel.aspx
Benefits of buying local. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.fma.alabama.gov/BuyLocal.aspx
Crouch, M. (2014, July). 13+ secrets to getting deals at the farmer’s market. Reader’s Digest.Retrieved from http://www.rd.com/slideshows/secrets-farmers-market/
Dansereau, A. (2012, October 31). 6 advantages to buying your food at the farmer’s market. Retrieved from http://www.care2.com/greenliving/6-advantages-to-buying-your-food-at-the-farmers-market.html
Henry, A. (2014, April 14). Why eating seasonally and locally is better for you (and your wallet). Retrieved from http://lifehacker.com/why-eating-seasonally-and-locally-is-better-for-you-an-1563025065