Handwritten cardboard signs call out the names of magenta dahlias, yellow-eyed daisies, and red-and-orange nasturtiums. Tables are stacked high with just-picked corn, while baskets overflow with peaches, strawberries, and plums. Freshly baked pies and breads, warmed by the sun, rest next to rows of homemade jam in perfect little jars.
It's that time of year again—when farmers' markets burst with color, flavor, and that sweet smell of summer. And there are more of them than ever: In 2006, nearly 4,400 farmers' markets were set up in small towns and cities across America——up from about 2,400 in 1996, according to the USDA——showing a growing appetite for fresh, in-season, locally grown products. "We are creatures that developed a deep and intimate relationship with the land and our food," notes Erin Barnett, director of LocalHarvest, a Santa Cruz, Calif.-based organization that tracks farmers' markets, small farms, and the community-supported agriculture movement. "Farmers' markets give us the chance to enjoy that connection again," she says.
Part of the appeal is that farmers' markets offer "the simplest way to shorten the distance between you and your food," says Brian Halweil, senior researcher at WorldWatch Institute, an organization that analyzes global issues. That's crucial since food typically travels at least 1,500 miles from farm to table—which requires massive quantities of fuel and generates substantial greenhouse gases. Shopping at the farmers' market saves oil, keeps money in your local economy, and gives you some say over how the local landscape is used. It also improves your diet, "since it ends up cutting out all sorts of processed and packaged foods in favor of raw, whole ingredients," Halweil adds.
Whether you're newly converted to the joys of farmers' markets, or a longtime supporter, here are some expert tips to help you buy wisely and make the most of the experience.
1. Be prepared
Before you head off to the market, make sure you've got the cash you'll need, preferably in small bills. Bring reusable bags, and if you're planning to make a day of it, put a cooler in your car too. Aim to arrive early for the largest, freshest variety available, or show up late in the day——just before closing time——to get the best bargains.
2. Forget your shopping list
Because local farmers sell unusual and heirloom varieties of produce, as well as food that's too fragile to ship, you're likely to discover new fruits and vegetables. Why not experiment? "Buying something different and using it in a way you hadn't tried before is a great way to expand your cooking repertoire," says Mark Menagh, executive director of Boulder County Farmers' Markets in Colorado. "For instance, instead of making pesto with basil, try making it with arugula."
Trying something new also helps farmers working to extend the variety of fruits and vegetables, says Gabrielle Langholtz, manager of special projects for New York's Greenmarket, a 44-location market program. "There's been a major extinction in the American food supply," she adds. "When a farmer plants an interesting or heirloom variety and few people buy it, then it doesn't make sense to plant it again." About 75 percent of agricultural diversity was lost in the 20th century, according to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization. Langholtz says this is mainly because industrialized farmers stick to growing high-yield crops that can stand up to machine harvest and long-distance transport.
3. Talk to strangers
"There's really no way to connect with people while you're pushing an enormous cart through your grocery store," says Deborah Madison, author of Local Flavors: Cooking and Eating from America's Farmers' Markets. "But it's easy to connect at a farmers' market. There's a real hunger for that kind of personal experience."
4. Be mindful of prices
"Farmers' markets can be expensive, so ask how much something costs before you buy," says Madison, who also encourages meaningful indulgences. "If strawberries make you swoon, splurge a little and buy them." You'll be supporting local farmers in an era in which only 19 cents of every dollar spent on U.S.-grown food goes to the grower, according to USDA estimates.
5. Sample the goods
The rules at farmers' markets are different from those at grocery stores. Most farmers will encourage you to stop, smell, and taste before you buy.
"There's nothing like tasting a fresh peach at a farmers' market," says Darlene Wolnik, deputy director of mentoring for marketumbrella.org, a New Orleans-based organization that helps develop farmers' markets. "You're biting into something that's been picked within the last 24 to 48 hours and hasn't been sprayed or shrink-wrapped, so it tastes better and it's healthier for you. I've actually seen people cry because it reminds them of their childhood."
6. Bring the kids
Unlike a family trip to the grocery store—a trying experience at best—taking kids to the farmers' market can be a fun and educational way to spend part of a day. "Kids are a lot more likely to eat their vegetables if they help pick them out," says Langholtz. "It's great to see them get a sense of where food comes from and meet the person who grew it. It's such a simple and important lesson, that food doesn't grow in little Styrofoam containers," she adds.
7. Bring your grandma
Older people grew up in a time when produce wasn't shipped long distances or sold in plastic packages, so they offer a different perspective on food. "I'll never forget when I brought my grandmother to the farmers' market," says Wolnik. "There were these beautiful mayhaws, a kind of crabapple you make into pale pink jelly or syrup to pour over shaved ice. My grandmother used to have several mayhaw trees in her backyard. She told the farmer how she used them, and connected with me like never before."
8. Don't insist on organic
If you usually buy organic, don't be turned off if your favorite farm stand isn't. "A lot of small farms don't get certified organic——even though they don't spray or use pesticides——because the process is just too burdensome and expensive," says Barnett of LocalHarvest. "Many farmers feel they don't have to get certified because they know their customers and their customers know how they farm," she adds. Instead of "certified organic," some farmers say they're "pesticide free" or "no spray." If you're not sure how the farmer grows his or her crops, ask.
9. Make it last
Stretch summer enjoyment by buying fruits and vegetables you can pickle, jar, or freeze. "It's a lot cheaper if you buy in bulk and find a way to keep the season going by freezing produce or making jams and sauces," says Marne Duke, marketing manager of Nashville Farmers' Market in Tennessee. "One of my favorite things is to freeze boysenberries. If you have a vacuum sealer, use it. If not, just lay the berries flat in a freezer bag. They're great to blend into winter cocktails, bake with, or eat straight from the bag."
10. Be a composter
So, you've finished eating that juicy peach and don't know what to do with the pit? Look for a compost stand. Some markets provide them for discarded food waste. Composting helps prevent pollution, cleans up contaminated soil, and reduces the need for water, fertilizer, and pesticides. If your market doesn't offer a composting drop-off, suggest one.