It's that time again—blueberries beckon, squash summons, kale is calling. Get thee to a farmers' market! The latest USDA tally estimates 6,300 farmers' markets and counting nationwide. As that number continues to grow, it's natural to wonder whether or not you're shopping at a legit market and choosing the best stalls. "The two most important questions you should ask yourself are, is everything on these tables in season now, and does it grow in my area?" says Amelia Saltsman, author of The Santa Monica Farmers' Market Cookbook. But how can you be sure what you're buying is truly local and hasn't been hauled in from a far-flung distribution point? How do you know the folks behind the stall actually grew the produce themselves? How can you be sure that what you're buying is organic, or at least pesticide-free? Just in time to help you up your market smarts, we took these and other burning questions to market insiders. Here's what they told us.
1. How can I be sure that the produce is really organic?
Ask at the stand, or look for a sign. Though some farm stand signs are emblazoned with CERTIFIED ORGANIC, many farmers who follow organic practices don't bother to certify because of the paperwork, and, in some cases, the cost, says Larry Johnson, manager of the Dane County Farmers' Market in Madison, Wis. These vendors may describe their produce as NO-SPRAY or PESTICIDE-FREE.
2. Is it inappropriate to negotiate prices?
Yes, says Johnson, who emphasizes that farmers work hard to put a fair price on their products. "You wouldn't haggle at a grocery store," he adds.
3. If there's a huge variety of produce at a stand, should I be suspicious about who grew it?
Not necessarily, says Saltsman. Many small farmers grow a row or two of different root vegetables and greens, and can then sell a variety of goods (as opposed to industrial farmers obliged to grow a lot of one thing to supply giant distribution centers). She also points out that farms using sustainable practices to foster biodiversity tend to have fruit trees and flowers to attract bees and other beneficial insects. Any hardworking farmer would want to be able to profit from that diversity by selling at a farmers' market.
4. How can I be sure it's local produce, and not trucked in from the nearest food terminal?
Many—but not all—markets have strict rules prohibiting resale, aka "carrying" or "peddling." If you're unsure, Deborah Madison, author of Local Flavors: Cooking and Eating from America's Farmers' Markets, suggests talking to the market manager (look for an official with a name tag who walks around the market or works in a booth raising money for the market). With the popularity of farmers' markets leading to all sorts of ersatz markets popping up, Madison has noticed that "high stallers" (vendors who sell food brought in from a distribution terminal) are a more common sight. "If all those apples are the exact same size or all those artichokes—which you didn't know even grew in your state—look absolutely perfect, be inquisitive," she counsels. "Ask the seller where their food is from." Browse around the stall. If you live in Atlanta and see flats of strawberries labeled CALIFORNIA GROWN, there's your answer.
5. If a stand is supplementing its selection with produce the staff didn't grow themselves, should I pass it by?
If they're supplementing with stuff they bought at a warehouse to resell, take your business elsewhere, Saltsman advises. The purpose of farmers' markets is to allow farmers to sell directly to the customer, which allows small growers to bypass the middleman and earn a decent price for what they grow. "When a stand offers items it didn't produce but purchased for resale instead, it defeats the purpose of farmers' markets, confuses customers, and undermines their confidence and trust," she explains. "On the other hand," she adds, "some farmers' market systems allow growers to sell a neighbor's produce in order to round out the market's offerings or as a way to help farmers who can't get to the market themselves. The important thing is to remember the intent of a farmers' market and to learn a bit about how yours works."
6. Is it rude to pick through individually sold baskets of produce and switch out bruised items when selecting?
Really rude, says Barbara Spencer, who, with her husband, Bill, owns and operates Windrose Farm in Paso Robles, Calif. Farmers try to use as little packaging as possible, and when they do, it's to protect fragile produce such as peaches, berries, and figs. If you're handling delicate items, you risk bruising them—damaging the merchandise and making it unsalable. Spencer, who has more than 20 years' experience selling at farmers' markets, points out: "If you've just removed a piece of produce from a basket, what are you going to do with it?"
7. How fresh is farmers' market produce compared to, say, what's sold at Whole Foods Market?
"At a real farmers' market, where the farmers come from a short distance away, it's 24 hours or less from earth to table," says Madison. "It's hard for me to believe that Whole Foods or any supermarket can match that." Like many big chain stores, Whole Foods is involved in a distribution system: even when the produce sold there is locally grown, it has to be dropped at a distribution point first, and then trucked from that point to the store.
8. Are the people working the stands involved with the farming?
Rules vary from market to market. Ask the market manager if the market you shop at is a "producer-only" market. Producer-only markets accounted for 63 percent of those surveyed by the USDA in 2005. According to Johnson, resale is forbidden at producer-only markets. Some markets require that producers be present; others allow a producer's employee to do the selling at the market.
9. How long does the produce sit between the time it's harvested and the time it goes to market?
"For a Saturday market, farmers pick on Friday," Madison says. Freshness is a real selling point for a farmers' market, Johnson explains, because "the crops are picked when they're ripe—not when they're ready to be trucked in from a distance."
10. What other questions should I ask vendors?
After you've asked where the farm is located, it's fine to ask to see a producer's certificate. This way, you can verify their organic status and the size of the farm, says Spencer: "The more you know, the better." Find out if the person you're talking to is the farmer or an employee. "As farms expand and go to more and more markets, there are more employees representing the farm," she reports. "Some are very knowledgeable, others not so much." Ask the farmers about their soil practices. What fertilizers and sprays do they use? "We actually love telling customers what we do and how we do it," says Spencer, who's convinced that for farmers' markets, such details are more important than certifications. "Not all small farmers are bureaucracy-friendly. [They often] prefer to spend their time farming," she explains. Finally, if you want to know how to use a certain produce item, ask for tips on cooking it—most farmers love experimenting with what they grow, and they enjoy giving recipes and cooking advice too.
THE ORGANIC EDGE
Thanks to burgeoning consumer awareness, certified organic foods are becoming increasingly popular and prevalent in supermarkets, natural product markets, and farmers' markets. Grown under strict regulation by the USDA with naturally produced fertilizers and nonchemical pest control, they usually carry a slightly higher price tag than mass-produced options—reflecting the increased costs associated with their clean, green production.
Is organic food more nutritious? A 2009 report commissioned by the United Kingdom Food Standards Agency analyzed the results of 55 previous studies and found that organic and conventionally produced foods provide pretty much the same vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. The big advantage to choosing organically raised produce is that it's much lower in chemical residues. This makes a real difference for certain fruit and vegetable crops that tend to be heavily treated with pesticides.
The second advantage is that fewer chemicals used in growing means fewer chemicals ending up in rivers and streams. Worldwide, 6 billion pounds of pesticides are applied to food crops every year. Going organic makes agriculture healthier, not just for you, but for everyone downstream from where crops are grown. So, organic produce is better for you—and for the environment.