Nine Tips for Digging Through Local Farmers Markets

It didn't take a study of Vermont farmers markets to tell us what we knew for a long time: Supermarkets aren't cheaper. That being said and this being spring, it's a good time to riff on farmers' markets, plus give you a few shopping tips on how to navigate them.

1. Find Your Market
I always assumed this was easy. Ask around in your neighborhood, read the local paper, and somewhere, someplace, there's some mention of farmers' markets, opening hours, and weeks of operation. After moving from San Francisco to Dallas I was shown the error of my ways. Two websites helped me get back into the game, LocalDirt and LocalHarvest, both of which sport large databases of markets sorted by distance and seasons and days. Yelp isn't that bad of an idea, either.

Another way for me to get the goods on the goods was to email a whole range of local bloggers. Some responded; some even made sense. After a week of all that I had my list, a small list of currently open farmers' markets and a bonus list of CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) and local meat sellers.

2. Go Early
This goes against anything a weekend should stand for, but believe me, the earlier you go, the better the selection. Like finding a market, I assumed this to be general knowledge until I read market descriptions on Yelp and found a lot of "nice place but bad selection" reviews, all of which after a little prodding told me that, yes, they'd been there after 10 in the morning. Hit the hay for another hour afterward if you must (and I certainly do), but be there at opening.

In some cases it helps, after establishing a relationship, to call ahead or order the week before. My favorite meat purveyor always gets my order the Sunday ahead and has my phone number in case something cool comes in (last week he called me about a half hog he could get me, I said yes, of course, and went to buy another freezer from Lowe's).

3. Ask Questions
One of the most annoying things in restaurants, diners asking "where does this come from" about every single piece of food we send out, is actually a must when buying from farmers' market sellers. Quite a few booths seek to amend their offerings and expand their reach by
reselling Costco produce or Sysco delivered fruits and vegetables. That stuff is better bought somewhere else, if at all, and defeats the purpose of farmers selling their stuff. Don't get up early to buy Mexican tomatoes, all I am saying.

Our local farmers depend on markets and shops to sell their produce. The alternative, selling to large warehouse concerns, usually comes at the price of one's soul and lifelong bonds to the buyer. Aside from supermarkets and the frozen foods section, those local sellers also face stiff competition within farmer's markets from the above mentioned resellers. By buying and insisting on local you'll support your local economy, job creation, and get better product in the process. It's a win/win.

4. Buy Food
Today's farmers markets are a weird mix of food and non-food items. From insurance policies to seashell jewelry, from ice cream to Fushigi balls. Balls and insurance agents aren't farmers or produce, so skip over them. This is a little bit the opposite of P.J. O'Rourke's "don't vote, it only encourages the bastards." Vote, vote, vote, with your wallet. I know it's tempting to snag up a genuine crystal pyramid that is guaranteed to improve your test scores by 60 percent and
makes you sleep better if placed on a windowsill facing north, but -- again -- don't get up early to buy miracle cures and car wash products.

5. Get Frisky
Do get frisky with your product. If it's meat, pick it up (it should be vacuum sealed) and check for freezer burn or, if its unfrozen, for ice crystals and mushiness. If it's produce, ask to take a bite, check for bruising and for discoloration. One doesn't have to be an expert in fruits and veggies to see what's worth it. Again, this exercise not only brings you closer to your food (and don't we all need to get a little bit more frisky with our dishes?), it also helps you pick out the stuff that you came for -- fresh, seasonal and local.

6. Speaking of Seasonal
Buying a tomato out of its local season guarantees its origin to be somewhere far, far, away. Don't buy out of season. That might mean you won't have the asparagus souffle for dinner, but who wants a crappy tasting hothouse item from Chile when there's better foods, grown in season, right next to it? The National Resources Defense Council has a database of in-season fruits and vegetables that helped me out a lot.

7. Bring the Right Stuff
At the very least bring cash (something I forget in this credit card world quite often). Some places have ATMs that charge outrageous fees, so better bring your budget in cash and leave it at that. Reusable bags are another one of those "must bring" items. I always have three in the back of my car along with a small cooler which, should I buy perishables, I fill with ice from a gas station nearby on my way out.

I also bring a stack of business cards since many vendors will call you if they get something cool in. Last, but not least, bring a friend or two and come hungry -- wouldn't be a farmer's market if we didn't make a trip out of it and had coffee and cake afterward.

8. Try the Bread
I wouldn't have guessed, but it appears that the first sign-ups for most any farmers' market operator I spoke to are bakers. Apparently there's more of them than any other group. And, given the competitive market, they'll bake their heart out for you. Skip over the supermarket aisle bread next time and get yours from a farmers' market.

9. Egg'd
Another surprise to me was to find out that many sellers do carry eggs. But because 40 states have extremely rigid licensing requirements for egg sellers, those generally don't get displayed. Ask around, some might give them to you as a gift and charge you for the carton they come in. Worried about salmonella? Don't be, if they're trustworthy enough to sell you lettuce (which, statistically, gets you sick much more often and more easily) they can be trusted with eggs.

Take it from there, go out and have some fun at your local markets. There's nothing cooler than driving home, planning a meal in your head, and knowing it will taste great thanks to local and fresh produce and meats. Did I miss any websites or tips? Please do let me know in the comments.

Follow City of Ate on Twitter: @cityofate.

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