Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Heading to the Farmers Market Soon? Read this before you go!

I LOVE going to farmers markets. It's one of my favorite things to do whether I'm at school, home, or in a new place! Farmers markets bring people--of all ages and backgrounds--together in a community space to not only buy food, but to share a cultural experience. It's an experience that you don't ever see in the grocery store--customers are engaging with each other and the people that actually grow their food, kids and dogs are running around, and everyone has a smile on their face as they reconnect with their food, the earth, and one another.

Summer is of course the best time for farmers markets as everyone is out enjoying the sunshine and fruits and veggies are in peak season! Who doesn't love getting fresh strawberries and spinach to toss for a salad with local goat cheese on top? There are so many benefits from shopping at your local farmers market. First, you get an opportunity to redefine your relationship with food and those who grow it. Going to the market is an opportunity to meet the individual who spends HOURS, DAYS, WEEKS, preparing, growing, and harvesting the local goods for you to consume. Having a relationship with the person who grows and raises your food is invaluable and a chance to learn more about how they grow it and oftentimes you can even visit the farm! Secondly, you are stimulating the local economy. When you shop local, each dollar you spend is circulated an average of 3X within the community! Oftentimes, young, small, and beginning farmers use the market as an incubator for their business, so you are also helping small businesses and entrepreneurs survive and flourish! Thirdly, shopping at farmers markets helps preserve farmland and rural livelihoods. One last benefit (and of course there are so many more!) is access to fresh food that hasn't traveled hundreds of miles. While there isn't any scientific evidence of difference in nutritional quality, a tomato just picked yesterday will always taste better than one from the grocery ;)

As great as farmers markets are, there are five things to keep in mind when buying from the farmers market so that you have the most authentic buying experience:

Radius and Regulations:
Every farmers market has a different requirement as far as distance traveled from farm to market. In most cases it is an average of 50 miles, meaning the farm or home that goods were made in must be within a 50 mile radius from the market. However, some may not have a radius distinguished and since technically local is defined as within 300 miles, you could be getting food and products from two states over! There are also other regulations that vary including the use of GMO's, resale goods, and some markets even have specifications on baked goods like all ingredients must be local, or they may not, meaning you might just be buying boxed brownies! My recommendation is to check out your farmers market's vendor regulations which you can usually find online or from the market director/coordinator.

Organic Certification:

One thing I often see is that a farm vendor claims to be "organic". While they may use organic practices and take awesome care of their land and harvest, there is always the chance that they are just claiming that. The best way to ensure organic or any other type of production claim is to talk to the farmer, understand how they farm, and visit the farm. If organic is your thing and absolutely important, you'll want to ask if they are USDA Organic Certified. It's a daunting process, so for me personally, I feel better knowing my farmer and how they farm versus whether they actually have a certification or not.

Health:

I, personally, have never had a bad experience, but note that not all farmers markets have strict sanitary and cleaning requirements. Because the products you buy have most likely NOT been inspected by an official, know that you are taking a risk and that you should always wash your fruits and veggies! Raw milk is of course a dicey issue and not recommended unless you grew up on it! Also keep in mind that just because something was grown "natural" or "organic" doesn't mean that lower chemical level pesticides/herbicides were applied and that animals and bugs have most likely come across the produce just like those sold commercially.

Seasonality:

While it seems second nature, oftentimes we get so excited to purchase fresh and direct that we forget to think about what's actually in season. This doesn't tend to happen in smaller markets, in bigger city ones vendors may prey on shopper ignorance and sell fruits and veggies straight from the grocery store. Yikes!I experienced this last summer at the Minneapolis Farmers Market. There were lots of honest, authentic vendors, but also a few larger ones who had all sorts of tomatoes, zucchini, mangoes, and bananas for sale in the beginning of June--obviously not in season or even grown in Minnesota! So how do you avoid this? Consult a seasonality chart. Here is a general one:

fruits-vegetables-herbs-when-are-they-in-season

There are also ones that have been developed for specific states and these are links to ones for Virginia, North Carolina, and Minnesota!
http://www.vdacs.virginia.gov/vagrown/pdf/producechart.pdf
http://www.ncagr.gov/markets/availabilitychart.pdf
http://www.mda.state.mn.us/~/media/Files/food/minnesotagrown/producecalendar.ashx

Oftentimes, the farmer will tell you when the produce was harvest or meat was slaughtered. This is a good indication of how soon you should consume the goods and one quick tip is to look at the bottom of stems on veggies and make sure they are still moist and not hardened over, which would indicate longer time from picking.

I hope these few tips will help make your market experience better and I encourage you to ask questions to the farmers and get more connected with where your food is coming from! Happy shopping!


Our loot from the Minneapolis Farmers Market!


Resources:

http://farmersmarketcoalition.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/08/WhyMarkets_August2013.jpg
http://www.dailyinfographic.com/fruitsvegetablesherbs-when-are-they-in-season-infographic
http://newhope360.com/news/infographic-what-fruits-and-vegetables-are-season

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