Navigate the Farmers' Market Like a Pro

diet shopping Jun 30, 2016

There are three kinds of farmers' market shoppers. Some of us are all business: we know what we want, and we aim to get in and out as quickly as possible. Others enjoy wandering--touching, tasting, smelling, and talking with different producers and farmers--and letting this experience guide and influence what we cook for dinner that night and for the rest of the week. And some of us leave empty-handed because we just don't know what to buy.

Regardless of what kind of farmers' market shopper you are, the guidelines below can help you optimize your purchases.

Four Tips to Navigate the Farmer's Market

Strawberries | Ramp Bulbs | Stinging Nettle | Asparagus | Edible Flowers | Tomatoes

Berried Treasures Farm | Madura Farm | Shushan Valley Hydro Farm | Windfall Farms

1. Get to know the farmers and their farming practices. Since farming methods vary from one farm to the next, the produce can reflect these relationships between farmers and their land. These farmers are likely eating more of their own product than anyone else, so if they radiate some degree of wellness then that can be a signal of healthier produce. After all, you are what you eat.

Get to know the farmers, and develop relationships. When they answer your questions, assess if they appear confident and proud of the quality of their produce. Once you identify a couple of farmers/producers you trust, your market experience will become a smoother ritual.

 2. Remember that not all organic produce are labeled "organic." Small farmers often find securing an “Organic” certification too difficult and expensive to pursue. Yet, some of these producers are actually operating beyond “Organic” standards, and utilizing biodynamic, permacultural, & intentional farming practices. That’s why it's always worthwhile to get to know our farmers, and to use our common sense.

If a farmer’s booth isn’t clearly labeled “Organic,” it doesn’t necessarily mean they are using harmful pesticides. So then how can you tell if a farm is organic or not? One hint is if the produce looks imperfect: crops grown without sprays are often smaller and have more cosmetic imperfections than their conventional counterparts. For example, the strawberries in the photo shown above were bought at NYC's Union Square Farmers' Market and came from Berried Treasures Farm, a farm located in upstate New York. Berried Treasures was not labeled “Organic,” and when asked what kind of sprays they used on their berries, the vendor proudly replied: “None.” This made sense because these strawberries were the smallest, and most imperfect-looking of the markets' options.

3. Bring your own containers and bags. Plastic containers can leach chemicals, such as phthalates and BPA, into the food they are holding. Instead, you can avoid plastics by bringing your own containers made of healthier materials, like glass mason jars (great for cheeses, pickles, or anything else that is sold in bulk), and cloth or paper bags (for garlic, tomatoes, etc.). For larger, or your collective, purchases, bring your own baskets, carts on wheels, and canvas bags. Healthier materials include straw, grass, and wood; these have been used for thousands of years around the world. These alternatives to plastics will help preserve the purity of your produce and protect our environment. 

4. Be organic. Many variables influence a crop's availability. If we aim to buy our food from local farmers, it helps to understand this reality so we can manage our expectations. When shopping, a good rule of thumb is to go with the flow. Instead of arriving with an exact shopping list, welcome change and variety, and let freshness and availability guide you. For instance, if apples are on the shopping list, but the only organic ones available are apples that were grown in New Zealand (long trips increase the likelihood that even organic apples were contaminated along the way), then consider alternatives such as grapes. If there's no kale, then reach for the swiss chard! Aligning ourselves with an "organic" diet will eventually also align our attitudes with a more natural and unburdened state of being. Nature is not rigid, and therefore, the farm--and the farmers' market--is no place for rigidity!

Use This Cheat Sheet:

  • Get a lay of the land. First, do a quick walk-through to scan all the vendors and their offerings.
  • Identify 2-3 vendors you feel inclined to visit. Keep in mind that smaller-looking operations can indicate that there were less hands involved in the growing process, and it's likely that you'll be able to speak to the the farmer or owner directly. As an added bonus, these booths tend to have shorter lines!
  • Speak with the farmer(s). If there's not already a sign that says "Organic" hanging in their booth, ask them what kind of sprays they use on their produce. Try to spot a trustworthy vendor: They should be knowledgeable about their growing practices, and should answer your questions without much hesitation. Look for farmers who seem to share your values--ones that don't get defensive when questions are asked, but rather, take pride in explaining their processes. If you don't feel comfortable with your experience, thank them for their time and keep moving! 
  • Be flexible. From each of the 2-3 vendors you do end up trusting, select your produce based on what looks best. Snap peas may have been on your shopping list, but if the farmer is only selling beautiful purple asparagus, then consider buying the asparagus. Get used to going with what’s in front of you-- what’s available. 
  • Try something completely new! Ask your farmer what to do with produce that you've never heard of. Many studies show that a diverse diet helps cultivate your gut microbiome. Sometimes that fruit, vegetable, or herb you’ve never heard of has vitamins and minerals that will be nourishing for your body. Remember that when working with new produce, always ask the grower how best to prepare it.

Want to see what gorgeous meal was prepared after our fruitful trip to the farmers' market? Click here for Inspired By the Bounty: Recipe for Massaged Kale Salad with Strawberries, Edible Flowers, and Toasted Pistachios.

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