Farmers markets have sprouted like weeds in a tomato patch, and they're getting bigger and better all the time. With over 4,800 farmers' markets around the country, most Americans live within a few minutes of one -- even if you live in the White House. But before you go to a farmer's market or green market, it pays to have a few strategies in mind: Take these tips from veterans of farmers markets.
Stay Local to Your Yokel
The closer your farmers' market is to your house, the less driving you'll have to do -- or walking, biking or taking public transit. For a list of local markets, look at the site managed by the USDA or search on Local Harvest, a comprehensive directory of farms, markets and restaurants that support local foods. The Huffington Post even has a slideshow of America's favorite farmers markets.
Go Organic, or Not
Eating organic food has many benefits, both to you and to the environment. But the process of getting certified as an organic grower is expensive and time-consuming, so many small farmers use some organic techniques -- like avoiding synthetic pesticides -- and skip the certification process. Either way, ask the farmer how the food is grown if it's a concern to you.
Most growers provide plastic bags to folks who need them, but by bringing your own bags or backpack you're reducing their costs, as well as the flow of petrochemicals into landfills. Consider a sturdy bag with comfortable handles or a shoulder strap; insulated bags are great for keep-cool purchases. If you're buying herbs, bring a few reusable plastic bags for them; a damp paper towel will keep them hydrated and fresh.
Early Birds at the Farmers Market
There are plenty of Average Joes and Janes at farmers markets, but professional chefs also shop there, and they start early to get the best available foods. If that's a priority, do like the pros and show up when the market opens. Remember, however, that vendors often restock throughout the day, and by getting there at the crack of dawn you might miss out on the fun, more social aspects of the market. Some folks walk a full circuit of the market to check everything out before they decide what and where to buy.
Making a List, Checking It … Not
Part of the fun of a farmers market is discovering the vast array of foods available there -- heirloom apples you've never heard of, carrots in colors you've never seen, and honey in flavors you've never tasted. Unlike standard supermarkets, where you can usually count on finding the same things month after month, farmers markets let growers show off the best in seasonal produce. Allow yourself to be surprised, and instead of slavish adherence to a prepared list, grab those exotic-looking berries and apples while they're still available.
Cash on the Barrelhead
Unfortunately, food at farmers markets isn't as cheap as it is at most supermarkets, but the quality is usually incomparably better, so don't go looking for bargains -- look instead for great, fresh food that's not available elsewhere. Some markets are able to accept food stamps, WIC cards and other government services; some vendors can also take credit cards. But cash is always best, and most growers appreciate small bills.
Talk to Me
One of the many advantages of farmers markets is the chance to actually have a conversation with regional farmers and other folks who are producing the local food you and your family eat. Not only can you find out how that artisanal cheese is made, you can also ask when your favorite white peaches will be available, how the early frost affected the apple crop, and what's the best way to prepare that summer squash you've never baked. Establishing a relationship with the men and women who grow your food is like having your own personal farmer.
The Farmers Market and Your Social Agenda
Farmers markets aren't just about the food; besides getting to know growers, you can also get to know the folks in your community who share your love of good food and green living. It's a great opportunity to share a recipe, meet the new neighbors, and have fun. Markets are also a great way to introduce kids to green living, but dogs might not be welcome -- Rover's love of free-range chicken sausage could overwhelm his obedience training.
Some markets also feature live music, cooking demonstrations and discussions of local politics. Like country music legend Guy Clark said, "There's only two things that money can't buy, and that's true love and homegrown tomatoes." With a little luck, you might find both at your local farmers market.