My first memory of farm-fresh vegetables comes from a decidedly unbustling place, a farm stand that stood hot and unprotected from sun and road dust at the edge of the still-unpaved road to the lake, a small space carved out of a farm field, the farmhouse itself hidden behind trees up a long driveway. The wooden stall was unmanned and payment was on the "honor system" -- a coffee can with a slit in the plastic top, cash only, of course, except for the occasional IOU. I suspect that the stall double-dutied as a school bus shelter during northern Minnesota's long winters.
These days, farmers markets are big business but mostly, still-charming and local endeavors that rise to life one day a week during the growing season. Many towns, even small towns, have their own farmers markets. When I started writing A Veggie Venture in 2005, there were two farmers markets in the St. Louis area -- the granddaddy of them all, Soulard Market, which claims to be the oldest farmers market west of the Mississippi River and a weekly year-round Saturday stop for me during my first ten years living here; and my hometown market, Kirkwood Market. Now St. Louis has 39 markets -- 39! -- across the metro area. (Here's St. Louis Post-Dispatch list of local farmers markets.)
With the explosion of new farmers markets, this means that many of us are venturing into farmers markets for the first time, not knowing exactly what to expect, what we might encounter, what's there to bring home. I've been writing this post in my head for three years, collecting tips and ideas in pixels the whole time and now, have finally put them all into cogent (I hope!) form.
Modern Retail Stores Are Wonderful But Warp Our Expectations
Every time we shop at one of these stores, we participate in a global food distribution system that (among other things) imports fresh produce from all over the world. It's an amazing system: Missouri has no grapefruit, no Meyer lemons, no artichokes, no mangoes. So without an international -- national! -- distribution system, we'd miss out on many food treasures.
But these stores also warp our expectations. We have been taught that it's "normal" to expect the full range of fresh vegetables and fruits all year round. So many of us have lost touch with the seasonality of produce -- and meat and dairy, too, but that's another story. If we ever knew, we've forgotten which vegetables and fruits are in season during which month. Our eyes and our tastebuds don't recognize what really fresh produce looks -- and tastes -- like.
We're also accustomed to produce that's perfect in appearance which rarely, if ever, runs out.
We rarely have names and faces for our grocery stores' produce people, let alone for men and women who plant, water, weed, pick, clean, package, transport and unpack all those the vegetables and fruits so that we can pick through them for the most perfect specimens 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, in clean and brightly lit stores with amenities like coffee shops, cheese counters, pizza ovens, olive bars and gelato stations.
So A Farmers Market Isn't a Grocery Store
SELECTION A farmers market is more like a quirky thrift store or a good garage sale. There is what there is. If you like the looks of something, buy it now, the season may end in a few days. Or a big hailstorm next week may damage the crop.
TOMATOES DON'T GROW YEAR-ROUND, DON'T EXPECT ASPARAGUS IN SEPTEMBER For some of us, the opening of the farmers markets means "Yay, finally we can get good tomatoes!" But tomatoes are summer crops, not spring crops. (And think about it, we know, don't we? that summer comes earlier in Florida than in Missouri?) In Missouri, we see good Arkansas tomatoes in early July but our own tomatoes won't show up until later in the month but will last well into September and even early October.
WEATHER & AVAILABILITY Weather really does make a difference, even months later. A few years ago, three days of hard freeze over Easter left Missouri bereft of local favorites in July, August and September: we had few peaches, few apples. Second plantings kept the farmers markets busy with other produce but again and again, I saw farmers shake their heads, expressing the tough year.
WEATHER & TASTE Weather affects taste, too. Some years, the apples are better than others, the strawberries and asparagus sweeter. Some years, the cherry tomatoes are better from the farm that happened to get more sun and less rain. This isn't McDonald's, these aren't supermarket tomatoes. You know the caveat emptor for weight-loss promises? It applies here too. "Actual results may vary."
REAL PEOPLE GROW OUR FOOD Some times I wonder how the people who sell at farmers markets do it. They work really hard during the season. Some have "real jobs" in order to keep their families on ground that's been in the family for generations. They spend the day before the market picking and packing and hauling. They often drive a long distance to reach the market at dawn. They unpack. They wait for customers. I saw one man steel his face and turn way, as he overheard one woman say to another, "That corn looks just awful. And he's charging an arm and a leg." Be nice! Be grateful! We don't have to buy what's there but really, let's not knock the fruit of someone else's labors.
THE BEST GRAPEFRUIT HAS MOTTLED UGLY SKIN This is a lesson from my mother, who taught me to reach for the very ugliest grapefruit on the tree. Think of the perfect, umblemished so-called Delicious apples all lined up like red-jacketed soldiers at the grocery store. Right now I'd love to hand out slices of a perfect Delicious apple and a mottled, misshapen apple from the trees down the road. I know which one you'd love.
What to Expect, How to to Get the Most Out of the Experience
'EYES' vs APPETITE It's easy for your 'eyes' to be bigger than your appetite. It all looks so good! To avoid buying more than can be eaten for the week, I start off with a certain amount of cash in my pocket, usually $20 or $30, when the money's gone, I'm done.
CASH IS KING Speaking of cash, cash is the currency of the realm. Small bills are useful. While some times available, don't expect to use a credit card or debit card or to write a check. When getting change back, do check it, not because someone's out to cheat but because honest mistakes are easy to make when running a booth in a setting with so many distractions.
BARGAINS? In my experience, bargains are few and far between at a farmers market -- though others report otherwise -- and produce is nearly always more expensive than the grocery store. I'm not sure the products are comparable -- at a farmers market, we're paying for freshness, for varieties stores don't sell, for contributions to our local economies. A bunch of beets isn't always about the beets. (Update: There's an interesting conversation about this point happening on Kitchen Parade's Facebook page. Please do join in! To be able to comment, you'll need to "like" the page first.)
BARGAINING In my experience, farmers market sellers aren't open to bargaining. You might have better luck if it's late in the day or if the market is empty.
KNOW YOUR MARKET My neighborhood market is open seven days a week but for six of those days, it'd be a sleepy place if it weren't for the shaved ice stand that attracts kids and families well into the evening. It's Saturday mornings when the market is packed with people, but only before noon.
BE AN EARLY BIRD For the best selection, visit a market early in the day, not late in the day.
KNOW YOUR OWN RHYTHM These days, lots of us have choices when it comes to local farmers markets. I happen to love a Wednesday or Thursday market, it fits my cooking rhythm better than a Saturday market. I also like to walk a market twice -- the first time just to look, the second time to make my purchases.
DON'T EXPECT COOKIE CUTTERS It pays to try different markets, too. They'll all be different, all have a little bit different ambience, the vendors will vary too. Over time, you'll also learn which vendors have what suits your taste -- at Soulard Market, I know that Scharf Farms has the best asparagus, strawberries and the sweetest cherry tomatoes you can imagine. I learned all this by regular visits, trying first one and then another.
DOG-FRIENDLY? STROLLER FRIENDLY? Some markets welcome dogs, many do not. In a crowded market, a stroller can be difficult to maneuver.
DON'T SQUEEZE THE CHARMIN Yes, the best way to test a tomato or a peach for freshness is to give it a little squeeze. But if you squeeze the peach, and the next person squeezes the peach and the next person squeezes the peach ... pretty soon that peach is bruised and not sellable. Instead, ask the vendor, "I'm looking for really ripe peach to eat today." (Or "I'd like peaches that will be ripe in several days.") Chances are, the vendor will know.
EXPLORE A LITTLE! Chances are, you'll find vegetables never before experienced -- that's one of the great joys of a market. I remember finding long beans at the Des Moines farmers market in September, soooo many different varieties of apples and potatoes at the St. Paul farmers market in October. I love-love-love a flat-shaped variety of green been called a Romano. For roasting tomatoes, I've learned that Cascades have the meaty flesh that can withstand a long stay in the oven. Garden-fresh okra are gorgeous, so are tiny home-grown strawberries.
HAVE FUN! A farmers market can be a really fun experience, and it's not always about the produce. Run into old friends. Share a recipe with someone. Grab a coffee and hang around to listen to the live music.
And You? What's your best tip for shopping at a farmers market?
Please do chime in -- I'd love to know your thoughts!
famous asparagus-to-zucchini Alphabet of Vegetables.
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