5 Strategies for Getting the Most from Your Farmers' Market

farmers market bounty photo

Photo credit: NatalieMaynor @ flickr

We’ve devoted plenty of space to the benefits -- both health and environmental -- of eating locally: buying food produced near your home lowers your carbon footprint; decreases the energy used to transport and package the food; provides you with juicier fruits, crisper produce, and more mouthwatering cheeses; and supports your local economy. But, we know, your first trip can be a little intimidating, especially this time of year, when the season is about to end. Where to start? What to buy? Whether you’re a market newbie or an already-devoted locavore, follow these guidelines to get the most out of your next trip.

market bike photo

Photo credit: Crystl @ flickr

1) Be Prepared

The beauty of a farmer’s market is that it’s not like a grocery store: none of those fake lights, vegetable-misting machines, or tropical fruits pretending to be January staples. But that also means you’ll need to plan ahead in ways you wouldn’t for a trip to the supermarket: hit the ATM ahead of time (most vendors take cash instead of credit), go early to get the best selection, and keep the market green by bringing a canvas bag to cart home your goodies. Not sure where to go? Find your nearest farmer’s market .

market questions photo

Photo credit: *clairity* @ flickr
2) Ask Questions

No one knows the market better than the farmers who stock it, so don’t be hesitant to pick their brains while you’re there: find out who has the best lettuce, which fruit stand sells the freshest peaches, and what exactly that weird-looking veggie can be made into (see number 4). Grill the stand owners about their own methods, too: is everything organic? Sustainably grown? Truly local? Getting the full details from the person who’s seen this plant grow from seed to sale lets you feel confident that you’re making a good buy.

market tomatoes photo

Photo credit: House of Sims @ flickr

3) Get it While You Can

Eating locally is more difficult in the winter —it is, after all, asking a lot to expect those farmers to stand outside in the wind and hail every weekend—but Mother Nature is smart enough to serve up foods full of the vitamins and nutrients we need each season, like beta carotene, antioxidants, and vitamin A to ward off winter colds. Stock up on turnips, carrots, and potatoes now and, since man can’t live by root vegetables alone, brighten up those long winter days with canned, preserved, or frozen berries, peaches, plums, tomatoes, zucchini, and herbs.

stinging nettles photo

Photo credit: tillwe @ flicker

4) Open Your Mind (and Your Mouth)

You’d let the woman at the Origins counter suggest a new lipstick, right? Or the guy at the Apple store talk you into the upgrade? Think of shopping a farmer’s market the same way: these people are pros, and if they’re selling it, it’s worth trying—even if it’s something you’ve never heard of, like stinging nettles or yellow boletus. Some organic finds might even replace your old standbys—try pairing fair trade coffee with locally made desserts. (Keep up with Planet Green for more farmer’s market recipes.)

market berries photo

Photo credit: RhettMaxwell @ flickr

5) Know What to Bypass

There are farmers who make use of every kind of greenhouse technology they can think of to keep your table full of fresh produce all year long—and while we know that’s tempting, keep in mind the carbon footprint of the energy required to keep those berries blooming when there’s snow on the ground. And some crops—like rice, which is a major cash crop in Bangladesh and an even bigger resource drain when grown in California—are best sourced from their original locations. Keep an eye out for foods that aren’t native to your region and ask a few extra questions about the techniques used to produce them, then decide for yourself if the joy of strawberry shortcake is worth the environmental impact.

More about farmers' markets

How to Go Green: Eating Think About What You Eat, Not Just Where It Comes From Eating Local Food: The Movement, Locavores, and More Frugal Green Living: Find Your Dinner at the Farmers' Market GreenLeaf Market: An Online Farmers' Market The Produce Riddle Part 1: Organic vs. Local

Related Content on Treehugger.com