There are lots of reasons to find a favorite farmer’s market. Maybe you just enjoy the camaraderie or gathering with like-minded people. Maybe you’re trying to eat better, and want to know the source of your food. You’re sick of the fights over labeling, and have decided it’s time to take control of what goes in your mouth. Perhaps you just enjoy free entertainment and great food.
The USDA loosely defines a farmer’s market as “two or more farm vendors selling agricultural products directly to customers at a common, recurrent physical location.” On-site farm sales, where a single farm opens for direct sale to consumers, is called a “farm market”. Both can be wonderful places, but I’m going to focus on getting the most from your time and money, which usually means multiple vendors.
Not all farmer’s markets are created equally. I enjoy finding the local farmer’s market when I travel, then cooking up a truly local food experience for dinner, or just discovering a new fruit. I don’t so much enjoy discovering a “market” that is really more of a flea market. Whether you’re traveling and want a new experience, or you’re searching for something closer to home, you can follow the same easy steps. Ask yourself the questions and follow the tips below.
Registered or Not?
Farmer’s markets in the United States register with the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), and their state’s corresponding agency. This helps the government track down the source of any potential problems resulting from home-canned items or unwashed veggies*. Registered markets should have liability insurance, and are subject to USDA inspection. By their own admission, the USDA generally leaves markets alone unless there’s a problem, but you know this market is willing to be transparent should an issue arise. Markets registered with the USDA also promise to ensure that all products are properly labeled, and that potential problems are reported. It adds a measure of accountability to the vendors, and protection to shoppers.
Unregistered markets are difficult to find online, since most reputable sites pull data from the USDA. Sometimes, folks who started a market don’t know they should register. Other markets operate under the radar, out of rebellion or an attempt to avoid taxes. Either way, there’s no knowing if products are affected. They may be wonderful foods sold by the hands that grew them, or they might be poorly-canned pickles that make you sick. I support the free market, so while I do not promote law-breaking, I understand the desire to rebel. Just know that if something were to make you sick, if you need recourse due to injury, it might be difficult. Also, consider your comfort with buying from an “illegal” fruit stand. Might be nonsensical, but that’s what it is. Some folks support them as a form of non-violent protest. Others balk at breaking laws rather than changing them. Your call, my friends – until the rules change.
To make it easier, here’s the link to the USDA list – you can filter it to find your location. And here’s Local Harvest, a site that allows markets to add themselves to their list. You might also begin your search at Local Farm Markets, a site for vendors and customers to leave information.
Do You Want to Meet A Farmer?
I went to a lovely market in Columbus, Ohio. It was billed as a “farmer’s market” on some travel website. In fact, there were two booths that held local produce. The rest of the vast indoor market was filled with exotic spices, kitchenware, crafts, and some wonderful restaurants. A great time, but not what we anticipated. Neither was the market in a downtown area near home, where bananas and peaches were offered in early June. There’s no prolific banana farm in Ohio, and the boxes spilling from the back of the van were clearly labeled “Chiquita”. Many vendors were selling wholesale produce from box trucks.
If your purpose is to know the source of your food, you’ll want to be able to talk to the person who grew it. None of these other options is inherently bad; in fact they can be pretty great if what you want is a fun thing to do when you have money to burn. But if you want to learn about food, you’ll need growers.
Once you’ve chosen a market, find their website or check their Facebook page. One of those places should offer a list of current vendors, and most will have links to the vendor’s website as well. Judge whether the vendors listed include what you need! You can also Snap their Chats, watch for their Instant Grams, listen when they Twitter. They’ll tell you what to expect in just a few posts. If you’re cool with box trucks, look for them in the photos. If you want lots of crafts, some markets have entire “flea market” sections to boast. Those with classes, proud growers, and skilled artisans will show those folks at work, or re-post from those farmers.
Do You Want to Learn About Your Food?
Many farmer’s markets offer classes or demonstrations. Even better for parents, many offer these same things for kids! If this is your real interest, check the market’s website or social media for times and details. Individual vendors may also offer short tutorials on using their foods or how they grow. Discovering these gems may take a little more work, like tracking down a vendor to their own Facebook page (preferably their business page) or their website. It doesn’t take more than a few minutes to follow or friend them and see what they offer!
Classes and instructional offerings vary widely. One market, in a genius move, worked with a local chef. He’d find out what was going to be available at the market, develop recipes, and demonstrate to customers the best ways to use those unfamiliar veggies. Another market has a permanent children’s garden, where the kids learn to plant, chart growth, identify weeds, and eventually harvest food. Some may showcase one or two vendors each week, allowing them to show off their specific skills and share their secrets with you. Large markets may offer several different classes each week, or full series of classes throughout the season. And these things are usually free or at very low cost.
Is Local Important to You?
As I mentioned above, not all farmer’s markets are selling goods from the farmer a few miles away. When you check the social media pages, can you see commercial boxes poking out from the booths? Do they list the vendors for you to peruse ahead of time? Are those farms what you consider “local”? Do you care?
It’s certainly not a bad or suspicious thing for a real local farmer to use commercial boxes for simple transport. so be careful throwing people under the bus without reason. But if eating local is your focus, you have to do a little more than just go to something called a farmer’s market. You’ll have to use the advice above, and check to see that there are actual farmers at this market. But if there are enough clues that this might not be what you’re looking for, ask around. Read reviews. Comment with your question on another post (be polite). E-mail and ask directly if there are a lot of “box trucks” with out-of-town food, or more truly local vendors. You may get your answer that way, or you may have to visit. A visit will tell you pretty quickly who is local and who isn’t.
For more information on finding local food from other sources, see the USDA site on all local foods here.
Do You Really Want to Go?
Once you’ve found a farmer’s market or two that seem to suit your preferences, don’t assume you’ll remember to go. Set an alarm in your phone. Put it on your calendar. Tell whatever personal assistant you use to yell at you the day before. Fill up your gas tank if it’s going to be a drive. Sometimes, getting to a great market means making an effort, finding a carpool, or figuring out a new bus schedule. It’s a much easier experience if you do these things in advance – you’re far more likely to actually get up and go if you have a solid plan for getting there and getting home.
If your most “local” farmer’s market is still pretty far, maybe you don’t go every week. A little planning will help you buy fruits and veggies to use now, and how to best store those for use next week. Schedule on the dates when the classes meet your needs – like growing indoors at home so you don’t have to make the trip to the market as often. Let someone else take the soccer carpool, and don’t schedule on the date of your daughter’s big game. You can do this, and if you think you can’t, you probably need to schedule this kind of time for yourself. I can think of worse reasons for skipping book club than learning to better feed your family. And the snacks you bring when it’s your turn will be far superior, too!
What’s Your Favorite Farmer’s Market?
Help my readers, and support your market! Post a link to your favorite farmer’s market in the comments below. It can be their website, Facebook page, blog, or other social media outlet. Tell us why you love it, whether you’re a vendor or a customer. Most important, don’t forget to tell us where we can find this market, to make it easy for people like me. I don’t want to have to click on every link just to find that market is 1,000 miles from where I am. Neither do you, and you know it.
*Things I Shouldn’t Have to Clarify, But Will
Most home producers are excessively careful with their products, because the thought of making someone sick can be almost paralyzing. Many larger companies have the benefit of money and attorneys, and can survive a few people getting salmonella. Your local vendor can’t. Don’t let the great cautions around home canning make you wary – ask questions if you like, but remember that one illness can put this person out of business. They stood over boiling fruit, huge pots of hot water, and pressure cookers full of jars. They didn’t decide at the last minute to take some chances and not sterilize the jars properly. The same goes for dairy products and meats – most small farmers are much more cautious with their livestock than huge companies. (Not all companies, not all vendors, of course.)
And wash your blasted veggies. Seriously. If they’re conventionally grown, they’re likely dusted with pesticides or herbicides. If they’re organic, they grew in poo or other compost, and don’t have the “benefit” of chemical pesticides. So there could be an occasional critter. Unless you picked it yourself after a rainfall and are OK with the possibility of sharing your food with a not-so-hungry caterpillar, take two minutes and give it a rinse. You have time for that. You do not have time for illness because you were rushed or feeling too hungry that day.