Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Tips for Successful Farmers' Market Shopping

You may have seen that the Rockford Register Star has started to feature items of local foods interest on their Go Green blog and printed in the GO Section each Wednesday. This week the printed article was mine but, due to space limitations, the article was edited down (understandable). Here is the article in full:

Farm Market Shopping

Spring is officially here and most of our area farmers’ markets are up and running! There is a farmers’ market in our area almost every day of the week and any time of day (see list below) so you have many opportunities to add some local produce and other food items to your weekly meals.

It will be a few weeks before most of the markets are in full-swing in terms of number of vendors and breadth of selection but there are already good local eating options at each market. In the last few weeks I’ve seen asparagus, lettuces and spring mix greens (some with edible flowers!), spinach, baby radishes and other tender baby vegetables, and rhubarb, as well as jams/jellies and fruit juices made from local produce. Several vendors are also selling seedlings; young vegetable plants that you can take home and put in your own garden or container to grow your own and supplement what you have to purchase this summer.

As you have probably noticed if you’ve visited area markets, much of the food that is sold is local and was grown by the person selling it but some of it is not. So how do you know what you’re buying is locally grown and not just something grown elsewhere that a vendor bought from a wholesaler?

Here are a few tips on smart market shopping.

  • Talk to the person at the table. This is one of the benefits of shopping local markets; you can get to know the people who grow your food personally. Some of the vendors have family or employees staffing their tables but even they should be able to answer some basic questions.
  • Questions to ask. How long have you been growing food? Where is your farm? How do you grow/raise this? What do you fertilize with? How do your control weeds? Do you have help? Do you sell at any other local markets? Is this from your own farm? Did you, personally, grow this? (sometimes it’s best to just get directly to the point)
  • Answers to raise suspicion.

- “I have a farm…” down south, up north, etc. – this doesn’t mean the farm is around here and it doesn’t even mean the vendor owns/rents it or does any of the growing her/himself. It is a good possibility that the vendor drives somewhere to buy produce to resell.

- Evasiveness on answering questions about their farm or growing practices – use your judgement here: if the vendor is swamped with people or still setting up, they might not be able to easily answer your questions. Also, they may not want to give away their trade secrets, but if they truly don’t want to answer your questions or give shady answers, maybe it’s best to find another seller who has what you want.

- “We sell at every market in the area.” – Here you need a follow-up question about staffing – maybe they’ve hired someone to staff their booth but if not, how can a producer be preparing for and staffing a market table (a lot of work to harvest, wash, pack, load, unload, and staff for hours) and growing your food (time spent weeding, watering, tending, planting, etc.).

  • Give a little latitude. Some vendors grow much of what they sell but supplement the variety of foods on their market table by buying select items from local or not-so-local sources. Consider this: regional food is good too (unless you’re on the 100-mile diet, peaches from southern Illinois or cherries from Michigan are great additions to your local-food-laden table). If you want only to buy what you know is truly local, then ask that vendor what they grew and buy those items (keep asking as produce will change each week as the growing season progresses).
  • Know what’s in season. The Winnebago County Extension Office has created a list of what's in season when in our area so you can arm yourself with this information when head to the market. Corn or tomatoes in June? Fresh strawberries in August? Tropical fruit? Probably not from around here.
  • One more consideration. Food at farmers’ markets is usually very reasonably-priced. However, the producers who are selling their food are there not only because they enjoy it but because they are working hard to make a living. Sometimes, the prices we pay at large grocery stores are not representative of the actual cost of food production and those stores may be underpaying their producers in order to offer things below-cost or at lower cost to consumers. Just know that much more of your food dollar is staying in our community when you shop local markets and the producers are receiving a fair price. Some vendors will discount produce at the very end of the market so they don’t have to take it home. However, many producers have multiple outlets for their produce and won’t discount at any time.
  • Use your own shopping bag. Not only is it easier to sling a couple of long-handled canvas bags over your shoulder and navigate the market without plastic bag handles cutting through your hands, but it’s environmentally preferred AND it helps keep costs down… the fewer disposable bags vendors have to buy, the less they have to charge!

I’ll see you at the farmers’ market this summer – Happy shopping (and happy eating!).

List of local markets (in alphabetical order):

See the Winnebago County Extension's Local Foods Directory for details and location information for each market.

· Beloit Farmers Market – June-October – Saturdays 8am-1pm

· Belvidere Farmers Market and Crafts – June-October – Saturdays 8am-noon

· Byron Sunshine Park Farmers Market – through October 4th – Saturdays 8-11:30am

· Colonial Village Mall Farmers Market – May-October – Fridays 9am-1pm

· Edgebrook Farmers Market – May-October – Wednesdays 9am-1pm

· Klehm Arboretum and Botanic Gardens Farmers Marks – June 16-September 22 - Mondays 4-7pm

· Midtown Market – May 15-October 16 – Fridays 3-8pm

· North End Commons Farmers Market – May-October – Saturdays 9am-noon

· Perryville Farmers Market – June 7-September – Saturdays 9am-1pm

· River District Farmers Markets – YMCA of Rockford - May 27-October 25 – Tuesdays and Saturdays 8am-Noon

· Rochelle Farmers Market – through September – Thursdays 2-6pm

· Roscoe Main Street Square Farmers Market – May-October – Thursdays and Saturdays 9am-1pm

· Winnebago Farmers Market – May-October – Fridays 4-7pm

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