Monday, June 2, 2008

How to successfully raid a farmer's market

Spring is here and now we find ourselves flirting with the gorgeous girl that summer is, however fleeting she may be. Eerily pale New Englanders are beginning to stumble into the daylight, only to discover their chalky white skin will offer absolutely no protection against the growing day light. Floridians are slathering on the SPF 9,000 and Californians are now switching from red to white wines and from blue tinted sun glasses to the more stylish green.

I can say from first hand experience that last winter was hard and brutal. I thought I'd lose my mind on the fourth or fifth midnight furnace watch when the mercury started to dip below -15 F and our kerosene tank started to freeze. But if one thing kept be going through the long, hard winter it was the promise of one thing and one thing only.


In the frozen wasteland that is New Hampshire during the deep freeze of winter everything is either canned, frozen or imported from third world countries below the equator. Which is fine. I like being able to eat, even if it has to either taste like salty mush or come from Brazil with a price tag that'd put hard liquor to shame. But summer offers something different.

Summer offers a taste of local foods. Corn that hasn't traveled more than two zip codes and peaches that you might be able to see growing from the roof of your house. The recent Memorial Day weekend is the unofficial kick off for summer.

So when it's time to honor our veterans farmer's markets and fruit stands begin to set up shop. But this year is different. This year we're finding prices a bit higher than the previous. And with it some yankee traders may attempt to take advantage of fresh food starved, over zealous folk looking to sink their teeth into an affordable habanero pepper.

Some "local" farmers markets may very well be hocking the exact same imported wares that your mega mart was pushing on you during the winter months. Some may provide you with honest locally grown fruits and vegetables, but will put even the most conservative grocer to shame with crazy mark up and substandard quality.

Which is not to say that you should steer clear of the enigmatic farmer's market or roadside fruit stand. You should absolutely support locally owned businesses and reap the benefits of the fleeting summer months, so long as you follow a couple of guidelines.

  • Make sure you know what's in season: There's a reason why apples are dirt cheap in fall. That's when they're harvested in most areas, the market is flooded. The same goes for spring. Spring apples are imported from all over the world, so you may very well be paying more on shipping costs (and spent cargo plane fuel) than the actual fruit itself.

    So do yourself a favor and look for items that are in peak season and stick to them. Do you desperately want an ear of corn in North Dakota, but it's only June 2nd? Chances are your product was flown it from Florida a month prior. Will it be edible? Sure. Will it be cheap? Not a chance.

  • Examine your surroundings: Sometimes you can judge a book by its cover. Are you shopping from a single lonely stand on the highway? Or are you shopping from a group of merchants set up in an empty lot, packed with customers? If business seems steady, the place seems clean and there are multiple vendors to choose from you've almost always found a winning market.

  • Stay away from heavily processed foods: I'm hardly a freegan. But there seems to be something wrong with buying a meat pie from the back of some guy's truck. Plus, buying processed foods takes the point away from the whole concept of shopping at a local market. Who's to say the potatoes and carrots in it weren't canned? Isn't it kind of self defeating?

    That being said there's nothing wrong with buying some maple syrup candy for the kids or a couple of simple bread loaves, so long as they are not outrageously priced. Just remember, the more heavily an item is processed the higher price tag it's going to have.

  • Remember your normal budget: How much would you think a pound of peaches goes for at your local mega mart? Is it comparable to the price at your local fruit stand? If yes, it may very well be the same product that's been imported from who knows where.

  • Talk to those selling you your dinner: It'll do wonders. The Farmer's Market is supposed to be a friendly, casual atmosphere usually held out doors. More often than not the people manning the stands are the same people who grew the plum tomatoes you're looking to stuff.

    Ask questions. What would they take home today? Where did this head of lettuce come from? How has the harvest been so far? You might make a couple of friends. And as a great man once said, "Friend's don't let friend's buy junk."

  • Come prepared: You're not exactly dealing with a Wal-Mart super center and the stand you're shopping from may not even have an electrical outlet to proces your fancy and likely unnecessary American Express card. So bring a fair amount of cash in small denominations.

    And don't forget something to haul away all of your loot. Reusable canvas bags, backpacks and coolers with ice packs are all excellent items to bring to a farmer's market. Always bring more than you think you're going to need, you may very well find a great deal.

  • Steel yourself against things you might not really want: Just because you bring more storage space than you need does not mean you have to leave with sixteen pounds of ruby red grapefruit and four dozen years of corn. If the food is fresh and you find yourself wanting to overbuy, take a break. Buy a small quantity, have a snack and see if it's really worth it. You might find that you were a bit greedy. Or not greedy enough.
Just remember to make it an experience worth remembering. Make the trip an enjoyable experience with friends and family. Try not to quibble too much over price. You only live once, and winter is right around the corner. So get your fill while you can.



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