by Amy Armbruster, CFSA Communications Coordinator
Ah, the delights of early summer, that much-anticipated time of the year when the farmers market is brimming with fresh, colorful, ripe, and delicious fruits and vegetables. If you haven’t ventured out to your local market yet this year, now is the perfect time. Shopping at the farmers market is easy and fun, but it’s worth the effort to do a little research and make a plan before you show up at the first farmer’s stall. Our best strategy: Before jumping in, take a stroll around the market. Scope out what’s for sale and who has the best looking fruits, veggies, and other goods. Compare prices. Go early for the best selection, try the samples, and don’t be afraid to take home something you’ve never heard of – that’s part of the fun. You’ll want to know how to select the very best, so we turned to Stephanie Turner (ST), the Farmers Market Manager at the Uptown Market in Greenwood, SC, for more insider tips.
CFSA: There are so many amazing fruits in season in July! Blackberries, blueberries, raspberries, melons, and watermelon are all ripe and delicious at this time of the year. Can you give us some pointers on how to select the best from the farmers market?
ST: For berries, you are looking for firm fruit; not wrinkly (which indicates dry) or bruised/dimpled (overripe). Cantaloupe you want a little give at the stem end and mild fragrance. Watermelon: a nice yellow patch at the bottom and a deep sounding thump.
CFSA: And, what about summer vegetables? What do you look for when selecting summer treats like corn, cucumbers, eggplant, green beans, peppers, squash, tomatoes and zucchini?
ST: Often you can tell if something is fresh by the condition of the skin of the vegetable: wrinkly, bruised or dull in color all can indicated older produce. Corn husks/tassles, for instance, will be drier to the touch on older ears.
CFSA: Share your tips for a great farmers market experience. What should shoppers bring to market? What should first-time shoppers expect to find?
ST: Go first thing when they open for the best selection, if you can. Bring your own basket or reusable bags. Bring a large tote if you know you’ll shop several stalls, we often have patrons leave their purchase from one farm on a table elsewhere, and if you have a good size bag to carry everything you won’t leave things behind as you shop. A large, wide bottomed basket is very handy, and helps keep fragile things from getting squished. Bring a cooler bag for frozen meats, eggs, dairy and cheeses. Look up the market online and check out which vendors/products will be there so you can have a game plan. If there is something you know you want, and you’ll be later in the day to arrive, call or email the farmer to see if they will hold something for you. Many will do this, especially if you are a regular or introduce yourself ahead of time.
CFSA: What’s the word on haggling for a better deal with your farmer: bad etiquette or acceptable practice? Other good tips for farmers market etiquette?
ST: Good manners are good manners anywhere you go. Certainly ask politely if you can get a better price per pound if you buy at least $25, for example. If you taste a sample and don’t like it, say “Thank you, have a nice day”, and walk on. There’s no need to insult the vendor. They KNOW if, for instance, other vendors have squash at a lower price. They all watch each other. No one appreciates the “You’re proud of that squash aren’t you?” comments. Certainly, you could say- “Tell me about your squash?” and you might learn it’s organic or a special variety, or it’s the last of their crop.
CFSA: If you were throwing a party for friends in July, what would be in your farmers market shopping bag? On the menu?
ST: Roasted vegetable salad – this can be anything thrown in a pan with olive oil and roasted in the oven and then cooled, tossed in vinaigrette and put on top of greens/lettuce. Add some goat cheese or your favorite local cheese, if you like. This sort of dish is flexible to what is available at the market that week and can include, corn, tomatoes, and squash or sweet potatoes, onions and beets. I’m a vegetarian, but several of my farmers recommend stuffing zucchini or delicata squash with pork sausage as a hearty entrée. I’m also a fan of the good old cucumber/tomato/onion salad. Watermelon for dessert! Or a berry cobbler, if I was feeling ambitious.
CFSA: If you were interested in doing a big summer project, like canning tomatoes or making jam, and needed to buy a large quantity of produce, how would you do that at the farmers market?
ST: I wouldn’t suggest just showing up with a large produce need without doing a little research and finding some farmers to contact directly to discuss your needs. Sometimes you can request their bruised tomatoes for instance, for sauce, and get a better price and help the farmer move produce they might not normally even bring to market.
CFSA: Why is it important to ‘know your food, know your farmer?’
ST: I think what we choose to eat is the best way to show ourselves some love. Knowing your food is in our roots, and hopefully now a bigger part of our future. Many folks are now getting away from the industrial era, processed foods and back to basic, real food. It used to be that for most of what you ate, you either grew it, raised it yourself, or one of your neighbors did. I think it is a privilege these days to have access to locally produced foods, and we all should get to know the farmers, cheer on their successes, and lend support wherever we can. They don’t take many ‘days off,’ let alone a vacation, and for most, their farm is their passion. It is not an easy profession, and certainly not a way to get rich. So, when someone’s purpose in life is to produce REAL food for you and your family, and to keep money in the local economy, how can you not support them?
Stephanie Turner is the Farmers Market Manager at the Uptown Market in Greenwood, SC. Learn more about this market at http://www.uptowngreenwood.com/uptown-market.