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Tasty Ways to Support Your Local Farmers
by Jacqueline DiGiovanni - posted 05/29/18

Summer CSA crates include warm-season peppers, tomatoes, eggplants, cucumbers and fresh herbs.
 

With scares over contaminated, big-ag produce the last few years, consumers have become more interested in where their food comes from, how it is grown and how far it traveled to get to their tables.

People have become more interested in growing their own vegetables and herbs, or when space and time do not allow for that, they shop at farmers markets. Some consumers take it a step further and partner with a farmer to grow their food through a community supported agriculture program, or CSA.


Tips for Shopping Farmers Markets
If you are new to farmers markets, expect your experience to be educational and fun. Some have musical entertainment, children’s activities and more. There’s a lot of ‘community’ in farmers markets, where regulars recognize and greet each other.

Markets can be under cover, indoors, outdoors or a combination of settings. Many have baked goods and prepared or frozen foods. Some sell seedlings for your garden, such as heirloom tomatoes. Some operate year-round or are seasonal, such as summer or winter markets.

Consider leaving your purse at home or in the car and stowing your ID, keys and cash in a pocket. It’s easier to shop with less to carry, and farmers really don’t want you to set anything on top of their produce.

If you are concerned about accessibility, call ahead and ask about where to park or less busy times. Strollers are usually welcome. Dogs are usually not welcome. Take your own shopping bag. Use small bills: $1s, $5s, $10s. Check with your market to see if credit or debit cards will be accepted.


Pricing
Understand what’s in season. Walk through the market to see which stalls have the produce you are looking for. Prices may vary from stall to stall. Prices will likely be higher than in grocery stores.

Many farmers markets participate in WIC, Senior Project, Project Fresh, SNAP, Double Up Food Bucks or other programs that make healthful eating more affordable. If food samples are available, try them. Expect to be surprised.


Sweet corn is a popular item at farmers markets and CSAs in mid to late summer. A heavier ear means better sweet corn.


Bulk Up
For most farmers, local means grown within the state. Learn when to buy in bulk. If you want to pickle cucumbers, can tomatoes or put up jams and jellies, ask the farmer when produce will be available in bulk. You can make arrangements to pick up that half bushel when the produce is at peak flavor.

Bulk buying will usually save you money. Ask questions about crops coming in late or early. Ripe has more to do with the weather than the calendar. Some farmers offer suggestions on how to prepare their vegetables. If there is not a line of people waiting, ask for ideas.


Ask Questions
Ask your favorite farmers if they sell at other markets on different days, or if they have a farm stand. Learn the meaning of words: organic, sustainable, pesticide free, naturally grown, local, non-GMO. If this is important to you, investigate markets and growers ahead of time.

Don’t lecture the farmer on growing practices, just move to the next stall. If the farmer has something you would like to grow at home, ask questions about when to plant and when to harvest.

Collect business cards from the farmers who have the produce you love. Learn their names and visit their stalls often. Be sure to introduce yourself and let them know you enjoyed what you bought earlier.


How CSAs Work
You may notice the same farmers at several markets trying to reach enough people to sell the crops they harvested. This need for an expanded customer base has led to Community Supported Agriculture, or CSAs.

With CSAs, there is still a direct connection between farmer and consumer, but the consumer pays in advance for a share of everything the farmer harvests. In good years, consumers get great value for their investment. In not-so-good years, there will be plenty of produce, but less variety. The farmer and subscribers share the risks and rewards.


Farmers markets and CSA crates are stocked with in-season produce and herbs.


Weekly Pickup or Delivery
Usually, CSAs provide a box of produce weekly. The produce varies throughout the season. For instance, snow peas may be in early season boxes and tomatoes won’t show up until mid summer. Ask your farmer for a schedule of what crops mature when. The schedule won’t be exact because Mother Nature has a hand in how things grow.

Before you select a CSA, ask yourself a few serious questions. If a weekly share consists of 15 pounds of vegetables, will your family eat that much? In the fall, there will be rutabagas, collard greens and cabbage. Will your family eat any of it? Also, CSAs are an adventure, best enjoyed with a good vegetable cookbook and great optimism.

CSAs are likely more expensive than buying produce at a grocery store, but you are getting freshly harvested food and you know how it’s grown. Some CSA subscribers split the cost and produce with another family, neighbor or friend. Some farmers offer half-shares. Some farmers have a 12-week season and others a 20-week. There are more year-round CSAs now, thanks to hoop houses, greenhouses and good storage practices.


Selecting a CSA
Ask around for recommendations. You likely will be driving to pick up your weekly basketful of produce, so make sure you can schedule the trip. Some CSAs deliver their products to a central location and subscribers go there to pick up their food. If you might miss a pickup, ask ahead of time what options you have. Don’t expect a refund.

In exchange for a little bit of your time, you can find the farmer who offers exactly what you’re hungry for either at a market or in CSA. This is the year to begin a long-term relationship with a farmer.

 

A print version of this article appeared in Michigan Gardening Magazine Volume 2 Number 3.
Photography courtesy of Natalila Pyzhova/dollarphotoclub.com, Jacqueline DiGiovanni, and viki2win/dollarphotoclub.com.

 


Jacqueline DiGiovanni writes about Michigan, its past, present and future. She gardens on a small urban lot that boasts vegetables, shrubs and flowers.