Nothing brings out the locavore in us like farmers market season.
The markets are the best place for those who want to eat local foods, meet the people who grow them and find fresh inspiration for using unique produce.
Let's face it, shopping for produce at the supermarket is not as inspiring. Mega-farm veggies are stacked like pyramids and misted at intervals (with a fake thunderstorm background tape) to make them look less wilted from their far-flung voyages.
Shopping at a farmers market takes some strategy, as seasonal changes bring an array of new offerings. At the height of summer, these markets are a treat for the senses. But how do you handle balancing all those bags, having enough cash, deciding which farmer has the freshest (or least expensive) produce or understanding how "green" your greens really are? We talked to Nicole Fetterhoff, the market manager for the Colorado Art and Farm Market, and Heather Mitchell, assistant market manager, to get some tips.
Make a plan
It is best to go to the market with a flexible shopping list.
Mitchell said to have some menu ideas in mind. For example: Dinner No. 1 - beef, broccoli and root vegetable; dinner No. 2 - summer salad; and dinner No. 3 - lamb kabobs with cucumber-yogurt sauce, corn and fruit crisp.
This system lets you stick to a plan and avoid wasting food.
"You have the flexibility to choose what is available and looks most appealing," she said.
Get the lay of the land
Make a couple of loops around the market first. Stay on the outskirts of the crowd and make mental notes of which booths you want to stop by. Once you know what is available, you can make better decisions about what you want to buy.
If you're going to be at the market for a while, wait to make large-quantity purchases just before you leave. That way, you won't have that bushel of pickling cukes tugging on your arm while you're trying to examine the tomatoes.
"And don't be afraid of the 'uglies,'" Mitchell said. "Many times farmers will reduce the cost of imperfect fruits and veggies. If you are going to be canning or pur?ing in soup, it doesn't matter if there are some blemishes."
For speedy transactions, carry small bills and change. Keep it in a pocket or fanny pack because rarely do farmers have room on their tables for you to sit down your purse.
At the Colorado Farm and Art Markets, there's a cash machine at the information booth.
"You can purchase 'market bucks' that can be used like cash at the market," Mitchell said. "Some vendors also have the ability to take credit cards with their smart phones."
Bag it up
Take your own bags. Some farmers offer bags, but they are often flimsy ones that can tear under the weight of heavy melons or root veggies. Take sturdy canvas or nylon mesh bags. Have some separate plastic bags to handle fragile berries, ripe fruit and delicate greens.
A backpack can make hauling easier. Some shoppers take a heavy-duty basket or a wheeled cart. Keep a cooler in the car - this is important if you buy fresh meat, eggs or dairy products.
Timing is everything
Markets are less crowded when they first open and just before they close. You'll find the finest and most plentiful selections when the market opens.
"If you want something specific, such as eggs or a popular cut of meat, come early," Mitchell said.
The best deals can sometimes be had at the close of the market. Sometimes farmers will discount food so they don't have to pack it up and take it home. However, farmers are raising the food to make a living so don't expect deep discounts. And some markets have rules against end-of-day bargains. Check your market's rules first before embarrassing yourself.
Talk up the farmer
The farmers who have grown the greens or sprouts or squash are the experts on what to do with those veggies. Don't be shy about tapping into their know-how.
Often farmers can give you a recipe off the top of their head for a veggie that might be new to you.
"Farmers are eating the food they are selling," Mitchell added. "They can get pretty creative with recipe suggestions. Talking directly to the farmers is one of the best advantages to shopping at the farmers markets. You can drill them on their practices."
How green is green?
Pay attention to signs that say "organic." The USDA has legal language for farms that don't use synthetic pesticides or fertilizers. Some farmers use organic principles but choose not to pay for the paperwork to become certified organic. Some go beyond USDA expectations. Ask the farmer for clarification.
Picking a market
Not all farmers markets are equal. Some only have locally produced goods, while others allow regional goods to be sold or even produce from wholesalers to be resold.
"At CFAM, we guarantee that almost everything is grown or created by the person selling it to you," Mitchell said.
"If you choose to go to another market, be diligent to ask about where the food was grown and in what fashion. If you are buying sweet corn in June, it probably did not come from a Colorado farm. If you see boxes behind the farmer with 'California produce' on it, that is also a pretty good indication that it's not local."
"Bring your children," Mitchell said. "Start early teaching them about healthy, local foods. Give them a chance to choose vegetables for dinner or let them help you with menu planning."
Treasure the opportunity to let your inner locavore indulge in the abundance of the season. Make the most of eating the best food you can.