Getting the Best Out of the Farmer's Market
I love shopping at our city farmer's market. It's huge, filled with delicious goodies -- gourmet chicken sausage! Fresh baked goods! Vegetables and fruits picked mere hours before purchase! -- and I always feel better after shopping there than I do at the grocery store.
However, what it isn't full of is exclusively local and organic foods. There's a pervasive myth that everything at the farmer's market is local and organic, but that's not true. Sure, the people selling there are a lot more likely to be small farmers, and personally I like paying my money directly to the person who made the effort to produce my food. But they are just as likely to use pesticides and herbicides of concern.
The benefit to the farmer's market, of course, is that you can ask the person who tended the crops. But don't simply ask "Do you use sprays?" Ask if the farmer follows organic practices, how they handle weeds, or what they do to repel pests. If they won't give you a specific answer, i.e. "We spray with pesticide X as the fruit is ripening and pull weeds mostly by hand" then move on.
Also, be aware that many large farmer's markets allow people to resell produce they bought elsewhere. My local farmer's market has a sign behind every stall with permit numbers and the word "dealer" or "producer"...dealers resell the produce, producers grew it themselves. Of course, someone being a dealer doesn't automatically mean the food's not local; it could be someone who bought, say, cherries, from the farms in a rural area and brought them into the city for the market. With everyone so concerned about local eating, they are pretty likely to be advertising where these things come from, even if they didn't grow them themselves.
Know what's in season in your area...that's a good clue to what's local and what isn't. If it's May and you're seeing tomatoes, or August and there's lettuce, it's a good chance those were trucked in from elsewhere. One clue is to see what every table seems to have a ton of and what's cheapest...economics 101 in action! Many markets have an information table that will tell you what is in season and sometimes even where it was grown, or use this nifty interactive map.
And most of all, have fun! The point of the farmer's market is not to give the third degree to every single farmer, but to enjoy the give-and-take with the people who grew your food. They might even give you some cooking tips, or help you pick the most prime specimens. And you can feel good knowing that you helped keep another small farmer in business.
Do you shop at the farmer's market?