It's the peak of summer, and your primary mission is clear: find the farmers market. All the farmers markets.
Sure, the supermarket sells tomatoes, peaches, melons, and so much more. But there’s something magical about the taste of a tomato that was harvested at peak ripeness the day before, as opposed to supermarket varieties that were picked while green before being hauled across the country. The farmers market is the place to find those treasures. The best ones also carry local dairy, cheeses, meats, bread, and seafood, too. The fact that shopping there helps us support small farms and eat more sustainably? Bonus.
But not all farmers markets are created equal. The best ones are producer-only, meaning none of the vendors are resellers who could be hauling their wares from distant locations or large-scale industrial farms. The best markets also have rules and regulations to ensure all the food is grown locally, while other markets have no rules at all. Luckily, there are a few easy-to-spot warning signs that can help you figure out which markets are worth your time (and cash). Trust us—we got these tips from the farmers themselves.
Warning Sign No. 1: It feels like a grocery store, food court, or flea market
Take a quick glance at the produce on display. If it looks super-uniform in size, shape, and color, then the fruits and vegetables probably didn't come from farmers directly but instead were distributed through third-party resellers. And that means they most likely weren't produced at a small farm, and might not even be local. Terra Brockman, author of The Seasons on Henry's Farm, says that the "real” stuff should actually look kind of ugly—think forked carrots, curvy cucumbers, and otherwise “non-standard” vegetables.
The same can be said for markets with plenty of prepared food (like ready-to-eat lasagna and iced matcha lattes). Farmers bring farm-fresh products their stands, and don’t typically sell prepared dishes. “Burgers don’t come on a styrofoam plate,” said Pam MacKenzie, farmer and co-owner of Abundance Acres Farm in Vermont.
Additionally, if a market sells a lot of non-perishable products like arts and crafts, then it isn’t necessarily a farmers market. “If there are clothes for sale and it has more of a flea market vibe, beware. A real farmers market will be all farmers and producers,” said Stephanie Villani, owner and fishmonger at Blue Moon Fish in upstate New York.
There’s a place for prepared food and specialty items, but it isn’t at a traditional farmers market.
Warning Sign No. 2: Food that’s not in season or local
Be on the lookout for food that’s out of season, or doesn't grow in the area. Sometimes, the signs are as obvious as a fruit box that reads “California Oranges” when you're on the east coast.
If you're aware of food seasonality in your region, you’ll easily be able to spot things that are out of place. “In a true farmers market in New York, you’re not going to see avocados. It’s just not happening, since avocados love tropical environments,” said MacKenzie. Avocados at a California farmers market? Those can definitely be local—but you still don't want to see them stacked in a box emblazoned with a bunch of generic logos. Villani has even seen a produce stand carrying pears that had grocery store stickers on them—a clear sign they weren't from a local farm.
Warning Sign No. 3: Vendors aren’t able to answer questions
Transparency is an important aspect of a farmers market, and vendors should be happy to answer questions and make you feel comfortable about what you're buying. For them, a day at the market is a day of educating customers. “I provide information about our fish to people all the time,” said Villani, “People ask me things like 'Is swordfish over-fished?' I’ve even had people ask me if they could smell our fish before buying, and I tell them, ‘of course!’”
If the vendors are unable or unwilling to share information about their products, they may not have actually produced or grown them (in other words, they might be resellers!). At a traditional farmers market, the vendors will be a direct resource for information. Feel free to ask them questions—ask about growing practices, how to pick produce, or even tips on how to prepare and cook their wares.
“I sell at markets because a customer can ask me anything, like ‘What did it eat? How was it processed? How old is everything?’” said MacKenzie. “A market that is full of producers is going to be engaged with customers, and it’s going to feel much more human.”
Warning Sign No. 4: The food is oddly inexpensive
The unfortunate truth is that it's extremely hard to make a living as a farmer. Many shoppers are unaware that most farmers make their entire living from what they sell at the markets, so the prices reflect that.
“We have only 26 market days to make a full year's income, so every minute of every single one of the 26 Saturdays is crucial to our businesses,” Brockman said. And while the food can be pricier, you get back plenty of value. “We are focused on delivering healthy, nutrient-dense food. It's a different model than the commercial food industry or ‘big farms,’” MacKenzie said.
So if you're at a place where everything seems to cost 99 cents a pound, that could be bad news. “If it seems like the food is very inexpensive, like multiple pounds of tomatoes for two dollars, then something's not right,” said Abra Berens, Chef at Granor Farm. That doesn't necessarily mean you need to shell out a lot of cash—just don't expect bargain-basement prices for top-notch ingredients. “The real farmers, fishermen, and bakers work extremely hard to bring customers the best quality products,” said Stephanie Villani.
Bonus! An good sign of a legit farmers market
If you walk into a real-deal farmers market, chances are you’ll see a management booth, equipped with any information you’d ever need about the market. This is a place where you can (and should) ask questions about how the vendors are screened, who the vendors are, and where they’re from. “If you feel like the management is trustworthy, then the producers there are probably trustworthy, too,” said Villani.
The presence of community education and nonprofit organizations is a good sign, too. Events like food demos, food tastings, and kids' activities show the market has community involvement and support.
Wondering where to find a farmers market in your area? Do a quick search on the USDA directory to find one that's guaranteed to deliver those ripe summertime tomatoes. After all, that watermelon gazpacho isn't going to make itself.
Originally Appeared on Epicurious