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Demystifying the Farmers Market

By Mandy Erickson

Now that farmers markets are open for the season, forget buying fruit and vegetables at the supermarket. The tomatoes may look perfect, but they have a texture like gritty Jell-o and a taste indistinguishable from lettuce.

The produce at farmers markets, on the other hand, often looks funky but tastes great. It's also cheaper (no middle man), fresher (picked last night rather than two weeks ago) and better for the environment (many of the vendors use organic or semi-organic methods).

Unfortunately, if you're used to pushing a cart through neat supermarket aisles, the semi-controlled chaos of a farmers market can be a bit intimidating. Here's how to get the best from the farmers market season:

Choose the right market. The cutesy market in the tourist area of town is going to be way more expensive than the gritty one in seedy-ville. I found one farmer I knew from my usual market selling the same fruit at another for twice the price.

Go early ... or late. If you wander in at 1PM, you'll find the best produce has been sold. Then again, sometimes farmers are happy to get rid of stuff and will sell it cheap at the end of the day.

Look. Fresh produce is firm and plump; elderly fruit and veggies are wilted. But don't be overly concerned with large size or perfect skin. Good-tasting produce is often mottled, strangely shaped and even bug-bitten. And smaller fruit means the farmer didn't overwater, so the flavor is more concentrated.

Taste. The beauty of farmers markets is that vendors let you sample your way through baskets of strawberries, bins of snap peas, and boxes of peaches. If they don't have samples or won't let you try one, head to another stand.

Don't be too impressed by certification. Lots of organic farmers don't bother with the formal certification, as it's expensive and a hassle. The certified folks pass that cost onto their customers, anyway. Ask the farmers how they grew their produce—you can trust them pretty well to tell you the truth. And you can always verify by how the produce looks and tastes.

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