Farmers markets are hot. More people than ever want to eat local produce and shop at them, and chefs glorify their growers. Nowhere are farmers markets more popular than in Southern California, where great produce is available all year. The number of certified markets in the region roughly doubled over the last decade, to more than 200, and they're all over — at hospitals, malls, gated communities and rock festivals.
There's a downside to this explosion, however, a dilution in quality, as commercial growers and peddlers have rushed to cash in on the demand. Anyone who wants the real deal — high-quality produce from genuine farmers — needs to carefully choose markets and vendors.
Discerning the difference is not always easy; for close to 20 years, I've made it my business, and I still get fooled occasionally. But more often than not, following a few simple guidelines will be a big help.
A certified farmers market — authorized by the state to host growers selling their products directly to consumers — should have a well-chosen roster of vendors that offer the main kinds of fruits, vegetables, nuts, eggs, honey, etc. It doesn't have to be huge, just good for its size; in fact, when a new market opens, it's even better if it starts small and grows gradually as demand increases.
Certified markets can also have vendors who sell prepared foods and even, in a separate section, items they didn't grow, such as bananas and Chinese mushrooms. So look for markets that focus on locally grown produce. Those other stands can be more profitable for market operators, but once they predominate, farmers become an afterthought, and quality suffers.
Managers are supposed to identify certified and noncertified sections, and certified growers should hang their certificates in public view. (There are some items, however, such as wild fish and most wild mushrooms, that are noncertified but can be very good quality.)
Talk to the manager. Experience is good, but a savvy and idealistic novice is preferable to a blasé veteran. Any decent manager will at least pay lip service to supporting real farms and quality produce.
Good managers make good markets. They should try to visit their market's farms and ensure that all of the produce being sold is being grown there, but a surprising number confess blankly, "That's not my problem." Managers should also keep a lid on specious claims that produce is "naturally grown" or organic or unsprayed if that's untrue.
Mindful shopping at farmers markets involves many factors that often compete with one another and rarely align perfectly. Each shopper will have different priorities, which may change over time: A pregnant woman may emphasize organics, while an unemployed person may prefer good value. Here are my top 10 considerations, not necessarily in order of importance:
• Eating quality, namely flavor, aroma and texture, are paramount. Farmers markets can provide quality better than any source other than one's own garden (assuming one has the land, proper climate and time).
• Variety: Farmers markets and farm stands offer shoppers the best opportunity to find great-tasting varieties that are neglected by commercial channels. Get to know the tastier varieties, and ask farmers and managers to identify them by name. Look particularly for heirloom varieties, such as Blenheim apricots and Black Krim tomatoes; superior modern varieties, such as GoldRush apples; and delicate items, such as boysenberries and Persian mulberries, which are only available at their best at farmers markets.
• Freshness, of course, is crucial. If you can, get to a market early for a larger and fresher selection. Many items get bruised from rough handling or wilt after a few hours in the heat. When it's really hot, take a portable cold box to protect the most perishable items.
• Ripeness (for fruit) and proper maturity (for vegetables) are equally critical. And since ripe often means fragile, bring a cart or a box (like a fruit box with plastic cups) to keep delicate purchases from being crushed.
• Seasonality: Following the rhythm of the seasons means not only knowing when to start buying but also when to stop, because the fruit or variety is past its prime. Good shoppers get to know the produce calendar.
• Artisanal versus industrial: In general, small- or medium-size farms that focus on farmers markets can offer more flavorful produce than industrial-scale operations; this is at the heart of what farmers markets are all about. But a farm's size is often belied by its stand: Some huge operations mimic the look of smaller growers. If you want to know, ask to see the stand's certificate, which will show who owns it, where it grows, how many acres, of what items and varieties, and whether they also sell for other producers.
• Personal contact with the grower: Of course, interacting with farmers is a joy in itself, one that includes but transcends produce quality. Ideally, one would like to buy directly from the farmer, a family member, or at least someone who has a connection to the growing, someone who can best explain, for example, that the cherries are blemished by hail but still delicious. Realistically, with the proliferation of markets, there's no way that growers can be everywhere and still actually farm, and many vendors are employees who never see the farm, but at the very least they should be able to answer questions such as what variety an item is.
• Price: I evaluate price in relation to quality. If something costs significantly more than it would at a supermarket, it has to be a lot better or forget it. Prices do vary considerably both within and among farmers markets.
• Appearance: Like almost everyone, I favor attractive produce, but not necessarily by commercial standards, such as huge, all-red peaches. I look for distinctiveness and for indications that an item will taste good: e.g., for a nectarine, deep orange or cream ground color, and sugar speckles. But I also like some varieties chiefly because they look good, like Romanesco cauliflower, with its mesmerizing fractal form.
• Health and environmental impact: I will pay some premium for organic or unsprayed produce, primarily to avoid residues of pesticides and their effect on workers and the environment; in addition, for some farmers, growing organically is part of a broader craft involving living soil and artisanal practices that can produce better flavor. However, I know many highly ethical farmers who reject organic certification as too costly or lax, and others who say that in some cases synthetic pesticides can be more narrowly targeted and environmentally friendly than organic sprays. Moreover, organic farms generally produce lower yields, requiring more resources, such as fuel and water, with resulting environmental costs.
To make a fully informed decision about organics for each farm and produce item requires considerable research and thought, more than most shoppers can devote. When I'm not sure, I make a leap of faith to favor organics but keep this factor in perspective as one among many.
It may seem like there are too many issues to juggle, but getting the best from farmers markets all boils down to quality, integrity and personal contact. We are lucky to live at a time and in a region with such an abundance of great produce, ours for the feasting, if we know how to choose.