Cooking School

How to choose locally grown produce at your farmer's market

By: Steven Biggs Author: Canadian Living Credits:

Cooking School

How to choose locally grown produce at your farmer's market

By: Steven Biggs

Selection, price, freshness, conversation, delicious smells, free samples, food safety, locally raised food, and less packaging: these are some of the reasons that people shop at farmer's markets. Price, food safety, not-so-delicious smells, resellers: these are some reasons that may cause people to avoid markets. Yes, like anywhere else it is buyer beware -- but you can easily get the most from your market trip by learning how to be an informed customer, by understanding value, knowing how to select produce, and asking the right questions.

1. Understand value
What is a product worth? Simple, it is worth what you're willing to pay for it. By better understanding what you value, you can decide if a price if right for you. Don't be shy! Ask questions, lots of questions.

2. Are there lots of bargains?
Wise consumers know prices and know what is worth a premium -- and very often local food sells for a premium price. Remember, too, that, unlike corporate retail chains, vendors might be flexible with prices.

3. Is this really local farm produce?
Some markets permit only farmers, others permit resellers. If you value supporting local farmers, know how to identify resellers:
Strawberries in early spring, and asparagus while there is still snow on the ground? Likely a reseller.
Wow, this farmer seems to grow everything! Not likely. Some market gardeners do a great job of having a wide selection of fruit and vegetables -- but too diversified an offering can point to a reseller.

4. Is it safer than the supermarket?
Maybe, maybe not. Ask questions. For example, has apple cider been pasteurized? Has the food been washed? Has the meat been processed at a facility that is either provincially or federally inspected?

5. What are you are paying for?
Many broad and overlapping terms are used to describe farming practices and certifications. Understanding terms will help you to make good value judgements.
• Biodynamic: A type of organic farming. Learn more from The Society for Bio-Dynamic Farming and Gardening in Ontario.
• Free range: Animals that range freely as opposed to being caged. While this could mean chickens running freely around a farmyard, it could equally mean chickens ranging freely in a tightly-packed outdoor enclosure. Ask the vendor questions!
• GMO stands for genetically modified organism. Regulatory bodies in Canada define a GMO as an organism in which the genetic material has been altered through any method, including conventional breeding. A common perception, however, is of something more unusual such as tomatoes containing fish genes. Visit the Canadian Food Inspection Agency for more information.
• Grass fed: Refers to livestock grazed on pasture or fed hay, as opposed to grain-fed animals. Your question: Was the animal exclusively grass fed?
• Hormone-free: This term indicates that meat has been raised without growth hormones.
• Natural: This is a very broad term that should prompt you to ask a few more questions. What does the vendor mean: organic, biodynamic, or sustainable?
• Organic: There are many certifying bodies, but many of the principles are the same: minimize soil degradation, increase soil biological activity, fewer external inputs, and promote local agricultural systems. Ask vendors advertising products as organic about the certification body -- then ask the vendor to explain the standards of that body. The Canadian Organic Growers website is a good starting point for more information.
• Sustainable: A broad term that refers to agricultural practices that do not degrade the land through erosion, loss of organic matter in the soil, but not necessarily organic.

Page 1 of 2 -- Find out how to check for ripeness and freshness of locally grown produce on page 2

6. Ripeness and freshness
The market provides a great opportunity to use hone your senses of sight, smell, touch, and taste. Along with your senses, use your good sense to get the best value. Here are some examples:

7. Use your Senses
Look at the colour, which can change as fruit and vegetables mature.
• Freshly picked corn should have a damp, pale-green stem.
• Fresh cauliflower should be a creamy-white colour.

Look at the stage of growth to determine if the produce was harvested at the optimum time.
Asparagus should have tight-budded spears.
• Okra is most tender if 2½ - 3&" or less in length.

Look at the general appearance.
• Carrots with fuzzy white roots may have been stored.
• Fresh-looking leaves atop the bunch of beets indicates freshness.

Smell can be a good indicator of freshness.
• Is the fruit highly aromatic?
• Fresh cauliflower has a milder odour.

Taste is the best measure of value, so when vendors have samples, try one.
• Freshness means sweetness (once picked, sugar turns to starch) in many crops such as corn, peas, and asparagus.

Feel the firmness to measure freshness, as water content diminishes with time, leading to withered and limp-looking produce.
• Fresh snap beans should snap easily!
• Eggplant should have a taut skin and flesh that bounces back when pressed.

8. Use your good sense
Think about seasonal availability to help sniff out old, or imported produce.
• Don't expect local sweet corn in June!
• Local peaches in October-forget it, they've likely been sitting in a cooler.
• Some good sources of information on seasonal availability are Harvest Ontario, BC Farm Fresh, NB Agriculture and Aquaculture.

9. Ask questions: A savvy shopper's checklist
Equip yourself with a few questions to make certain you get what you want. Here are a few examples:
• Did you raise this?
• What do you mean by natural?
• Is your farm certified organic?
• What do you mean by free-range?
• When did you pick these?
• May I try a piece?

Knowing how to shop wisely will see that you come home from market with quality food and value for your money. But be open to the unexpected, which is one of the joys of marketing.

Passionate about local food? Click here to read an excerpt from the book, The 100-Mile Diet

A passionate gardener and a horticulturist by training, Steven Biggs has an especial interest in finding, preparing, and enjoying local food. His work in horticulture and agriculture spans western Canada, Ontario, Quebec, and England. Visit

Page 2 of 2
Share X
Cooking School

How to choose locally grown produce at your farmer's market