Note to Editors: The following column was written by Shirley Perryman, an Extension Specialist and registered dietitian in Colorado State University’s Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition. The department is part of the College of Applied Human Sciences.
It’s uplifting to see the fields turn from brown to green with the advent of spring. Spring also means farmers’ markets are opening. I’ve marked my calendar showing which days the farmers’ markets operate in nearby communities. With a busy schedule I want to optimize my chances to pick up fresh fruits, vegetables and other locally produced items when possible to enjoy those fresh flavors.
Other than a fun and relaxing outing, why go to farmers’ markets? It’s a win-win situation for the farmer or vendor and the consumer. The farmer can increase profits by selling directly to the consumer eliminating the middle man. The consumer profits from the availability of just picked produce fresh from the fields.
If you aren’t growing your own garden or are a newbie to shopping at farmers’ markets, keep these suggestions in mind.
– To get started locate farmers’ markets near you. Visit the Colorado Department of Agriculture web site at www.ag.state.co.us/mkt/farmfresh/welcome.html to find locations and hours of operation. Most of the markets list individual vendors with contact information. Fresh asparagus, rhubarb, herbs, baby garlic, peas, lettuce, spinach and radishes are currently available at many Colorado markets.
– Go early for the best selection unless you’re a bargain shopper. Some vendors will barter near closing time if that’s more your style. However, going late does risk more limited availability because some vendors will sell out.
-Bring your own basket or reusable bags with handles.
– Unless you have developed a relationship with a vendor previously it’s best to circulate to see what is available before purchasing. Take your time to enjoy the local color, smells and sounds as you stroll. Remember to dress comfortably.
– Bring along cash because not all vendors will accept credit cards or personal checks.
Consider trying something new. Ask the vendor for recipes or preparation tips.
– Plan to return home soon after your shopping trip or bring a cooler. Leaving fresh produce in a hot car will compromise that just picked quality quickly.
– Shop often to ensure you are able to enjoy produce while it’s fresh. Purchase an amount that can be enjoyed while at its prime. Farmers’ markets are generally open on a set schedule allowing you to purchase and eat produce at its peak regularly during the spring, summer and fall seasons.
Often people assume that farmers’ markets primarily offer organic produce. Organic availability varies from vendor to vendor. To display the approved organic seal the produce must contain at least 95 percent organically produced ingredients. Organic produce is regulated by the USDA’s National Organic Program, or NOP.
Farmers who produce certified organic foods may not use artificial fertilizers and pesticides. Organic foods are minimally processed without artificial ingredients, preservatives or irradiation. The bottom line is that organic produce does lower exposure to pesticides but it is unknown at this time if it is healthier.
– Not all organic produce is totally pesticide-free though lower concentrations of pesticide residues are present.
– If budget is a consideration consider purchasing organic fruits and vegetables on the list of the "dirty dozen," according to research by the Environmental Working Group, or EWG. Research shows the 12 fruits and vegetables containing the highest level of pesticides are apples, bell peppers, celery, cherries, imported grapes, nectarines, peaches, pears, potatoes, red raspberries, spinach and strawberries.
– Organic produce may or may not be more nutritious than conventionally grown produce according to the most recent research. The variables include weather and soil conditions in addition to season, plant varieties, shipping and handling. Though the perception of consumers is that organic foods are more nutritious, to date limited data supports this. Both conventional and organic produce are excellent sources of vitamins, antioxidants and fiber.
– Organic produce must be washed with water in spite of growers using natural fertilizers. These could include animal manure, fish emulsion and compost, which may carry organisms that cause illness such as salmonella and E. coli. In addition, salmonella and E. coli can be spread to produce during handling if they are touched by someone who has touched produce with the organisms. It is especially important to thoroughly clean all fruits and vegetables if they are eaten raw.