Unless you are lucky enough to have a vegetable garden of your own, you’d be hard-pressed to find produce that tastes fresher or lasts longer than what your local farmers market has to offer, according to Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service experts.

A man's hands around a watermelon at a farmers market
Locally-grown watermelons are a favorite for summer eating. (Michael Miller/Texas A&M AgriLife)

In addition to accessing delicious food, shopping at a local farmers market can also be a good way to support local agriculture and keep your dollars in the local economy.

“It’s likely that the farmer is going to pick their produce at peak quality because they’re going to sell it right away,” said Jenna Anding, Ph.D., AgriLife Extension nutrition specialist and professor in the Texas A&M Department of Nutrition. “So, by shopping at a farmers market you’ll typically get the produce at peak quality when it’s in season.”

Anding said while most Texans come up severely short in the amount of vegetables they consume each day, the produce at a farmers market may taste better, so they may eat more of it. Going to the market is also a great way to get children more excited about eating vegetables by letting them pick out what they want and perhaps pique their interest in trying something new.

More than just vegetables

In addition to the vegetables and fruits, the variety of products sold at many farmers markets has increased, which creates the need for consumers to be more careful and informed, the AgriLife Extension experts said.

“Farmers markets can be a good place to buy things like honey, jams and jellies, and eggs, but consumers need to keep safety and consumer common-sense in mind,” said Rebecca Dittmar, AgriLife Extension program specialist for the food safety education program in Kerrville.

Tall jars of honey in various hues of amber at a farmers market.
Honey is one of many local products you can often find at a farmers market. (Laura McKenzie/Texas A&M AgriLife)

From what to look for to what to avoid, our AgriLife Extension experts shared what consumers should know before they grab their basket or shopping bags and head out to a farmers market.

Think nutrition

“Generally speaking, the nutritional content of fresh produce bought at a local farmers market is higher because it is usually harvested and then immediately sold,” Anding said. “For example, one study found that three days after harvest, some produce has lost 30% of its vitamin C. That is also a good reason not to buy more produce than your family will eat, especially if nutrient quality is a concern.”

Anding said if you know you aren’t going to eat all of what you bought immediately, eat what will not freeze well first. The sooner you freeze fresh produce, the more nutrients it can retain.

“The longer produce stays in storage and the longer it takes to get to the grocery store and then into a consumer’s home, the more nutritional quality is lost,” Anding said. “But at the end of the day, any vegetable is better than no vegetables. If you don’t have access to a farmers market, then the frozen and canned vegetable options at a grocery store are usually cheaper and can have more nutrition than a grocery store’s fresh options.”

Think local

Make sure what you’re buying is actually local if you aim to support agriculture in your area. Don’t hesitate to ask the seller where it was grown and what farm it came from. Even if they are not the producer, they should be able to give you that information.

A bushel of strawberries at an outdoor market
There are about 400 acres of planted strawberries in Texas. (Sam Craft/Texas A&M AgriLife)

Nobody wants to buy produce that was just repackaged from a big box store to look local. Produce can cost more at a farmers market too, so make sure what you buy is as advertised.

Do keep in mind, though, that not all regions in Texas grow the same produce and some types may need to be brought over from a different region.

“For example, it costs money to truck produce to San Angelo that’s been grown in Poteet,” Anding said. “There is an added cost to get those strawberries up to the Concho Valley, and the consumer needs to take that into account that producers have to price accordingly.”

And while some things may cost more at a farmers market, some things may cost less. It is a good idea to check prices at your usual grocery store, so you have a reference point. Organic fruits and vegetables may be cheaper than what you’d find in the market, so don’t be afraid to question if something is organic or not. If so, you need to ask how the growers define that term.

Think seasonal

A farmers market isn’t typically going to have as wide of a selection of produce as your local grocery store. But farmers markets will have in-season produce that hasn’t been shipped from out of state or even from another country. The freshest fruit and vegetables are the ones most recently picked, so embrace what is growing in Texas each season.

A farmer holds yellow cauliflower in his hands
Buy what is in season to make the most out of the produce available at a farmers market, such as cauliflower from January through spring. (Michael Miller/Texas A&M AgriLife)

“You’re probably not going to see a whole lot of cut leafy greens right now because it’s more of a winter vegetable,” Anding said. “But warm season produce like tomatoes, cucumbers and squash, and fruits like blackberries should be bountiful.”

Your local farmers market might also be a great place to explore a veggie or fruit you haven’t tried before. Sellers are almost always happy to offer advice on how to cook or prepare that unknown, alien-looking squash.

Think food safety

Produce is protected by its skin. Look for a fruit or vegetable that does not have bruises, tears, holes or mold. You also don’t want to buy anything that has been cut open, such as half of a watermelon. Just as you’d clean produce bought from a grocery store, take the same care with what you buy at the farmers market.

If buying eggs, Dittmar said they must always be kept below 45 degrees. It’s OK if a seller has a carton on display just for looks, but make sure what you are buying is taken from a refrigerated unit. Also check to ensure the eggs are clean and there are no breaks or cracks in the shells. If you discover one after purchase, make sure you discard it. Egg sellers must have a temporary food establishment license and eggs must be properly labeled as “ungraded” with safe handling instructions.

To be an informed consumer, know the rules established by the Texas Department of Agriculture that sellers must follow. For example, raw milk and any products made from raw milk cannot be sold at a farmers market. For homemade products like honey and jam, the cottage food industry rules apply.

“I think consumers educating themselves before they go shopping is critical,” Dittmar said. “Having a basic understanding of the rules and knowing what questions to ask is important to keep your family safe.”

She said it is also fine to ask about how the produce provider controls weeds and pests and the type of water used to irrigate crops.

“Farmers markets are a great opportunity to get to know producers in your area,” Dittmar said. “Local growers take great pride in their products and care about their reputation, but it’s always good to use common sense, and it’s never wrong to ask a question.”

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