Newbies to the market are bound to be overwhelmed, at least our Downtown Market. I gotta be honest with you-I love the variety of stands but the sheer number of folks down there if you don't get there right at the starting bell, whoa. It is packed. Not just on special weekends, pretty much every weekend. It is an awesome problem to have, but also overwhelming for those who don't like crowds (that would be me) or newcomers to the market. It can make it somewhat difficult to take the time to see what each booth has. Now, one solution would be to check in or start your market experience at the actual Downtown Farmer's Market stand, which can help with directions to certain stands and information. One thing that has helped me is to ask those who go regularly where they frequent when they do go, at least in the beginning, so you know you are getting actual *local* food. It is a frustrating thing for me to walk past the booths that are shipping in most of their produce. Nothing like melons in May. Not in Iowa, folks. It just doesn't happen. Ask your stand peeps or salespeople where the produce is from. I noticed on the Blue Gate stand last weekend that they had a little sign designating that NOTHING they sell is not of their own making or growing. That is reassuring to me. I can look over the stand and know that anything there is a local product. Most the dairy, cheese or meat outfits, as well as the bakeries are local guys, too. Ooo and the mushroom guy. I *heart* him. Not all veg stands are equal, though. Ask them! Strike up a conversation. One thing you'll notice is that the stands that do their own growing are *excited* to talk about their wares. They put themselves into this product, and now they want you to love it as much as they did growing it. They can tell you what variety it is and how it was grown. Generally they will tell you how to eat it (um, with your mouth?) and what might go well with it. Try that with stands who ship in most their produce, and it won't happen. They are happy to sell to you. They can't tell you if that melon is a French heirloom canteloupe, though, or a hybrid muskmelon. How it was grown? On a farm somewhere. Shipped in. Later in the season it may be more Iowa produce, but the point is to try to support local goods and *eat in season* when it comes to marketing. You have to talk to the vendors. And I admit, that can be hard when it is so crazy about mid morning. Try going really early, or really late. Early you will end up with the best selection and a lot less traffic. At the end many vendors have to get rid of their wares-fresh picked veggies don't last, so you can often get bargains on bulk purchases. There is less chaos, as well, so you can chat a minute to learn more about your foods.
Another option you have (I love you Jill, Lois, Maggie and so on, I do, I just can't stand the crowds!) is to check out some of the smaller markets. I have been to many. I try to *really* go local (although, funny enough, the stands I like the best, for the most part, actually are the ones whose farms are in my neighborhood anyway-yay Marion Co!) and frequent the Knoxville Market once it is up and running. A lot fewer stands, it is true, but to supplement our veggies we grow ourselves, I can do just as well there. I can buy Reichert's Cheese across the way at the coffee shop that sells it and get a nice cup of joe (here is a funny twist) at the bookstore on the other side of the square. Plus it's a bookstore. And it has chocolate. And books. Right.
There are numerous small markets out there to check out. Check localharvest.org or just google local towns and the words farmer's markets. One of the nice things is that many of these markets are held at times other than that coveted 8-12 Saturday slot, so you can do both if you like. I know we tend to go downtown every few weeks to stock up on certain things we can't get at our small number (mushrooms when that guy is there, gooda gouda, Prairie breeeeeze, just to say hi to the awesome folks from Prairieland Herbs :) ) but use the Tuesday evening option for the Knoxville Market (they sell on Sat's as well. So very handy) to do the bulk of our buying. I have also been able to connect more with my communities. Moving into a new area and being quite the hermit (no really, I am) it can be hard to meet folks. The market gives me opportunities to talk to other farmers, to talk to other patrons, to visit and talk to the little shops on the square of town. I love it.
One last note; unless there is some huge sign advertising that a product is grown organically, don't assume. Once again, talk to your farmer selling the stuff. Many farms refuse to pay outrageous amounts to be certified organic, yet their practices in growing are as good or often times better than what is required for organic certification. Some people use an alternative system called Certified Naturally Grown, where peers (other farmers) check up on what you're doing and you have to follow stricter guidelines in your practices than Certified Organic. Just ask the farmer. If you are not sure they are telling the truth (oh, yeah, sure, it's chemical free) ask them what their methods are. Being a farmer (don't laugh) myself, (okay petting zoo owner) I love to talk about what I do, and go into great detail about how and what it takes to run the place. Don't be afraid. They won't be offended if they have nothing to hide. If they didn't love what they were doing, they wouldn't be doing it, and it is a choice to sell at the market. You have to expect that someone is going to ask how you do it.
Last but not least, enjoy yourself! Sample the food if they offer it. I would have never known I liked gouda (I had previous experiences with it and DID NOT like it before the market) if the Frisian Farms boys hadn't insisted on me trying a piece. Try out the food vendors. My first experience with a pupusa was at the market. And try not to stress. Just have fun, and know just being there helps to support the market. They see people and they are going to keep things going. I have been a part of a market that died because people just stopped coming, then vendors stopped coming, and we were finished. Locality involves more than just food. Just be an informed buyer. Ask about things. Talk with your vendors. Oftentimes they will start to recognize you, and that makes it all even more fun, as now you have food and friends to visit each week!