Article By:  Bruce Weinstein & Mark Scarbrough, reprinted from Weight Watchers.com

Market produce

Late spring, all of summer and early fall are produce paradise. Now that the weather’s warming up, it’s time to get acquainted with your options for sourcing the season’s best fresh fruits and vegetables.

There are three ways to cut out the middleman — the distributors and marketers — and go right to the growers for your produce: CSAs, farmers’ markets and roadside farm stands. To help you understand the benefits of each, we’ve prepared this primer, along with a list of questions to ask once you get there to zero in on what’s best.

CSAs
Short for community supported agriculture, a CSA lets you buy shares in a small, family farm and then reap the benefits of the harvest with boxes of produce from May to October — or longer, depending on where you live.

For a set fee, you get weeks and weeks of fresh-picked produce. And CSAs are quite a trend: according to the USDA, there are now 1,500 of them across the United States.

At some, you pick your own; at others, it’s pre-boxed. Some also offer half shares for singles or twosomes who can’t mow through a big box every week.

Look for your area’s CSAs at http://www.localharvest.org or http://www.newfarm.org, or contact your state’s department of agriculture for a full list.

And don’t worry if you live in a big city, far from a farm; many CSAs bring the food right into town, so you can pick up your box once a week at a designated location.

Farmers’ markets
Believe it or not, farmers’ markets have become big. Really big. In Madison, WI, the market is the town’s biggest tourist draw. And no wonder: farmers’ markets bring the fresh produce to one central location. According to the USDA, there are now 4,685 farmers’ markets across the United States.

How do you find a good one near you?
Here are three criteria to look for:

1. The market itself should establish a definition for what’s “local.” There’s no point in buying radishes trucked in from southern Mexico at a farmers’ market when they’re the same ones as at the supermarket down the street. Instead, the farmers’ market should support local growers within a set radius from the market itself.

2. The vendors should be the growers or producers. Some farmers’ markets allow large producers to send in hired help and consolidate many farms under one tent. If you’re going to a farmers’ market, you want to shake the hand of the guy that grew the turnip, the woman who cultured the cheese.

3. People should come to chat and meet, as much as to buy. There should be crowds. A good farmers’ market is a community event.

How do you choose which sellers to buy from?
Ask questions. After all, there are plenty of people selling tomatoes — or apples or rutabagas. So ask things like:

“What’s this varietal?”
“Will you help me pick one that’s good?”
“Do you use commercial fertilizers?”
“When was this picked?”
“Where is your farm?”
“Will you have these next week, too?”

If a vendor seems uninformed or surly, go elsewhere. Also look for lines at certain tables. The long-timers know where to go through trial-and-error. Don’t reinvent the wheel.

Is it ripe?
Sometimes, it’s hard to know. Take bananas. They’re pretty when they’re neon yellow — but they’re not as tasty as when they’ve got brown spots.

Apples, too. Some heirloom varieties are mottled, a sign that they’re extra crisp but certainly not as pretty as the shiny, blemish-free, waxed fruit at the supermarket.

Look for dirt, a sure sign that the veggies have come right out of the ground. Washing off a little grit at home is a small price to pay for exquisite taste.

In the end, follow this simple rule: Your nose knows. Smell the fruit and veggies. If a peach doesn’t smell like a peach, it’s not going to taste like one either.

Is it organic?
Frankly, it may not matter. Yes, pesticides and unsavory additions do matter a lot. But many small family farms cannot pay for the rigorous testing and application process that an organic certification requires — yet these very farms produce fruits, vegetables, cheese and meat well within the rules of organic compliance.

A couple of ways to know what you’re getting
1. Some farmers’ markets offer only organic produce but pay for the testing through state or city grants — or even private donations. Thus, small farmers are certified by the market, rather than under their own steam. You can check out your farmers’ market’s rules at the information kiosk.

2. You can also ask questions of individual farmers.

“What kind of fertilizers do you use?”
“How do you care for the soil at your farm?”
“Where’d you get the seed stocks?”
“Does organic really matter?”
“How old are your fruit trees?”

Listen to the answers you get. If they seem pat or simplistic, pass on to another table.

How do I get the most out of my farmers’ market?
Here’s one simple rule: taste something new every time, whether it’s a yellow radish, a new lettuce, a different kind of cheese or a white carrot.

If you’re going to buy among the abundance, there’s no point in not taking advantage of it. Sure, some things won’t be to your taste — but you’ll discover more and more that will make your kitchen and table better places to thrive.

Farm stands
Drive down a country road and you’ll inevitably come upon a farm stand, usually just a wooden shed but sometimes a more elaborate structure.

How do you know if it’s worth a stop?
Look around you. If you’re in the middle of the California orchards, chances are you’ve hit the jackpot for plums, apricots and nectarines. If you’re in the middle of artichoke farms, you know what you’re having for dinner. But if you’re in the middle of flat fields with nothing but stubble to the horizon, chances are the stand has nothing local you’ll want to eat.

When you get inside, look at the produce itself. Is it in those familiar boxes from the supermarket — the oranges from Florida, the tomatoes from California? And meanwhile, you’re in Indiana. If so, pass on.

Does each fruit or vegetable have a sticker with a zebra stripe or a UPC code? A little sticker that says “product of Chile”? Pass on again. The stand is just buying boxes of fruits and vegetables at a local wholesaler and putting them up for sale.

Once again, the best strategy is to ask questions
“Do you own this farm stand?”
“For how long?”
“Where’s this stuff grown?”

Any reputable farm stand will have ready and willing answers. And those answers will lead you to the best that the country — and summer — affords, whether it’s at a CSA, a farmers’ market or a farm stand near you.

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