Yesterday I wrote a very painful blog commenting on how not everything that appears local, small-scale, and organic really is such. The reality is you have to be a bit of a food detective if you want to really support agriculture that makes good sense. Over the next couple of days I'm going to suggest a few quick tips for making your experience at the market more meaningful. For some of you, these may seem extremely obvious. For others, this may be new information. That said, I suspect what I have to say will get you thinking either way.
Market Tip #1: Know the Seasons!
You should not trust the market to dictate to you what is "in season". You should have a basic sense of what should be growing where you live when you arrive at the market. By doing so you can get a good sense of when you are being exploited. For example, if you show up to a market in New England in May and see tomatoes, you either live in a really interesting microclimate, your grower has a super hip hoop house, or the individual selling you that tomato bought it from a wholesaler. Don't just pick up the tomato and throw it at the marketer! Just ask, "where did these tomatoes come from?" If the individual at the market has no clue, or just tells you, "from our farm" without further explanation, you have need to be concerned.
Last year in May I walked into a larger grocery. As I walked in they had a huge melon crate full of watermelons. There was an elderly couple walking in at the same time. The elerly gentleman turned to his wife and said, "How wonderful, the local melons are ripe early this year. They seem to be ripe earlier each year." Had the couple taken the time to read the crate they would have seen, "Product of Georgia" clearly marked on the crate. They did not because they simply assumed a big crate of melons presented like that meant they were, "in season."
So, how do you know what is "in-season" where you live? It shouldn't be that hard to find out. Let me suggest two great starting points. First, you can check in with your local extension agent. You can find him or her by searching on the internet for "your state" extension. Search for your county and you'll have a name and number. This same website may have the produce season information clearly presented for you or you may have to make a call. The extension agent may also connect you with a Master Gardener in your area who can be of help. Second, you can head on down to your local plant nursery and see if they might have a reference for you. Many nurseries will have a calendar of when you should plant and when you should expect to harvest.
Use whatever vegetable season guide you come up with as a reference companion when you head for the market. With your guide in hand you will be that much more prepared to out-smart any potential "farmer pretenders" out there trying to exploit you and your market.
Vincent M. Smith