Maybe it is because I grew up in a small farming community just outside of Memphis and was surrounded by hardworking individuals in my formative years or maybe it is just because the food tastes better, but either way, I prefer to buy from local farmers whenever I can. There is a marked difference in the taste of a strawberry that is in season and grown miles away from where you live as compared to one that was grown in South America during our winter months.
If you’ve never had the opportunity to taste the difference, I encourage you to visit local farmers markets this growing season. As April rolls into May, all of the farmers markets in our area should be open and ready for business. Knoxville is blessed with having so many markets available, and we can buy locally grown produce almost every day of the week at some part of town. One of our family’s favorite activities is to patronize the downtown market on Market Square each Saturday. We visit with friends, chat with farmers who have become almost an extension of our family, and nosh on tasty treats. Though the downtown market is a lot more crowded than it once was, I still prefer it to all of the others I’ve visited. There is something almost nostalgic in watching the vendors set up their tents and lay out their wares as the cool morning air greets us. Just thinking about it makes me feel all warm and fuzzy inside!
Another option for supporting local growers is to visit pick-your-own farms this year. Strawberry season, believe it or not, is here in East TN! Soon after will arrive blueberries, blackberries, and peaches. If you want an outing that is fun, educational, and good exercise, why not make a day trip with your family to a farm and pick some produce? Don’t forget to pick a little extra so that you can preserve some at home. Don’t worry, I’ll teach you more about that soon on the blog, or you can look under the “food preservation” label on the left-hand column to find more info.
Supporting local farmers is also about finding farmers that fit your family’s needs. Picktnproducts.org is a good source for doing so. If you can’t find a farmer who is selling something you are looking for, ask around. Vendors at the local farmers markets are usually more than happy to direct you to a farmer who is selling something you are looking for if they don’t have it. If that doesn’t work, ask around at local co-ops (Three Rivers Market is a co-op in Knoxville), phone restaurants you know that buy local produce, or inquire at the Agricultural Extension Agency in your county.
For us, buying from local farmers is about establishing a relationship. We much prefer to buy directly from people we know, people who are supporting their family, keeping the money in the community, and working hard to provide the best possible products for others. Some products might cost a little more than you would find at the grocery store, but chances are the quality will be well worth the extra cost. On the other side of that coin, I’ve found quite a few things LESS expensive when purchasing directly from farmers. Last year, for example, I purchased a little over a pound of garlic from a farmer friend at the price of what 2 or 3 cloves would have cost at the grocery store. As with any shopping experience, I recommend that you be savvy. Compare prices, ask for bulk discounts (politely please!), and make records of the cost of items from week to week. The first week of tomatoes might find the prices to be higher than in the heat of summer when tomatoes are everywhere.
Expand your palette. I’m a bit of an adventurous eater, and seeing produce that is unusual to me is exciting. One of the reasons I enjoy the farmers markets is that it is about the only place that experience occurs anymore. Sure, you’ll find starfruit and tiny bananas at Kroger, but I doubt you’ll find pawpaws or 1 foot long okra pods! Not to mention, delicate foods like heirloom tomatoes that can not withstand transportation are not going to be present at conventional grocery stores. Each week when you visit the farmers market (and I do really hope you choose to visit each week so you don’t miss anything) try and pick up at least 1 new food in addition to your other staple items. Better yet, let your child pick what that food will be! If you aren’t sure how to prepare the food, ask the farmer. Usually they are more than happy to share recipes and cooking ideas with you.
The tips of the day now through Earth Day are focusing on environmental stewardship. By supporting local farmers, you are reducing transportation cost and waste. Remember that even though a farmer is not certified as an organic grower many do grow using organic methods. The cost of certification is steep, too steep for many to secure it. Ask about use of pesticides and herbicides. Get to know which farmers use organic methods, and do what you can to support them.