Farmers markets have become a food source to be reckoned with, and not just in bountiful 4-H states like California. You can see it in places like Santa Fe, New Mexico, where last January, the city broke ground on a permanent sustainable structure for their 40-year-old farmers market, and in über-urban areas like New York City, where 44 markets take place citywide every week during the growing season. According to the USDA, there are currently 4,385 farmers markets nationwide — a seven percent jump since 2005 — with sales topping $1 billion annually.

There are serious reasons why we're ditching the shopping carts in favor of farmstands. The mysteries of food sourcing have been underscored by incidents like last year's E. Coli-tainted spinach debacle and this year’s news of salmonella-laced peanut butter from contaminated sources in China. More than ever, it’s vital to know how our food is grown and where it’s coming from. These tips will help you make the most of your local farmers’ market bounty in no time.

1) Get over the "O"

While the organic label means that food is grown or raised without pesticides or herbicides, it doesn’t necessarily mean that your veggies were grown anywhere near where you live and eat. "Organic milk may be made with organic milk powder from New Zealand," says Gabrielle Langholtz, publicity manager for New York City’s Greenmarkets. Many farmers choose not to go through the certification process because their farms aren’t large enough, or because it’s too expensive, but they nevertheless grow their crops sustainably, consistent with organic-farming standards. "If the farmer lives and raises his family on his farm, he's disinclined to use chemicals to spray crops that are harmful," Langholtz says. "Your main environmentally conscious question should be: How many  miles did this food travel to get to me?" Also keep in mind that organic and sustainably grown food does not always look picture-perfect: "Don't demand cosmetic perfection, because that may require chemical treatments."

2) Think season, not reason

Sometimes you get to the farmers market with a great recipe in mind. You look around, and none of those ingredients are there. This is a clear-cut case of putting the cart before the horse. Buying fresh, local produce means getting to know what's in season when. Marne Duke, marketing manager for the Nashville Farmers Market, the oldest in the nation (it started in 1828), suggests picking up a seed catalogue, like one from Gurney’s Seed & Nursery Company, to see what grows when and where (and what it ought to look like). You can also check out the non-profit Sustainable Table's "Eat Seasonal" guide (sustainabletable.org), a great resource for enthusiastic but befuddled cooks. If the preparations seem intimidating ("How do I cook a fava bean?"), get your hands on a guided-by-seasons cookbook that you can turn to once you bring your bounty home. Some favorites: Vegetables Every Day (Morrow, $30); The Gardeners' Community Cookbook (Workman, $19.95); and A Well-Seasoned Appetite (Penguin, $15.95).

3) Sniff, don't scratch

One of the biggest conundrums of produce shopping is the eternal question: How do I know if it's fresh and ripe? First and foremost, the food you are browsing through probably hasn't traveled much more than 100 or so miles to get to you, and it was probably picked the night before, as opposed to the piles of plastic-wrapped, suspiciously hued veggies and fruits in the supermarket, which were packaged weeks prior and are bred to take a beating in their long journey to your table. As for ripeness, it's easier than you think: Pick it up and smell it. If you close your eyes and someone holds a tomato under your nose, it should smell like a tomato. Don’t squeeze the fruits or rip open an ear of corn — you'll needlessly damage them when all you really need is a good whiff.

4) Price it out

There’s been a lot of talk about how expensive farmers’ markets are. Hog wash. While it’s true that you might pay more for certain items because they are difficult to grow, delicate to transport, or yield small crops, there are plenty of others that you can buy for a song. "Don't form an opinion based on one farmstand," says Langholtz. Don’t forget the obvious: Items that cost more early or late in the season will be cheaper at peak season. And no matter what the cost, you will get what you paid for: fresh, flavorful local produce sold to you by the people who grew it.

5) Bring a buddy

Grocery shopping tends to be a solitary endeavor and, for most of us, one that we try to do as quickly and efficiently as possible. But when it comes to shopping your local farmers’ market, the buddy system works the best. “It’s a team sport,” says Duke. “A buddy can also help you carry things and get you a great bargain.” For instance, at peak season some venders will happily cut prices on bulk items like tomatoes or corn if you buy enough — a much easier endeavor if you’re sharing the bounty with a friend. And since chemical-free, fresh-from-the-farm produce has a shorter shelf life, splitting the goods allows you to stay true to the credo of waste-not, want-not, as it's less likely to end up rotting on your counter.

6) Talk it up

Getting to know your farmers is vital to getting the best there is at your market, but sometimes they don’t seem like the chattiest of folks. What to do? "As with any relationship, when you’re trying to strike up a conversation, think about what might be interesting to them," says Duke. "For instance, I'm in the South and I don't know how to cook greens. So I ask. They tell me about some amazing technique that they get from their mom, and immediately we’ve had some kind of bond." Even more importantly, don’t insult them, Duke says. "Stay away from questions like, 'Are these the best tomatoes you have?' They take a lot of pride in their product!" Langholtz adds: "Don't treat your farmer like a clerk at a grocery store. He or she is going to take it personally, and every time you go back, you'll never get that special treatment you think you deserve."

7) Pack accordingly

Some items on your list might be delicate, perishable, or just plain heavy to slog around. One answer to this is to ask a farmer to hold heavy or delicate items at his stand until you're ready to leave. They don't want you to see you struggling to carry their lovely lettuce or delicate half-pints of currants any more than you do, and asking them for this small favor is another opportunity to forge a relationship with them. Another smart idea that Duke insists on: Bring along flexible insulated storage containers to keep frozen organic meats, yogurt, cheese and other perishables from...well, perishing. And as long as we're on the topic of luggage: for Pete's sake, bring your own bags! Whether it's that old canvas tote you’ve had crumpled at the bottom of your coat closet, or plastic ones from previous supermarket trips that you'd like to get some use out of, bagging it saves money and resources for the farmers and keeps waste to a minimum. 

Story by Amy Zavatto. This article originally appeared in Plenty in August 2007. It was moved to MNN.com in April 2009.

Copyright Environ Press 2007