(David Karp / For The Times )
Farmers markets are hot. More people than ever want to eat local produce and shop at them, and chefs glorify their growers. Nowhere are farmers markets more popular than in Southern California, where great produce is available all year. The number of certified markets in the region roughly doubled over the last decade, to more than 200, and they're all over — at hospitals, malls, gated communities and rock festivals.
There's a downside to this explosion, however, a dilution in quality, as commercial growers and peddlers have rushed to cash in on the demand. Anyone who wants the real deal — high-quality produce from genuine farmers — needs to carefully choose markets and vendors.
Discerning the difference is not always easy; for close to 20 years, I've made it my business, and I still get fooled occasionally. But more often than not, following a few simple guidelines will be a big help.
A certified farmers market — authorized by the state to host growers selling their products directly to consumers — should have a well-chosen roster of vendors that offer the main kinds of fruits, vegetables, nuts, eggs, honey, etc. It doesn't have to be huge, just good for its size; in fact, when a new market opens, it's even better if it starts small and grows gradually as demand increases.
Certified markets can also have vendors who sell prepared foods and even, in a separate section, items they didn't grow, such as bananas and Chinese mushrooms. So look for markets that focus on locally grown produce. Those other stands can be more profitable for market operators, but once they predominate, farmers become an afterthought, and quality suffers.
Managers are supposed to identify certified and noncertified sections, and certified growers should hang their certificates in public view. (There are some items, however, such as wild fish and most wild mushrooms, that are noncertified but can be very good quality.)
Talk to the manager. Experience is good, but a savvy and idealistic novice is preferable to a blasé veteran. Any decent manager will at least pay lip service to supporting real farms and quality produce.
Good managers make good markets. They should try to visit their market's farms and ensure that all of the produce being sold is being grown there, but a surprising number confess blankly, "That's not my problem." Managers should also keep a lid on specious claims that produce is "naturally grown" or organic or unsprayed if that's untrue.
Mindful shopping at farmers markets involves many factors that often compete with one another and rarely align perfectly. Each shopper will have different priorities, which may change over time: A pregnant woman may emphasize organics, while an unemployed person may prefer good value. Here are my top 10 considerations, not necessarily in order of importance:
• Eating quality, namely flavor, aroma and texture, are paramount. Farmers markets can provide quality better than any source other than one's own garden (assuming one has the land, proper climate and time).
• Variety: Farmers markets and farm stands offer shoppers the best opportunity to find great-tasting varieties that are neglected by commercial channels. Get to know the tastier varieties, and ask farmers and managers to identify them by name. Look particularly for heirloom varieties, such as Blenheim apricots and Black Krim tomatoes; superior modern varieties, such as GoldRush apples; and delicate items, such as boysenberries and Persian mulberries, which are only available at their best at farmers markets.
• Freshness, of course, is crucial. If you can, get to a market early for a larger and fresher selection. Many items get bruised from rough handling or wilt after a few hours in the heat. When it's really hot, take a portable cold box to protect the most perishable items.
• Ripeness (for fruit) and proper maturity (for vegetables) are equally critical. And since ripe often means fragile, bring a cart or a box (like a fruit box with plastic cups) to keep delicate purchases from being crushed.
• Seasonality: Following the rhythm of the seasons means not only knowing when to start buying but also when to stop, because the fruit or variety is past its prime. Good shoppers get to know the produce calendar.
• Artisanal versus industrial: In general, small- or medium-size farms that focus on farmers markets can offer more flavorful produce than industrial-scale operations; this is at the heart of what farmers markets are all about. But a farm's size is often belied by its stand: Some huge operations mimic the look of smaller growers. If you want to know, ask to see the stand's certificate, which will show who owns it, where it grows, how many acres, of what items and varieties, and whether they also sell for other producers.