The first thing I do every Saturday morning, no matter where I am, is visit a farmers market or nearby produce stand. I have been to fruit and vegetable markets throughout the United States, South America, Central America, China, Europe, Japan and even Saudi Arabia.

No matter the location or culture, farmers markets offer friendly faces and varieties of local foods that seem to go on as far as the eye can see. 

Texas is a leader in growing produce. The diverse soil, rainfall and temperatures across the state create conditions that produce an enormous variety of farm-to-table delights. 

Almost all Texas cities are home to a farmers market. Even rural areas have roadside produce stands and farmers who sell directly to the public.

A list of farmers markets by city is found at txfarmersmarket.com.  

As the demand for locally grown food increases, more grocery stores are buying from small farms and promoting that they are a source of local produce.

LOCALLY GROWN  

No matter where you shop, buying local produce offers many benefits.

Local foods are fresh. Because local foods come right out of a nearby farm, the food is fresher and fresh food is at its peak of flavor.

Local foods are healthier. Local farmers are more likely to use organic farming techniques that avoid pesticides and preservatives. 

Local foods are better for the environment. Because the food is grown and bought in the same area, their carbon footprint is smaller because of the minimum transportation and packaging involved.

Local farmers are good stewards of the land. Local farmers are members of the community and are more likely to use organic methods and water conservation techniques that benefit all. Their farms are also natural green spaces.  

Local farmers promote food safety. Because local farmers interact directly with their customers, they have a greater incentive to make food safety a high priority, which lessens the chance of food contamination.

Buying local food makes you happier. Studies show that talking to a farmer or buying from a store that sells local produce makes you feel better. Knowing that the food you buy benefits a local family, even a neighbor, is deeply rewarding. 

BUY IN SEASON

Produce is freshest when it is harvested. The growing season for many fruits and vegetables in Texas is only a few months. However, thanks to the increase of growing foods in hot houses, some produce is harvested all year.

Here is a list from texasfarmersmarket.org of produce available by season.

January-March: squash, arugula, beets, bok choy, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, kohlrabi, leeks, lettuce, mushrooms, greens, onions, carrots, cauliflower, chard, kale, radish, spinach, potatoes, turnips.

April-June: berries, beets, turnips, broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, carrots, arugula, greens, lettuce, corn, beans, potatoes, radish, leeks, tomatoes, peaches, plums, squash, cucumbers, melons, peppers.

July-September: peaches, melons, squash, cucumbers, peppers, eggplant, onions, arugula, corn, beans, potatoes, peas, tomatoes, figs, pears, turnips, carrots. 

October-December: eggplant, pumpkin, greens, pears, radish, squash, cucumbers, peppers, onions, arugula, lettuce, corn, beans, peas, potatoes, pecans, beets, turnips, spinach, leeks.  

FARMERS MARKETS HACKS

Here are tips to help you get the most from your visit to a farmers market.

Take at least three cloth or paper bags. Use one to collect savory foods such as onions, use one for fruits and use one for items such as homemade soap, a jar of honey or fresh flowers. Plastic is not recommended at this eco-friendly environment.

Stock up. Peaches and berries are superb when eaten fresh but also are great in jellies and jams that are good all year. Turn fresh tomatoes into a salsa.

Take your time. Shopping at a farmers market is a fun experience, not a task. Browse among the displays and talk to vendors or fellow shoppers. Some farmers markets have live music and places to sit and enjoy a cup of coffee and a fresh baked muffin. Sometimes vendors offer classes or cooking lessons.

Try something new. Farmers love to introduce new varieties grown from heirloom seeds that sometimes come from other countries. If you don't know what something is, ask and then give it a try.

Get the food home quickly: Don't leave fresh produce for long periods in a car, especially when it is hot. The heat may contribute to the food spoiling quicker. 

Bring along lots of napkins. A fresh peach is hard to resist. I usually eat one in the car on the way home. 

Keep coming back. Remember, the farmers market will be there again next week and the farmers likely will have new things to offer. 

GROW YOUR OWN

The Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service offers information and hands-on training on how to grow your own fruits, vegetables and herbs. The extension service has programs and information for all ages and gardening abilities. 

Those who receive instruction gain a better understanding of where our food comes from as well the enjoyment that comes from growing their own. 

Ann Bush is  a freelance writer based in East Texas. 

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