Shopping at local farmers markets is an opportunity to find healthier ways to shop, cook and eat while connecting with the local community, farmers and vendors.
Buying fresh, sustainably-raised food supports local small diversified farms, is better for the environment by ensuring green spaces, conserves land for agriculture, reduces carbon emissions from shipping produce and, ultimately, benefits the well-being of an entire community.
Choosing food at the farmers market allows you to look at food and how your food is produced in an entirely different way as you get to know the farmer. Many work farms passed down from generations while others are new, young agricultural entrepreneurs.
One of the joys of eating food grown locally is that the start of each item's season is cause for celebration, featuring summer strawberries, the sweetest you ever tasted, to tender Delicata squash in autumn. Your food choices and experiences will broaden as you discover varieties you may not have tried before -- pea shoots, garlic scapes, spinach, kale or chard.
Items at farmers markets may be certified organic, certified naturally grown or sustainably grown. The best way to understand how the food is produced is to simply ask the farmer what his growing methods are and where the farm is located.
While you might pay a little more at the market than at the supermarket, the taste is worth it. It doesn't get any fresher than when a farmer tells you with pride, and dirt under his fingernails, that his veggies were harvested just hours ago.
Incorporating local farm-fresh vegetables and fruits into your diet inspires healthy eating that's good for you, lowers cholesterol and the risk of heart disease, plus boosts antioxidants.
At the heart and soul of communities, local markets are filled with old-fashioned fun -- a great place for people to meet, shop, enjoy music and exchange stories and recipes for healthy living.
Local musicians often provide entertainment while you peruse colorful bins filled with hand-picked produce and artisanal items offering inspiration for dinner -- salad (field greens, heirloom tomatoes, cucumbers), main (fish, free-range chicken or grass-fed beef; fresh pasta), side (corn, spinach, carrots or beans), dessert (berries, peaches or baked goods) and sunflowers to brighten your home.
Tips for shopping the farmers market:
1. Bring your reusable bags or a basket, European-style.
2. Show up early to get the best choice before items run out.
3. Ask the grower or producer about their offerings. How is it grown or raised? What ingredients does it contain? How to cook or prepare it? What will you have next week?
4. Develop friendships with farmers and vendors, make a special request.
5. Bring kids along, introduce them to a fresh, healthy way of eating.
Helpful market terms
Antibiotic/Hormone-Free: Animals are not given antibiotics to prevent disease or hormones to increase growth production.
Artisanal: Produced by hand in small batches.
Cage-free: Eggs laid by hens that weren't confined in small cages.
Certified Naturally Grown: Certified by certifednaturallygrown.org, grown or produced without chemicals.
Certified Organic: Certified to be in adherence to USDA National Organic Program standards.
Free-range: Animals have access to pasture, hay or grass silage.
Grass-fed: Animals spend the bulk of their time on pastures eating a natural diet.
Heirloom: Plant varieties handed down through generations, developed for particular traits.
Integrated pest management: Pest management that reduces the use of chemical pesticides, the application at the lowest levels only when needed.
Locally-grown: Agricultural products produced and sold within a region.
Sustainable agriculture: Agriculture that is humane and environmentally sound including practices like pasturing of animals; creating diversified farms; reducing or avoiding the use of chemicals, seed genetically modified organisms (GMO), growth hormones and antibiotics.
Local area farmers markets:
* Shirley, Common
Thursdays, July and August, 4-8 p.m., September and October, 3-7 p.m.; (starts July 11).
* Groton, Williams Barn
Friday, 3-7 p.m., July to Oct. 4; (starts July 5)
* Pepperell, Town Field
Saturday, 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., June 15-Oct. 5
* Ayer, downtown, MBTA parking lot
Saturday, 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., July 27 to Nov. 9
* Harvard center, Route 110
Saturday, 9 a.m. to noon, Aug. 17 to Oct. 26