8 Things You May Not Know about Farmers Markets

Brie Mazurek, CUESA Staff
August 3, 2018

Heirloom tomatoes at the farmers market

At CUESA, every day is a celebration of local food and farmers, but National Farmers Market Week (August 5 through 11) is all the more reason to show your local love by supporting your favorite market. CUESA is honored to be a Farmers Market Coalition featured market, alongside other outstanding markets across the country. We’ll be celebrating at our Ferry Plaza, Mission Community, and Jack London Square Farmers Markets all week long!

In anticipation of National Farmers Market Week, we asked you to send us your burning farmers market questions. We’ve demystified a few of the most common ones here.

Does “certified producer” or “certified farmers market” mean “certified organic”?

“Certified Producer” does not mean organic. Farmers who sell at Certified Farmers Markets are required to post a Certified Producer’s Certificate from their county’s agriculture department. The certificate confirms that all their products are grown, raised, or caught in California and sold directly by the producer or their employee or family member. A “Certified Farmers Market” is approved by a county agricultural commissioner for California farmers to sell their products directly to consumers. In California, Certified Farmers Markets require farmers to display their producer’s certificate and signage that says “We Grow What We Sell.”

“Certified Organic” means grown without the use of (most) synthetic pesticides or fertilizers, sewage sludge, or genetically modified organisms. All products sold as “organic” must be certified by organizations accredited by the USDA, such as California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF). Organic meat, eggs, and dairy come from animals fed only organic feed and given no growth hormones or antibiotics. Certification includes extensive record keeping and annual inspection of fields and processing facilities.

Does “pesticide free” or “no spray” mean organic?

“Pesticide free” and “no sprays” are unregulated terms that imply that there are no toxic sprays applied. Unlike the Certified Organic label, these claims are unregulated and not verified by a third party. Since this label can be misleading, it is prohibited at CUESA’s farmers markets.

Can I use EBT at the farmers market?

Yes! Many farmers markets, including all of CUESA’s, accept EBT (CalFresh/food stamps). During market hours, customers can use their EBT card at the CUESA Info Booth to receive market coins. EBT shoppers can also double their food dollars (up to $10 per market day) through California’s Market Match program, which offers free market coins redeemable for fruits and vegetables. Market Match supports local farms and helps make farm-fresh, locally grown foods more affordable for low-income shoppers. In 2017, Market Match was offered at 288 sites across the state, by 50 community-based organizations and farmers market operators.

Are farmers markets cash-only?

No! Many of our farmers market sellers take credits cards at their stands, and more and more of them are taking mobile payments, such as Apple Pay. You can find a running list here, but always ask the seller—they are often upgrading their systems to meet shoppers’ needs.

What’s the best way to find bargains at the farmers market?

If you’re looking for the best deal, showing up early means you’ll have first pick of the freshest and best-quality produce, and have time to shop around to find the best deal for your budget. Organic produce at the farmers market is often cheaper than what you’ll find in the grocery store, and buying what’s in season means that farmers sometimes have special deals on crops that are plentiful, particularly if they have a bumper crop they need to move. Some sellers offer quantity discounts when you buy more. We don’t recommend haggling with farmers, since small family farmers need our support.

I can buy tomatoes at the grocery store in January. Why I can’t buy them at the farmers market in January, too?

In California, we’re blessed with a variety of produce year round, but tomatoes are a summer crop, so you won’t find them in the farmers market in the winter. (You may some tomatoes as early as March at our markets, but those are grown in hot-houses and usually phase out when field-grown tomatoes return in the summer.)

The fruits and vegetables you buy at the farmers market are the freshest and tastiest available, based on what’s seasonally available. While tomatoes can be found in grocery stores year round, those winter tomatoes are generally transported from long distances, which means they’re grown and harvested with storage times and durability in mind, instead of ripeness and flavor. All this shipping uses large amounts of natural resources (especially fossil fuels), contributes to pollution, and creates trash with extra packaging.

Food at the farmers market is transported shorter distances and is generally grown using methods that minimize the impact on the earth. Fruits are allowed to ripen fully in the field and are brought directly to you—no long-distance shipping, no gassing to simulate the ripening process, no sitting for weeks in storage.

Wondering what’s in season when? Check out our handy seasonality charts.

How do you tell if a particular produce item (peach, avocado, etc.) is ripe?

Most produce you find at the farmers market is picked at peak ripeness for maximum flavor. Peaches and other stone, for instance, are tree-ripened, which means they’re ripe and juicy (not hard and mealy) and ready to eat within a few days of harvest. “It’s important to pick peaches at the peak of ripeness,” says Ted Loewen of Blossom Bluff Orchards. A peach will get juicier and softer as it ripens on a kitchen counter, but it will have only the amount of sugar it started with when it was picked. What changes is the chemistry; the acid content decreases as the fruit ripens, and so the fruit tastes sweeter.

For avocados, Will Brokaw of Brokaw Ranch Company, says, “I always tell people that there no shortcuts; you have to feel for softness around most or all of the avocado in order to confirm that the avocado is ripening evenly. Some people say that you can just wiggle the stem, but that would only indicate ripening on that avocado portion. I do tell people to not use their fingertips in order to check for ripeness but the lengths of their fingers instead; this way they will hopefully not leave noticeable finger indentations or otherwise damage the avocados.”

Each produce item has its own specific ripeness indicators, but when in doubt, ask the seller to show you what to look for or pick for you, so as not to bruise.

What’s the best way to store fresh produce from the farmers market?

Market goers often wonder about how to store fresh farmers market produce, especially berries and other summer fruit. What goes in the fridge, and what’s best to keep on the counter? How do you store fresh herbs so that they don’t wilt? Our friends at Stop Food Waste offer many resources for shoppers, like this handy list of what produce to store where. Got more questions about how to make the most of your produce so it doesn’t wind up in the compost bin? Check out these tips, or visit CUESA’s “Love Food? Stop Waste” Food Shed tent at the Jack London Square Farmers Market this month.

Support local farmers and celebrate National Farmers Market Week with CUESA, August 5 through 11 and all year long!