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Article updated: 6/6/2013 2:14 PM

Fruits, vegatables taste better when fresh off the farm

Fruits, vegatables taste better when fresh off the farm

Fruits and berries are harvested and make their way to local farmers markets within a few days. Vendors will share information on where their food is grown.

Fruits and berries are harvested and make their way to local farmers markets within a few days. Vendors will share information on where their food is grown.

 

Courtesy of Palatine Farmers Market

As autumn arrives and the season changes, new crops of vegetables appear at outdoor markets throughout the suburbs.

As autumn arrives and the season changes, new crops of vegetables appear at outdoor markets throughout the suburbs.

 

Courtesy of Naperville Farmers Market

Sweet corn, watermelon and cantaloupe are common staples of the suburban farmers market scene.

Sweet corn, watermelon and cantaloupe are common staples of the suburban farmers market scene.

 

Courtesy of the Palatine Farmers Market

 
Homegrown tomatoes are always a favorite at farmers markets throughout the Chicago suburbs.

Homegrown tomatoes are always a favorite at farmers markets throughout the Chicago suburbs.

 

Courtesy of Gurnee Park District Farmers Market

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By Kat Zeman

Marg Duer doesn't care if the egg came before the chicken. But she is particular about how it tastes. For her, the taste of a freshly laid egg doesn't compare to one bought at a supermarket.

"It's a total different experience to have a fresh egg that was laid yesterday. The yolk is almost florescent. It's a very bright orange,"says Duer. "If you go to a supermarket, the eggs are usually stored in a warehouse for three weeks before they go to the grocery store."

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At a glance

Gurnee Park District Farmers Market: 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. Fridays, June 7 --Sept. 27 at Esper Petersen Park, Grand Avenue and Kilbourne Road. (847) 599-3745.
Naperville Farmers Market: 7 a.m. to noon Saturdays, June through October at the 5th Avenue Station parking lot, 200 E 5th Ave. (630) 369-5638.
Palatine Farmers Market: 7 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturdays, May 4 to Oct. 26at the Palatine train station, 137 W. Wood St. (847) 358-1649.

Duer, who founded the Palatine Farmers Market more than 20 years ago and still manages it today, believes farmers markets offer shoppers a unique experience that can place healthier items on their plates -- as well as save them money on certain items.

Foods found at a farmers market are generally much fresher than those at a supermarket. Farmers often pick their produce the day before, which also means the produce will last much longer in your refrigerator.

It addition, shoppers have the unique opportunity to meet the people behind the food -- an experience that is not possible at a supermarket.

"I feel better knowing where my money is going and where my food is coming from," says Kathy Mortensen, onsite manager for the Naperville Farmers Market.

When it comes to produce, farmers markets can give shoppers the most bang for their bucks. Fruits and vegetables that are in season are going to be the best buy.

"I think they are very competitive and comparable to a supermarket and, when you take into consideration the freshness, it's well worth it," Mortensen says.

Asparagus, lettuce, peas and spinach are generally found in the beginning of the season, starting around April, says Duer, who keeps a list of what items are in season. Mid-season, June through August, shoppers will see a lot of apples, berries, carrots, melons, plums, radishes and tomatoes. Later in the season, generally around September, patrons will see more of items like cucumbers, greens, potatoes, pumpkins and squash. Some items, like peas and onions, are in season from April through November.

"And the quality is going to be better," says Kristi Murray, who oversees the Gurnee Park District's Farmers Market. "The farmers are harvesting those items a day or two before they bring them to the market."

Don't forget that you can try to bargain at a farmer's market -- something you can't do at a supermarket. Vendors are often open to cutting people a good deal, especially if a purchase is made in bulk.

Organically delicious

In order for food to be labeled "organic," its producers are required to obtain special government certification, which is a part of the reason organic foods tend to be more expensive. While the food at a farmers market may not have a government stamp of approval, many local farmers use organic farming methods that do not involve modern synthetic inputs like pesticides and chemical fertilizers.

"So you may be getting organic produce at a fraction of the cost you would pay at the supermarket," says Rachel Berman, a registered dietician and director of nutrition for CalorieCount.com.

If you want to know if a certain product is organic, just ask the farmer. Often, the vendors will volunteer this information as soon as you approach their booth. In addition to organic produce, many of the larger farmers markets -- including those in Naperville, Palatine and Gurnee -- offer free range meats.

"The flavor of meats that are hormone free and antibiotic free is different," says Duer. "And it doesn't have the same smell as the meat you unwrap from the grocery store."

Farmers markets are also a great time to experiment with new foods. You'll find more variety than at a supermarket, especially among produce. You may see purple and yellow carrots, tomatoes of different colors and even foods you've never heard of -- like "ramp," a type of spring onion.

"Be adventurous," suggests Berman, adding that each different color fruit or veggie contains a different antioxidant with its own health benefits.

Herbs are another good buy. Many of the vendors blend their own herbs, offering uniquely different herbs that will not be found at the supermarket. Some vendors may even offer free samples of their products. This practice is becoming less common because counties now require vendors to buy permits if they wish to offer free samples, but many still do it.

Friends in new places

One of the most unique benefits of shopping at a farmers market is being able to meet the people who produce the foods. If asked, the farmers can also offer tips on proper storage of their foods as well as giving the consumer an idea if their produce contains pesticides or how their meat was raised. Some may even offer tips and recipes for their products.

Most markets require their vendors to be present at their markets on a weekly basis, giving shoppers a feeling of continuity and allowing them to develop relationships.

"Our staff and our vendors become a family," says Murray, of Gurnee's farmers market. "We pride ourselves on our friendly market."

Each farmers market has a general guideline for what it considers a "local" farmer. Gurnee's market, which attracts up to 40 vendors each season, allows its vendors to come from within a 200-mile radius of the village, says Murray. In Palatine, the guidelines are a bit stricter, requiring a 100-mile radius, says Duer. However, sometimes there are exceptions.

Duer says Palatine has two "international" vendors, one that sells imported olives and another who blends his own spices from all over the world. Naperville has a popular vendor who flies in fresh shrimp to the market.

In addition to food, shoppers may find advice about gardening. Palatine's market, which features roughly 30 vendors, invites a group of University of Illinois master gardeners each week to answer questions people may have about growing their home gardens.

So if you're looking for advice or have a desire to know where your food comes from, a farmers market may the place to go this season. Their growing popularity may spring from a public appetite for healthier and fresher foods, as well as for a desire to support the local economy.

"Farmers markets have been around for a long time, but they're exploding right now," says Duer. "It's much fresher and more nutritious."

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