Gardens are up and fresh produce is making its way to the table.
For some, this means heading to the garden. For others it is going to farmers markets, markets, gate sales or you-pick establishments.
There are differences between farmers markets and markets regarding food regulations and what can be sold.
At a farmers market, food can be prepared in the home as opposed to a commercial kitchen and only a certain percentage of vendors can bring in materials that they did not make or grow.
At a market, food vendors must use a commercial, certified kitchen to prepare food. There isn’t a restriction on where the products originated.
There are farmers markets throughout Central Alberta. Each market is unique in atmosphere, time and vendors. Vendors often frequent more than one market.
They might try a new market for a couple of weeks before deciding if they make enough sales to make it worthwhile.
A market is like an outside mall: many booths with items that are local, national and international.
At markets and farmers markets, each booth is owned by individuals who sell similar items that will vary in selection, quality and pricing.
A tour through any market will show that produce is often sold by the container without any indication of the weight.
When this is the case, ask, as container sizes will vary between vendors, making it a bit of a guessing game as to which has the best price.
Quality will also vary between stalls. The most popular ones have spotless produce that is well prepared and free of dirt. Lineups often occur at the vendors with the best produce as their items can sell out. Come with a bag to carry away the goods and be prepared to wait.
Ask when the produce was picked and where. If they are bringing produce in from the States, chances are they bought it at a wholesale store similar to the local grocery store. Items bought through the wholesalers often have stickers attached.
Be logical: produce brought in from B.C. will be much earlier than Alberta but once again if it is too good to be true, chances are that it was picked up at a wholesaler. Pears, apples, large carrots and thick skinned potatoes keep well in storage. The new crop will start at the end of summer.
To find out about local markets and times, go to http://www.albertamarkets.com/markets/central-alberta/
In Alberta, gate sales rarely means buying from a stand at the end of the drive. It usually involves contacting the producer and arranging a time to pick up an order. Flexible time for pickup is good for the producer, who doesn’t have to sit at the market, and for the consumer, who can have a more flexible pickup time.
Some places will deliver, others will not.
You-pick establishments sell their produce for less as there’s less labour involved for the owner.
For the consumer, it is a different story. The people who frequent you-pick establishments see it as an outing, a place to spend the day outside gathering food. Dress accordingly. Before heading out, check with the grower to confirm produce availability, time and price.
You-picks and gate sales are advertised online, in the paper and found by word of mouth. Check with market vendors as some establishments also sell at the gate and operate a you-pick. The website http://www.agric.gov.ab.ca/app21/rtw/ff/farm_fresh_map.jsp lists a number of such places but it is not complete as there are many more local operations within Central Alberta.
Before making a purchase, know what can be eaten before it spoils as well as how much you wish to freeze, pickle, can or dehydrate for winter consumption. There is a fine line between too much and not enough.
Linda Tomlinson is a horticulturalist who lives near Rocky Mountain House. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.