Everyone knows local farmers markets and Community Supported Agriculture, or CSAs, are great for getting great-tasting, fresh produce and supporting your local farmers. But there are also some hidden benefits you might not have considered.
We recently talked with Brendan Sinclair, the sustainable agriculture instructor at Tollgate Education Center and Farm in Novi. As the coordinator for the farm’s 20-member CSA program, Sinclair offered some insight into the value of investing in a local farm, whether it’s by joining a CSA or shopping at an area farmers market.
If you’re looking for a farmers market or CSA near you, check out our guide here.
1. Feel connected to your food
The average item of food travels around 1,500 miles to get from farm to fork, Sinclair says, but buying from a local farm means your produce was grown nearby and you’re directly supporting that farm. This benefit is amplified when you purchase a CSA share.
“CSA is really designed for people who want to feel more connected to where their food is coming from,” Sinclair says. “It’s a way for them to kind of invest not just in their food but the farm where it’s grown.”
Joining a CSA means investing in a specific farm and a particular set of farmers.
“There’s an inherent amount of trust in that relationship. I take that really seriously,” he says. “These 20 families have entrusted me to grow their produce this season.”
2. Understand (and appreciate) the variety
The selection of produce available at a farmers market will naturally vary based on what’s in season and how weather patterns and other environmental factors have impacted local crops. You might have to do your meal planning after your trip to the farm stand, but the benefit is getting to know about the factors involved in what turns up at the market and learning to work around it.
“I think it’s a very awesome learning opportunity especially for people who have not done that before,” Sinclair says.
3. Increase your vegetable literacy
The variety you find in your weekly CSA box or at the farmers market often means trying new foods and adding more diversity to your family’s diet. One family told Sinclair that their daughter tried romaine lettuce for the first time and loved it.
Many farms, including Tollgate, offer recipes and are happy to share tips for preparing different foods.
“That’s kind of inviting them as families to prepare and cook meals together in ways they might not have been able to do before,” Sinclair says.
4. Ask questions and say thanks
Asking questions of the farmers is expected and one of the benefits of shopping at a farmers market, Sinclair says.
“It invites you to interact with the producer of your food,” he says. “We don’t often have that opportunity when we’re at the grocery store.”
Sinclair says it’s “absolutely appropriate” to ask whether all of the food for sale was grown on the farm and ask about the farm’s growing practices. Try not to sound overly critical, though. “Your produce looks great, how are you growing?” or “I try to buy organic, are you growing organically?” are good examples, he says.
“The more you learn about your food, the more informed your questions for the farmer can be, which is also an opportunity to see it as a learning experience,” he says.
Talking directly with a farmer at the farmers market is also a chance to show your appreciation.
“That’s a great opportunity to thank the farmer for the hard work that they’re doing because growing food is difficult,” Sinclair says.
5. Get hands-on experience
Farms often offer volunteer opportunities so that customers can see where their food is grown and help out occasionally, Sinclair says. Some farms even offer a discount on CSA shares to members who volunteer.
“Some of our families come and volunteer. That’s a really incredible relationship too,” he says.