Food at farmer's markets is not automatically the best

Farmer's markets have enjoyed a great degree of popularity over the last few years and for a reason. You can get the freshest, homegrown produce that's been picked at its ripest and best. It's not always the cheapest, though, and if you're watching your food budget, you may have a hard time convincing yourself that a head of lettuce is that much better.

It may not be. Some farmer's markets are strict about who can sell and what they can sell, but others are more lax and allow anyone who will pay the fee to sell produce, crafts and other things. Some vendors will buy food from salvage and try to resell it. Look out for commercial looking boxes on the backs of their trucks.

Not everything brought in from a farmer's field (or a back yard garden) is necessarily of greater quality than you'll find on the shelves of the grocery store, either. Fresher, sure. But fresher doesn't equal better if it's laced with insect and plant poison. GMO? Who knows? Any time a truck farmer buys certain seed, the chances of that seed being genetically modified are quite high. Almost all corn grown in the USA is genetically modified.

So how do you know what is quality food at the farmer's market? Actually, the answer is quite simple. You ask. Most farmers will be glad to answer a few questions about how they grow produce and what they use to make it grow best or to be safe for consumption.

The key to this approach is not to ask "Is your produce organic?" but to ask "What do you put on your produce to make it grow so well?!" Give them a rope and see if they'll hang themselves.

If he tells you he uses natural fertilizers and doesn't have much trouble with insects, his produce is fine, whether it's officially organic or not. Talk to him and pay attention to what he says. You'll find out what you want to know.

If he tells you about the wonders of Roundup and special seed, go to the next booth.

Then, if, in your wanderings and conversations, you find someone who says they just enrich the soil with compost and side dress it with manure, latch on to them! They have healthy, natural produce.

But how to get it at a decent price? Wait until the last hour or half hour of the market. Just when they're about to start putting things away, take a saunter down the aisle and look for bunches of produce that you'd like to have. Having picked it at dawn, hauled it to market and watched over it for hours, the truck farmer is probably not looking forward to loading it again and taking it home to feed to his livestock, or even compost it.

He will probably deal with you. Make a fair offer and be prepared to take whatever he has at that price. You can come home with a carload of fresh vegetables for very little... or not. The farmer might have another purpose in mind that's worth more to him than your money. If so, let it go. It's okay. You can't know when you offer if he will accept it or not, but don't let that stop you from offering. If it doesn't work, try again.

Make friends with the farmers and you might get special deals when they have just a few things left in the truck, or they might give you something special. I will never forget asking for beef liver. I was buying mostly ground beef and whole chickens from a couple who sold it at our farmer's market when one day I happened to think that they might also have liver. They didn't because, as she said, no one ever asked for it. She promised to have some the next week, though, so I promised to buy it. She brought one package. I asked for more and the next Saturday, she gave me five pounds! What a coup for me, since I love liver.

It happens. Go, be friendly and remember that a farmer's market is NOT a grocery store. It's people. People who love to grow good things and people who love to eat good things. When we match up, who knows what can happen?