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Strolling through the produce section of a supermarket is a little bit like taking a culinary tour of the world: blueberries from Chile, avocados from Mexico, Starfruit from Malaysia and coconuts from Peru. Tiny stickers on the sides of apples, tomatoes or canteloupes may indicate where that fruit or vegetable came from, but they reveal little about the farmer who harvested them, the hands that picked them or other specifics of the hundred or thousand-mile journey that took them from field to plate. Concerns about food safety and personal health, in addition to greater curiosity about the origins of food, have boosted demand for local and regional food in America. For many people, a more direct farm-to-table approach can be found at farmers markets. The markets are one of the fastest-growing segments of the food market, totaling 4,685 in August 2008, up 6.8 percent from August 2006, according to the USDA.

In addition to the greater sense of security some people find in buying their food from local sources is a rich sensory experience. Farmers markets provide a sense community in which customers can interact directly with the growers of their food, browsing local farmers' offerings and chatting about the story behind each item. Samples are also often common, allowing shoppers to taste and touch a variety of fruits and vegetables, and sometimes cheeses, breads and nuts, before buying. The demand for such offerings often outpaces supply, so be sure to get an early start. Most farmers markets run from about 7 a.m. to noon on the weekends, but some open as early as 6 a.m. and also run on weekdays.

What you'll find at these outdoor markets is determined greatly by season and locale. The array of goodies at the farmers market in Blue Hill, Maine, will be very different from what you'll find in Irvine, Calif. From summer squash in Sonoma County to marionberries in the Rogue Valley of Oregon, whatever you find at the markets will likely be fresh and grown with care. As with any fresh produce, be sure to wash any item you buy prior to consuming it.

Can't get up early enough? Take a virtual stroll through markets across America at any time of day. You can even do some grocery shopping at Farmacopia and Farmer's Market Online. The online markets allow shoppers from around the world to meet and purchase products directly from producers. Get tips directly from the growers on how to store artichokes, find out which fruits are in season when, and meet farmers and craftspeople who sell their goods online.

To find a market near you, check out the map index of local and state farmers markets in the U.S. at the FarmersMarket.com. The USDA also maintains an evolving list of farmers markets in the United States. Some markets offer Web sites with crop calendars, recipes highlighting local ingredients and information on how to participate as a vendor. In Colorado, the Boulder County Farmers Market offers a free newsletter detailing the producers who will be present at each market as well as product offerings and recipe suggestions. You'll discover that late summer is a great time in Colorado for apricots, honeydew melons, peaches and eggplant. The Deerfield Farmers Market in New Hampshire points out that doing business directly with farmers turns food shopping into a social event. Friends and neighbors gather at this market to stock up on maple syrup and honey grown in their community. If you can't get to Deerfield, stop by their site for an Overnight Pickles recipe. Bring your tortilla chips! The California Federation of Certified Farmers' Markets features a complete listing of what California produce is ripe when. For example, buy avocados and cauliflower in February, watermelon and sweet corn in june, and figs and brussel sprouts in october.

In urban areas, small towns and rural communities, farmers markets are beneficial to vendors and consumers. From Maine to Hawaii, the markets provide consumers with inexpensive, locally grown, farm-fresh produce. Openair-Market Net is a great source for learning about outdoor markets worldwide. The site notes that farmers markets allow shoppers to conduct business face-to-face with vendors who have a personal commitment to the produce and products they sell. The markets allow farmers to inexpensively start an enterprise, exchange information, build reputations and earn income. They also allow farmers sell fresh-picked, vine- and tree-ripened produce that is too delicate for the packing and shipping process. This lowers cost for consumers, increases profits for vendors and produces less waste.

Perhaps one of the best things about farmers markets is the spontaneous atmosphere. The lighthearted, festive air is a welcome break from the grocery store rut. So throw the boring list out the window and dive into an array of new tastes, smells and experiences!

Check out these other resources for locally harvested produce, meats, cheeses and more.

  • Eat Well Guide
    Online directory of sustainably raised meat, poultry, dairy and eggs. Enter your ZIP Code to find products from farms, stores and restaurants in your area.

  • Heritage Foods USA
    Sells mail-order products including maple syrup, cheese and even wine from small farms. Product labels provide every detail about how they were produced. Be sure to check out the site's extensive recipe collection.

  • Local Harvest
    Web site to find farmers markets, family farms and other sources of sustainably grown food in your area, where you can buy produce, grass-fed meats, and other goodies.

  • EatWild
    Provides links to local farms that sell all-natural, grass-fed products, including grass-fed beef, lamb, goat, bison, poultry, pork, dairy and other wild edibles.

  • Food Routes
    National nonprofit dedicated to reintroducing Americans to their food. Links to farmers markets, farm stands and food cooperatives, in addition to supermarkets and restaurants in your area that sell or use locally grown food.

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