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Fresh from the farm: As markets prepare to sell fresh produce, local experts offer suggestions on how to make the most of it this summer

Elle Mattson of West Fargo looks over a colorful collection of vegetables in July 2008 while shopping at the West Fargo Farmers Market with her dad Brad Mattson. Forum file photo

Fargo - Locally grown produce won’t be limited to the green thumbs this summer – farmers market season is almost here, and several will soon be selling fresh-from-the-field food in the community.

But Austin Wittmier, a “veggie pro” for Bill Erbes Farm, which has had a stand at the Great Plains Produce Association’s Farmers Market at Dike East Park for almost 30 years, said it’s best to show up with a shopping list to avoid overbuying or wasting produce with a short shelf life.

“Before you come to the market, plan out what meals you think you’d like to make for the week so that you have an idea as to what you need and when you need it,” he said.

The association’s farmers market is tentatively set to start June 24, and will be open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday at Dike East Park, 100 Second St. S., Fargo.

A separate market at the same location, the New Festival Market, is aiming to start up by mid-July and will be open 3 to 6 p.m. Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays until the fall, weather permitting.

Farmers Market & Beyond is scheduled to start July 10 and stay active through Oct. 2, and will be open 4 to 7 p.m. Mondays and Thursdays at the South Elmwood Park parking lot, 500 13th Ave. W., in West Fargo.

Know what will keep Lettuce, tomatoes and sweet corn are picked when ready to eat and should be consumed within a few days of purchase for the best flavor and nutrition, Wittmier said.

Because the market is open three days a week, he said it’s better to make frequent trips to get the freshest food possible.

“The farmers market season in North Dakota is short, so if you want to cram in as much locally grown stuff as you can, rather than trying to bulk up and buy a week’s worth of groceries one time a week, see if it’s possible to come to the market more often,” he said. “Just buy what you can eat so that you are getting it as fresh as it can be every time you eat it.”

That tactic doesn’t work for everyone, Wittmier said, but there are still plenty of ways of enjoying the local harvest without throwing away spoiled veggies all summer.

Tomatoes for sandwiches or salads are best bought right before they’re used, he said. But if the tomatoes will be going in sauces or soups, he said they can be frozen and saved for later.

Wittmier recommends putting tomatoes on a cookie sheet and placing the whole sheet in the freezer. Once frozen, they can be transferred to a plastic bag and kept in the freezer until ready for use.

“You still get that fresh tomato taste, but you don’t have to do any of the hard work that you would if you were to make salsa,” he said.

Another easy option is to cut up peppers, leftover onions and other veggies, and freeze it in a plastic bag. The frozen pieces can be added to stir-fry, stew and other meals without much effort, he said.

Lettuce and greens will keep best if wrapped in a paper towel and stored in the refrigerator, though he said kale, chard and other greens won’t last beyond a few days.

Daniel Rugroden, president of the New Festival Market that’s sold produce, crafts and food at Fargo’s Dike East Park for the past few years, said locally grown produce typically has a longer shelf life than grocery store fruits and vegetables.

“If something’s picked fresh and you buy it fresh, it’s going to last a lot longer than something that was sitting on a truck,” he said.

Rugroden and his wife have canned food for years, and he said it’s a great option for preserving fresh summer food for later use – if done correctly.

“Safety and health concerns are extremely critical, and when you can, you’ve got to do it right so it is safe for consumption,” he said.

Books and websites can help newbies learn how to properly can, Rugroden said, and the North Dakota State University Extension Service also can be a good resource for help.

Kim Wangler, a recreation specialist for the West Fargo Park District and organizer of the Farmers Market & Beyond, said blanching and freezing corn and beans is an easy way for keeping the food good for weeks or months after purchase.

Canning or making salsa is another good option, as is pickling cucumbers or other summer produce, she said.

Other items, such as potatoes and carrots, will last longer as-is and can be stored until ready for use, though Wangler said it’s good for farmers market shoppers to know what they’ll realistically be able to get through before it spoils.

“You’d want to buy what’s appropriate for your family so that you could just come from week to week,” she said.

Wangler’s family makes a lot of stir-fries with fresh vegetables each summer, she said, and she also likes to freeze sweet corn so they can enjoy fresh corn all winter.

Shop wisely Don Kinzler, Forum gardening columnist and lifelong gardener, said it’s best to buy the farmers market produce that will be noticeably fresher and better-tasting than what we could get at a grocery store.

Strawberries, raspberries, asparagus, new potatoes, green beans, peas, beets and melons often have a better flavor from farmers markets, he said, because of the freshness.

“With a local farmers market, a lot of the stuff is probably picked the same morning or just the day before,” Kinzler said. “With a grocery store, that produce was probably picked a week or two in advance.”

Sweet corn is “greatly improved” when fresh, he said, and tomatoes are a good farmers market purchase.

“Tomatoes would be hands-down the greatest flavor improved,” he said.

But other vegetables, including lettuce, radishes, cabbage, carrots and onions, likely won’t taste much different no matter where purchased, Kinzler said.

“My biggest thing would be to focus on the items that are vastly improved,” he said.

Wittmier said there’s another advantage to farmers market produce – the farmers will be there at the stands, ready to give advice or offer suggestions to use the freshly harvested foods.

“Don’t be afraid to ask questions,” he said. “The people that are growing that produce are going to know the shelf life of everything that they’ve picked, and they’re going to be able to tell you which things you need to use first.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Ryan Johnson at (701) 241-5587

Ryan Johnson

Ryan Johnson has been a Forum reporter since 2012 and previously wrote for the Grand Forks Herald.

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