Last week, I wrote about growing your own food for maximum freshness, nutrition, and flavor. But not everyone can grow food, whether you don’t have the space or the time or just don’t like digging in the dirt. Also, almost no one has the space to keep their own dairy cows.

The next best thing to growing your own food is buying direct from farmers. Do your research and select the farm with care. If possible, go visit the farm and see for yourself which method they use to produce their food. This is the best way to obtain good quality meat, and it has many advantages:

  • It cuts out the middlemen between you and the farmer (distributor, supermarket) and reduces the price.
  • For meats, it reduces the likelihood of cross-contamination between tainted meats, thus making your meat safer to eat.
  • It supports small, local businesses which stimulates the local economy.
  • Small farmers are far more environmentally friendly that big agribusiness and do a better job of maintaining soil, promoting biodiversity, and avoiding adding chemical contaminants to the soil, water, and your food.

There are five ways to buy direct from farmers:

Buy from a farmstand, if you live close enough to a farm. Be aware, however, that farmstands are generally seasonal. Check out the stand, too. Make certain all the produce/meat/dairy/other goods they sell is grown on their farm or at other local farms. Sadly, most of us don’t have this luxury, so…

Buy from a farmers’ market. This is tremendous fun. I love wandering through all the stalls, checking to see what each farm has this week. Some specialize in fruits, others in Asian vegetables. There are honey vendors, herb vendors, meat vendors, fish vendors, and even lamb, mutton, and wool vendors. The meats are likely frozen, but the fish and produce are generally very fresh and ready for cooking. If you like cooking in bulk for canning or freezing, here’s a little tip: wait until just before the market closes, then offer to take whole crates of your target vegetable for a bulk price. Farmers would much rather sell the produce than truck it home, so you may be able to get a great deal on those heirloom tomatoes.

Do your homework before you buy. Ask the farmer selling you that corn how she produces it. Does she use artificial fertilizers? Pesticides? Genetically-modified varieties? Does she practice crop rotation? If the vendor isn’t the farmer, ask if they have a web site you can check out. There have been isolated incidents of people posing as farmers reselling produce from big agribusiness, so be sure before you shell out more money for what you think is higher quality. Another drawback is that most farmers’ markets are seasonal, though there’s a growing demand for indoor winter markets such as the Somerville Winter Market.

Join a CSA. That’s Community-Supported Agriculture, a system in which you buy a share of the farm’s proceeds for the season or the year (for example, Sun Moon Farm, which has a distribution site right in front of my apartment building). This is a great way to encourage local farming, guaranteeing the farmer an income regardless of whether it’s a drought year or a bumper crop. Of course, you’re assuming those risks for the farmer, but since the risk is spread across hundreds of CSA members, it’s a small risk to each member. What’s great about a CSA is that you get a wide variety of produce in each weekly share distribution, vegetables you might not buy if you went to the market, but that you discover and find ways to incorporate into your weekly meals. Some CSAs include more than vegetables – eggs, dairy, maple syrup, honey, and bread are some of the optional foods I’ve seen. Some CSA farms allow their members to come and pick their own produce in addition to the weekly distribution. Best of all, it is insanely inexpensive. A 6-month (June to November) share typically sells for around $600. That’s $100 a month for a vast amount of delicious, high-quality, often organic produce. Some farms also offer a winter CSA consisting primarily of root veggies and hothouse greens.

Meat CSAs also exist, and these are similarly wonderful ways to get great quality meat at a reasonable price. I have a meat share from Chestnut Farms in Hardwick, MA. Chestnut Farms raises organic beef, pork, lamb, goat, chicken, and a limited stock of turkeys for Thanksgiving. They use highly sustainable practices and have open farm days twice yearly, encouraging members to come out and visit their future meat. The wonderful thing about this CSA is that the more you order, the less you pay. I’ve coordinated with two of my neighbors to purchase 20 lbs. of meat each month for $175 (I get 10 lbs, they get 5lb. each). That’s $8.75/lb, which is a little more than you’d pay for organic ground beef at a grocery store, but a lot less than you’d pay for the steaks, chops, and roasts we get. At distribution, they often have extras to sell, including eggs, duck eggs, bones for broth, whole chickens, sausage, and pig ears for dogs.

Sign up for a direct delivery service. Many local dairies have revived the idea of regular deliveries. I’m old enough to remember a milkman driving around our neighborhood, delivering milk, cream, and even ice cream, but this ceased in the mid-seventies as large commercial dairies took over the market. Today, small dairies such as Crescent Ridge in the Boston area will deliver milk right to your door. You get fresh dairy products, generally hormone-free or even organic. Some dairies offer milk from less common breeds of cow, such as Jerseys, whose milk has a higher cream content and richer flavor. Some CSAs also offer delivery service at a higher cost.

Join a farm cooperative. This is cheating, just a little, because it does include a middleman, but the convenience is tremendous. Farm cooperatives allow multiple farmers in a given area to band together and provide a wide range of foods to customers. I use Farmers to You, a collective of Vermont farmers and food producers that truck their food down to distribution points throughout the Boston area.

I love this service because they provide just about everything I could possibly want from a farm, year round. I get milk, cream, eggs, and fresh mushrooms with every order. As I need them, all year long, I also order garlic, potatoes, beets, carrots, kale, salad greens, apples, cider, honey, maple syrup, goat’s milk caramel, bolted wheat flour, pesto, ground beef, lamb, fresh and smoked fish, and far more. I buy other fruits and vegetables as they come into season. I place my order by midnight each Sunday, and on Thursday, my order arrives at a nearby distribution point just six blocks from my home, already bagged and ready to go.

With all these great options, it’s easy to find excellent ingredients for your meals. The great variety available encourages me to try new variations or create whole recipes around what I’ve found at that week’s farmers’ market or on special at Farmers to You. Summer’s fast approaching. I can hardly wait!