Pick the perfect produce and freshest cheeses with our tips from Farmers Market expert Chef Amy Tornquist.

fresh local food
Credit: Beth Dreiling Hontzas / Styling Lisa Powell Bailey / Food styling Marian Cooper Cairns

"Even in this economy, it still pays to buy local," insists North Carolina chef and local foods afficionado Amy Tornquist. The majority of dairy and vegetables she uses at her restaurant, Watts Grocery, come from within a two-hour radius of Durham, and she has been recognized for her commitment to sustainable agriculture.

On the other hand, Amy also understands the real-life pressures facing consumers and their food dollars. "When it comes to feeding my family, I get the most bang for my buck with local or organic produce. That's my top priority," Amy reveals. After that, she considers eggs and then dairy the best values. "Having said that, if it's a decision between buying organic at the grocery store or fresh from your local farmers' market, always go with local first," she recommends.

Amy believes that more often than not, small farmers primarily use organic growing methods, but may not have the size or money to be certified as organic. She also knows products grown nearby don't include the extra shipping costs associated with bringing organic from the West Coast, for example.

"And remember," she points out, "a dollar spent in town at a farmers market stays in town. So you're not only helping the local economy, but also as a result, farmers are able to lower their prices and offer more variety. It's a really vivid example of how this thing can work." But at the end of the day, Amy says one of the simplest ways to save money and still eat well is to buy in season. "That's my first rule of thumb. If you buy something fresh, but it's not in season, you're going to pay more. Every Southerner should know that," she explains.

Shop Like a Chef
Follow Amy's expert advice for navigating the farmers market like a pro.

  • Go early. It's hard to shop, especially if you're a newcomer, when the market is crowded. Plus, early birds have a better selection and get more attention.
  • Ask questions. Amy says the idea is to build relationships. Farmers care about regulars, so don't be afraid to ask something as simple as how to cook a new vegetable or whether or not they can cut a deal. They might even set aside some of their best stuff if they know you're a repeat customer and expect your visit.

Whether you're at home or traveling, find a market near you with the help of the Southern Living Local Market Listing.