I love the Des Moines Downtown Farmers’ Market, held every Saturday morning from May through October. The food, the sights, the smells, the pressure!

Ah, the pressure. There is simply so much to choose from that I am easily overwhelmed.

Lamb? That sounds awesome! (What do I do with it?)

Bok choy? Umm…I don’t think I’d recognize it. (Does it go with lamb?)

Arugula? I simply love the sound of the word! (But what does it taste like?)

Even the familiar things can trip me up as I try to shop for fresh items. I’ll end coming home with 14 tomatoes, 8 potatoes, 4 loaves of bread, and more, but not put it all to use on my family’s dinner plates.

Ah, the pressure. Is it just me?

Well, since the farmers’ market season is still in full-swing and to celebrate National Farmers’ Market Week (Aug. 2-7), here are some tips to help you (okay, this is really mostly about me) make the most of your market visit, whether you’re in Des Moines or Decorah.

1. Timing is everything. And this isn’t about getting there early to find the best and most of everything. This is about understanding what foods are in season. Now is the perfect time to find corn, summer squash and peppers.

2. Dinner plans. Decide on one or two recipes that you’ll make that evening and go shopping. By building upon what is in season, you can wow your family with a new offering.

3. Know the lingo. There is so much out there from organic to natural to heirloom. Study up on what those words mean and then decide what they mean to you. And then ask the farmers at the market what it means to them. You’ll be learning and eating well at the same time.

One of my favorite farmers to talk to at that market is the members of Rinehart’s Family Farm. Greg and Polly Rinehart and many of their ten children run a booth right near the Polk County Courthouse. Offering seasonal vegetables, from white asparagus to the sweet corn that they picked very, very, very early that very morning, the family loves the interaction that the market environment offers them. Polly will count out and bag up your produce and even let you know the best way to prepare it.

These are actually just a few of the many market tips you can find at www.desmoinesfarmersmarket.com. It’s a great resource that includes tips, maps, event listings and recipes for that market.

I’m definitely looking forward to returning to the market with a game plan put in place. (But it doesn’t mean that I still won’t be distracted by shiny jewelry and yummy breakfast burritos.) My goal is to buy as much from the market in order to assemble a meal for that evening.

Maybe I’ll even find out what to do with that arugula. At least I’ll have fun saying “Try it!” I’ll declare to my dinner guests. “It ARUGULA!”

By the way, this applies to all farmers’ markets in the state, from the tall to the small. You can find a list of all markets (locations, times, etc) at the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship website at http://idalsdata.org/IowaData/farmersMarket.cfm. It’s a great resource that lets you search by market name, city or county.

These markets are important for those local economies and to the state as well, accounting for nearly $60 million in direct and indirect sales and nearly 400 direct jobs in 2009.

So support your fresh food habit and a farmer. It’s definitely a recipe for success.

Written by Heather Lilienthal
Heather is an Ag Commodities Writer for the Iowa Farm Bureau.