What you need to know about shopping at your local farmers market

Downtown Art and Farmers Market in El Paso

Making a choice about whether your food comes from a locally grown producer or is shipped into town on a truck is a daily decision for consumers.

With the increase in farmers markets nationwide, shoppers are witnessing an uptick in the benefits of shopping locally. One benefit to shortening the distance from farm to table is that food will be exposed to fewer possible contaminants.

"One of the really beautiful things about this whole shopping experience is that you are buying directly from the manufacturer, so it’s direct to consumer sales," said Valerie Venecia, market coordinator for the Downtown Art and Farmers Market in El Paso.

Becoming a small-time food producer in Texas or New Mexico does not come without jumping through some hoops first.

“I was able to find out that in Texas, there’s a cottage food law,” says Gracie Valenzuela, the owner of Blushing Buffalo, which specializes in handmade jewelry and baked goods for people with special diets.

Since the inception of cottage food laws, Venecia said the downtown market in El Paso has seen a considerable increase in the number of vendors who make and sell their own food.

Claudia Beaver, market manager of the Farmers Market of Ardovino’s Desert Crossing in Sunland Park, New Mexico, said the cottage laws in New Mexico are similar.

“You would need to get a $100 permit from Doña Ana County, and then (the Health Department) would come and inspect your kitchen,” she said.

Beaver said many people forego operating out of their home kitchen and instead opt to rent a commercial kitchen by the hour at a church or elsewhere to prepare and bake their goods.

Valenzuela, based out of El Paso, chooses to bake from her home kitchen. She said cottage food laws allow vendors to sell only low-risk foods, including canned jellies, cereal and granola, fruit pies (including pecan pie), unroasted nut butters and baked goods that don’t require refrigeration. Valenzuela said the idea is to sell something that cannot spoil easily.

The cottage food laws in both Texas and New Mexico are aimed at protecting consumers. One way is through special labeling.

“On your labeling, you have to first state that this is made in a home kitchen which is not USDA approved,” said Beaver.

Labels also include the vendor’s contact information and any potential allergens. Both states also require vendors to have an official food handler’s card, issued by the corresponding health department.

Food vendors take precautions to make sure shoppers with special diets, or food allergens, know what they’re buying. “The last thing that anyone would want is for someone to get sick," Valenzuela said.

A growing concern across the U.S. is sensitivity to gluten. The National Foundation for Celiac Awareness said as many as 18 million Americans have intolerance for gluten.

Shoppers at the farmers markets said they are not concerned about potential cross-contamination from a home kitchen. “I have a gluten sensitivity,” said Susanna Rodriguez-Snyder of east El Paso, “I’ve bought things like cookies and breads.”

KFOX-14 asked vendors how the food that is labeled "gluten-free" is kept separate from items that contain gluten. “You have certain bowls that I have color coded," Valenzuela said. "I’m like, ‘This is my gluten free stuff’ and ‘This is my other stuff.’”

The USDA said farmers markets serve as great business incubators. Vendors keep overhead costs low while being able to test multiple products on variety of demographics at the same time.

Luke Bonilla, a baker at Coco’s Confections, said her dream is use the farmers market as a stepping stone for her overall business plan. “I’ve actually been wanting to get my own food truck,” said Bonilla.

A spokesperson for the National Farmers Market Coalition said the number of markets in the U.S. has doubled in the last five years. Experts believe that one reason behind the rapid growth is the community created around food.

“People are very food-driven,” Venecia said. “Our clientele is looking for fresh, local ingredients to use in their diets at home.”

Experts said buying from local farmers market vendors can also boost the local economy. The New Economics Foundation found that money spent shopping locally is twice as likely to stay in the community vs. shopping at a chain competitor.

Farmers markets in the Borderland:

El Paso Downtown Art and Farmers Market

When: 9 a.m. to noon every Saturday

Where: 117 Anthony St., El Paso

What: An outdoor artisan market featuring original arts and crafts, food vending, regionally grown agricultural products and entertainment from local artists. The market also hosts free arts and crafts for children as well as health and wellness workshops and family yoga on the first Saturday of each month. Free parking is available in the Anthony Street parking lot.

Montecillo Farmers Market

When: Times and dates vary. Visit its Facebook page for the latest updates.

Where: TI:ME at Montecillo, located at Montecillo Boulevard and Mesa Street

What: Over 25 vendors. Shop for fresh fruits and vegetables and enjoy live music and family fun.

Farmers and Crafts Market of Las Cruces

When: 8:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. Wednesdays and Saturdays

Where: Main Street, downtown Las Cruces, Mexico

What: More than 300 vendors spread over seven blocks, selling produce, baked goods, crafts and more. The market celebrated its 40th anniversary in 2011 and was named the top Large Farmers Market in the Nation in America’s Farmland Trust’s 2011 nationwide poll.

Ardovino's Desert Crossing Farmers Market

When: 7:30 a.m. to noon Saturdays (May through October) and 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturdays (October through May)

Where: 1 Ardovino Drive, Sunland Park, New Mexico

What: Vendors sell a selection of organic and pesticide-free produce, beef, pork, lamb and goat, fresh-baked breads and salsas. Pick up a cup of fair trade coffee, house-made pastries and/or fresh squeezed juice as you make your way through the market. Attendees can sign up for a yoga class, which starts at 9 a.m. every Saturday and is $10 per person; bring a new friend and receive a complimentary mimosa. Brunch is also available in the restaurant.

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