Being healthy. Buying local.

Spring is the time of year that brings new promise to the  Valley – when our trees begin to bloom and the smell of the earth and its bounty urge us to harvest. Whether you’re planting your own, picking your own, or buying at a local farm stand, the area is full of the freshest produce you can find.

Buying local doesn’t always mean buying organic, but it is the best way to know where your food is grown. And when it’s local, produce doesn’t have to be shipped from a distant location so it’s coming right from the farm to your shopping bag.

“We’ve always been of the mind to shop local, be affordable and be seasonal,” says Nina Penney, a partner of Overlook Farm Market in Newburgh. “Local food is the most pure since you don’t have to travel to get it and it doesn’t have to travel to get to you.”

Though this spring has seen some unseasonably cold days, June will still be a great time to pick your own strawberries at places like Secor Farms in Wappingers Falls or Greig Farm in Red Hook. Call ahead to make sure they are picking before you go.

One of the best reasons to buy local is knowledge, says Beverly Tantillo, owner of Tantillo’s Farm Market in Gardiner. “There is a huge benefit to knowing what you are buying,” says Tantillo. “Customers (who visit a local farm stand) can ask questions. The grower, owner, or farm workers have the knowledge and can tell customers if something is sprayed or not and when it was picked.”

“We can educate and provide that service to our customers,” she adds. “We can tell people how to use their produce, and we give out recipes.”  Tantillo says she loves to use berries and apples for crisps and rhubarb for pies. All of their produce is used in the bakery and ice cream shop.

Other produce being picked now include asparagus, spinach, and snap peas. In July, fruits and vegetables ready for picking include corn, blueberries, peas, cherries, raspberries, cucumbers, squash and tomatoes, says Poughkeepsie mom and nutritionist Mara Goulette.

Choosing the best produce can be a learning experience, she adds. “Everything is different. Some things should be soft, some should be firm. Some things have a certain smell,” says Goulette. “But the key in picking produce is to be careful there is no bruising and to look for vibrant colors.”  Fruits that should be soft or just have a little give include mangos, kiwis and avacados, as well as the stem of a pear or cantaloupe. While apples, onions and potatoes should be firm.

“Look for quality and freshness,” suggests Tantillo. “And fruit that is not waxed.” Blueberries are also ripe for picking in August, as are eggplant, cantaloupes, onions, cauliflower and peaches. Some apples are ready in July, but most are picked between August and October. Later harvests also include nectarines, watermelon, grapes, leeks and pumpkins.

At Tantillo’s, rhubarb was ready in May, but there wasn’t much of a call from people coming to pick it, so workers pick it and make rhubarb pie to sell in their bakery. In addition to a bakery, Tantillo’s also offers a gift shop and a soft-serve ice cream stand where they make their own toppings.

“Whatever we have – like blueberries and strawberries – we use them for toppings,” says Tantillo, mentioning the delicious apple crisp ice cream sundae they sell at the family farm. This is the fourth generation to run the farm and includes Tantillo’s daughters, son, and grandchildren.

Some farm groups use local workers to pick fruits and vegetables rather than let consumer pick it. Right now, workers at Overlook Farm Market, about three miles north of the Newburgh-Beacon Bridge, are picking spinach, says Penney.

Experienced pickers know to pinch off the tender leaves while a non-farmer might pull the entire plant from the ground, resulting in it no longer being able to grow. They sell their fresh picked produce at their own farm stand.

“Our customers can see the vegetables growing on the farm,” says Penney. “But we pick the produce for them and then bring it to the customers.” Buying local doesn’t just mean getting the freshest produce you can find.

Farm markets also feature products from local artisans, plus honey, cheese, meat, and other wares. Buying local means supporting a way of life in the mid-Hudson Valley for places like Overlook, which has been operating for four generations.

“Don’t go out there and buy strawberries from Chile,” says Penney, “when you can have local strawberries.” “Shopping locally,” adds Tantillo, “will keep our farms here. Bigger markets draw away from local farms and this is how we survive.” With the dozens of places to find Hudson Valley-grown produce, buying local is rite of summer.

Liz Consavage Vilato lives in the Hudson Valley and is a frequent contributor to Hudson Valley Parent