Faster than you can say “kale salad” it seems like yet another farmers market pops up. In fact, there are currently more than 8,600 farmers markets registered in the USDA’s Farmers Market Directory. It’s easy to understand why they’re popular—fresh, local produce, plus a chance to meet the farmers who grow your food, all wrapped up in a fun, festive atmosphere. But you may also be a bit confused by what’s on offer at the market. What does all the hype about local really mean? Is it organic? And should you care?

First off, “local” is definitely not synonymous with “organic.” “In order to call your produce organic, you have to be certified by the USDA,” explains Joe Masabni, Ph.D., extension small-acreage vegetable specialist, Texas A & M Research & Extension Center, in Overton, Texas. “There is paperwork to fill out, processes to follow, and you have to be approved.”

When you buy certified organic produce you know that the growers have followed these best practices, avoided synthetic pesticides, and that their farming methods are sustainable and better for the environment.  

But while not every farmer at your local market will bother with the formalities of certification, that doesn’t mean their produce is necessarily slathered in pesticides. They may follow some or all of the same guidelines that the USDA requires without taking the extra steps to make it official. “I’ve seen farmers who post signs saying ‘as organic as I can be’ or ‘following organic practices,’” says Masabni. And since the person selling the food is often the same one who grew it, you can also ask them directly about their farming methods.

But even if local produce isn’t organic, there are many advantages to buying what’s grown in your area. “On average, produce travels about 1,500 miles from farm to store, and because of that, it’s picked still unripe,” says Lauri Wright, Ph.D., R.D., assistant professor of nutrition, University of South Florida, College of Public Health. “The produce at the farmers market is more often picked ripe and sold within a day.”

That translates into fresher, better tasting food that’s also more nutritious since the vitamins and other nutrients have not had time to break down. And if you’re worried about the environmental impact, local produce has a significantly smaller carbon footprint than fruit and veggies that have been trucked hundreds of miles to the supermarket.

More and more supermarkets are now also selling produce that’s advertised as “local,” sometimes at prices that are lower than the farmers market. That can sound like a good deal, but it’s worth asking just how “local” it really is. “Local can be a relative term—for instance, it may be trucked in from a farm 10 hours away,” Masabni says. “But it would be rare for a farmer to drive that far to bring his own produce to a farmers market.”

And while most farmers markets are strict about people selling only what they’ve grown, there are reports of some markets that allow vendors to sell produce they’ve purchased from a wholesaler. To find out, talk to the people selling the food, ask where their farm is, how they grow their food, and did they, in fact, grow it all themselves. And look for obvious tip-offs, like produce being sold way out of season or that’s not indigenous to your area.

Farmers markets often get a bad rap for being too expensive, but Wright says that’s not always the case. “They’re selling what’s in season and plentiful, so often they’re able to sell it a great prices,” she says. “Plus, that fresh produce that hasn’t been sitting in a truck for days will last longer, and that can save you money by reducing food waste.”