Faster than you can say “kale salad,” it seems like yet another farmers market pops up. In fact, there are more than 8,680 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—in a fun, festive atmosphere.

But you may also be a bit confused by what they offer. Why is there so much hype about buying local food? Does the term mean the produce is organic? And should you care? Here's the rundown.

Local Doesn't Guarantee Organic But ...

As you’re choosing fruits and veggies, be aware that “local” isn’t synonymous with “organic.”

“In order to call your produce organic, you have to be certified by the USDA,” explains Joe Masabni, Ph.D., a vegetable specialist at the Texas A & M Research & Extension Center in Overton. “There is paperwork to fill out, processes to follow, and you have to be approved.”

When you buy certified organic produce, you’ll know, for example, that the growers avoided synthetic pesticides and that their farming methods are sustainable and better for the environment. (See more about what the USDA permits on organic food products.)

But while not every farmer at your local market will bother with the formalities of certification, they may still follow some or all of the USDA's organic guidelines.

“I’ve seen farmers who post signs saying ‘as organic as I can be’ or ‘following organic practices,’” Masabni says. And because the people selling the food are often the same ones who grew it, you can also ask them directly about their farming methods—whether, say, they used synthetic pesticides.  

The Benefits of Buying Local Produce

Even if the produce at your farmers market isn’t organic, there are many advantages to buying what’s grown in your area (although there’s no agreed-upon distance limit for constitutes “local,” according to the USDA.)

“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., an assistant professor of nutrition at the University of South Florida’s 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, because the vitamins and other nutrients haven’t had time to break down. And local produce has a significantly smaller carbon footprint than fruits and veggies that have been trucked hundreds of miles to a supermarket.

Most farmers markets are strict about people selling only what they’ve grown, but there are reports of some markets that allow vendors to sell produce they’ve purchased from a wholesaler.

To find out whether this might be the case at your farmers market, ask the produce sellers where their farm is, how they grow their food, and whether they grow it all themselves. And look for obvious tip-offs, such as produce that’s not indigenous to your area or is being sold way out of season.

More and more supermarkets are 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.”

Farmers markets often get a bad rap for being expensive, but Wright says that’s not necessarily true. “They’re selling what’s in season and plentiful, so often they’re able to sell it at great prices,” she says. “Plus, 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.”