Once you've browsed one of Tampa's colorful farmer's markets, you will wonder how you ever settled for the grocery store produce aisle. Although Publix and Sweetbay offer convenience and familiarity, once you've incorporated a trip to the farmer's market into your weekly routine, you'll probably find it fits right into your schedule and lifestyle. After a few crisp fall afternoons browsing local raw honey, gourds and more varieties of season-fresh apples than you can count on two hands, the grocery store produce displays just seem underwhelming.

I visited a few of Tampa's best and brightest farmer's markets, and have the following notes to share:

Top Pick - Bearss Groves

This farmers market offers a winning combination of variety, high quality, convenient hours, and competitive pricing. The property is owned by the Bearss, a foundational Tampa family who first settled the land in 1894; the business is owned and operated by Barry and Courtney Lawrence, close friends of the Bearss.

The produce is immaculate and at the peak of freshness, meeting or exceeding even grocery store standards (most grocers toss any produce even slightly bruised, which is why you and I pay a lot more for less variety).  I enjoyed a free sample of fresh-squeezed tangerine juice, made from tangerines picked from Bearss family groves, and squeezed on-site. Orange and grapefruit juice are also sold at a competitive price. There is also an enormous variety of raw honeys, salsas and spreads, and fresh cheeses and butters, all produced on local farms. Bearss Groves also has a huge variety of fresh flowers; the day I visited, mums covered every square foot of free space, in deep purples, golds and scarlets.

Another mark of a good farmers market is community involvement, and Bearss Groves offers this element as well: they regularly host raw food classes and other foodie friendly courses for their customers. One notable downside, depending on your perspective: very few organic options are available. Open seven days a week from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m., with a huge variety of high quality ingredients, and a strong commitment to local growers, Bearss Groves is a must-try. Head to the Bearrs Grove Facebook page.

Second Best - Tampa Bay Farmer’s Market

For more than two years, residents of South Tampa have enjoyed fresh fruits and vegetables, and a full selection of fresh cut flowers and seasonal items, right in their own backyards. The Sansones, the owner/operators of Tampa Bay Farmer's Market, truly have their fingers on the pulse of Tampa Bay providing highly-coveted fresh produce to its bustling urban core. The prices are slightly lower than Bearss Groves, particularly on your basic produce-stand fare like apples and bananas. The low cost may be attributed to an apparent lack-lustre commitment to utilizing local growers (I saw a lot of “California-grown” stickers).

Also, the selection is narrow, offering only the essential fruits and vegetables and not much else. The day I visited, for instance, there were no berries available at all, except for strawberries. They did boast local raw honey, but had no other specialty items. The man behind the counter told me that poinsettias and Michigan-harvested Christmas trees would soon arrive and take over the stand, which may not add much since that seasonal market niche is abundantly filled by every church and high school in Hillsborough County.

An additional note, this location also offers no organic produce. Open seven days a week, Tampa Bay Farmer’s Market offers just the basics for produce, beautiful fresh-cut flowers, very low costs and high convenience. Monday through Saturday, 8 a.m. - 7 p.m., Sunday 8 a.m. - 6 p.m.  Head to the Tampa Bay Farmers Market website for more information.

Fun Experience, Disappointing Produce - Ybor City Saturday Market

Every Saturday, Ybor City’s Centenniel Park opens itself to artists, musicians, and purveyors of delicious edible delights from Ezekial bread and pumpkin rum cake to Cuban cigars and hand-blown glass. This weekly convention of delicious (and pricey) flavors is worth the trip in and of itself.

However, the actual produce stand is somewhat of an afterthought to this vibrant food carnival, and not really worth the trip. Weeknight dinner and lunchbox standards (potatoes, tomatoes, apples, bananas) dominate the farmer’s market selection, but the quality and price were decent.

A small hydroponic produce section did catch my attention: tomatoes, peppers, and squash, grown locally without soil, in a water-based nutrient solution.  However, the hydroponic method offers little benefit to you and me as consumers: the end result is no cleaner, more flavorful or more sustainable than traditional farming. Although the actual produce was ho-hum, the Ybor City Saturday Market is a fun, free opportunity to check out Tampa’s vibrant local food scene. Food-lovers may want to hit a grocery store on the way home to supplement their produce purchase: they’ll probably leave unsatisfied with the selection. Open Saturdays, 9 a.m. - 3 p.m. (9-1 May through September).  Visit the Ybor Saturday Market for more information.