Be a Savvy Local Shopper
Shopping at a farmers market is a little like taking a trip back into the golden age of food. Farmers work very hard planting, caring for, and harvesting their crop. Every fruit or vegetable is picked when it’s seasonally ripe and lies on a table or in the back of a truck for you to survey. People bustle from stall to stall, stopping for friendly conversation with their growers; home baked goods smell like they just came out of the oven; handmade goods, from jewelry to woodwork, line aisles; a makeshift grill and some recipes obviously honed over a few generations produce amazing barbecue.
Maybe that description waxes a little poetical on what others might see as a rag-tag group of locals hawking their wares, but farmers markets are one of the best ways to connect with the faces and places where your food actually comes from. Shopping at a farmers market encourages sustainable, small-scale, local growing practices in addition to helping you get some of the best produce available anywhere. Farmers markets are an amazing experience, but they are inherently different from the grocery market experience in important ways. There are things both newcomer and veteran should keep in mind to understand how to get the most out of your experience and fit in with the culture that surrounds these local gatherings.
Preparation is Key
Got a Bag?
Only some vendors will have bags, so be sure to bring some bags yourself, preferably cloth bags that are reusable and sturdy. Also consider bringing a container for easily damaged items like berries.
Larger markets may have ATMs around, but save yourself the ATM fees by bringing cash; small bills are very helpful for the farmers and vendors making change. Paying in quarters might be a godsend for some change-strapped farmers.
Set a Budget
It’s easy for your eyes to get larger than your stomach–or your wallet, for that matter. When the samples start getting passed around, it’s easy to justify spending way more than you initially thought, so bring only a predetermined amount of cash unless you really feel like splurging.Plan a Menu
It’s helpful to have a general idea of what you’re looking for at the market, but don’t think on(in) terms of “one cup zucchini, chopped” but more in terms of any good vegetables for roasting or greens for salad or berries to make a tart. This way you can search out the best looking produce instead of filling a checklist but still know what to do with your purchases when you get home.
What You See is What You Get
It’s no secret that unlike grocery stores what the farmers bring to the market is all that is for sale. The best stuff will sell out first, so go early for a wide selection. Any baked goods will likely be fresh and fragrant early in the day. Samples will be plentiful, and you’ll avoid the sticky mid-day heat.Greedy for Attention?
In the morning there are fewer people around, so you’ll get more attention as a customer which means you’ll be able to ask more questions to the people who know the vegetables best—the farmers who grew them. However, if you arrive when the market is busy, be sure not to be too needy, especially if you can tell the stall is busy. Asking for samples of every variety of jam while they’re trying to make change is rude and likely will negate any good feelings between you.The One-Two Punch
Go early enough to take a run through all of the stalls to see what’s available and the exact prices of the things that look good. Avoid the rotten feeling of discovering better looking zucchini for cheaper a few stalls down. After you survey the offerings, then go for a second pass to make purchases. This two step process may take longer but makes for a better experience.Closeout Deals
Some people find that going late allows them to pick up some good deals. Often farmers will be willing to haggle to unload leftover produce for cheaper, but remember you’ll be getting the dregs of the bounty.
Build a Relationship with Your Farmers
These are the people that are throwing this food party, so treat them nicely and you’re likely to get some expert advice, a solid recipe, and some excellent service.
Don’t Be Question-Shy
Ask them for what you’re looking for. Many farmers are passionate about what they’re selling and are quick to help you see why their produce is excellent. Ask them to identify the produce that you don’t recognize. Often farmers grow a variety of heirloom varieties that wouldn’t be suitable for mass production and shipping, but have a taste and texture many times better than supermarket varieties. Don’t be afraid to ask them what an unfamiliar variety tastes like or how they like to eat it. Chances are if they grow it they also know a few good recipes they would be willing to share.
As a courtesy to the farmer, don’t handle the produce. While in the supermarket it’s common to squeeze every peach and avocado to check for firmness, if everyone takes a squeeze fruit will become badly bruised and likely unsellable for the farmer. Instead, ask the farmer to identify very fresh fruit if you want to eat them today or to identify fruit that will be ready in a few days.
Haggling and Prices
Vendors are usually unlikely to haggle, especially early in the day. But if the market is bit empty or it’s late in the day, a polite offer might get you a solid deal. However, you’re unlikely to earn any favor comparing their produce’s price or appearance with grocery market equivalents. Farmers, more than anyone, know the hard work that goes into bringing a lowly tomato from the ground to the market and also know that a slightly blemished apple pie is definitely much tastier than anything in a store. While it’s commonly thought that farmers markets are more expensive than supermarkets, a recent comparison published in The Atlantic shows that prices might be more comparable than you think.
Be Courteous to Others
Aisles in farmers markets are usually extremely narrow for the amount of people who go. Strollers are often problematic and dogs are often frowned upon and sometimes even banned. Bringing the whole family is often cute, but be very cautious to not cause traffic jams or to overwhelm a vendor’s stall preventing others from looking at the wares and communicate with the vendors.