A farmers’ market can be overwhelming and expensive if you don’t know how to shop at one. Shopping and saving at your local farmers’ market requires a different approach than the one you use at the grocery store, but with these seventeen tips it’s easy to start enjoying the benefits of eating local.
Ditch Your List
If you go to the market looking for something specific, you’ll likely be disappointed and end up spending more than you intended. Instead, keep your mind open and see what is available and then plan a recipe based on what you purchase.
You don’t want your local food to go to waste so it is important to explore using vegetables in new ways.
A great resource for making the most of your find at the farmers’ market is the cookbook From Asparagus to Zucchini. A Guide to Cooking Farm-Fresh Seasonal Produce (Buy on Amazon). This handy guide has an alphabetical listing of common vegetables with recipes and cooking and storage tips to help you make the most of whatever produce is fresh, available, and inexpensive.
Survey Before Shopping
It can be tempting to start shopping as soon as you arrive and find something that catches your eye, but it’s always best to walk through the market first and then shop. Many vendors will have similar items, but some vendors have better produce or better prices than others. Take advantage of samples, too. Almost all the vendors offer them and even if you don’t see them set out, you can always ask. Once you know whose peaches are sweetest for example, you’ll know who to purchase from. Larger markets often offer printable maps online. It can be helpful to print one out and make notes on it as you survey the market. Make sure to check the stalls at the back of the market. Often newer vendors are stationed in less-than-desirable locations and they can have some great offerings.
Shop What’s in Season
There’s nothing like a sweet strawberry in the middle of winter, but health wise and budget wise it’s not the best way to eat. Shopping locally forces you to learn about the seasonality of food.
Agricultural products are more expensive early or late in the season. Farmers work hard to come to market “first” or “last” with a particular product. If everyone at a market has a particular product, the price will drop, but if only one vendor has an item, he or she can set the price individually. To save money, buy products at the peak of their season.
In-season produce is usually more affordable, better tasting, and contains more nutrients compared to produce that is not in season.
The food and cooking website Epicurious has a useful map to help you identify seasonal products in your area. (https://www.epicurious.com/archive/seasonalcooking/farmtotable/seasonalingredientmap)
Go Early For the Best Selection
Many vendors sell out of their best fruits and vegetables early in the day, so if you’re looking for the best produce then it’s smart to arrive right when the market opens. However, keep in mind that most vendors won’t negotiate on prices early in the day, so you’ll likely pay asking price for anything you buy.
It also helps to know which items are likely to sell out fastest, so you can buy these items first. High-demand items like berries, corn, peas, and heirloom tomatoes often disappear first so purchase these items first. If you become friendly with a favorite grower they might allow you to place pre-orders several days before market day so that you’re guaranteed to get what you want.
Go Late to Save Money
If you’re looking to pick up fresh vegetables on a budget, your best bet is to arrive at the end of the day, right before the market closes. Many vendors are more willing to negotiate a lower price at closing simply because they don’t want to pack up all that food and bring it back with them. Just remember, the selection won’t be as good and stands may be out of popular items.
Never assure that farmers have nothing else to do with their goods and offer a pittance. If you do show up to the market right before closing on a consistent basis, make sure that you are willfully entering into a mutually beneficial relationship. If a farmer gives you a good deal before closing time, do him or her a favor by purchasing a sizable amount of food. For instance say, “I see that you have some food left over, and I want to help you out. What can you give me for $20?” By initially offering a set amount of money and by giving the farmer a choice in what to sell you, the farmer will be inclined to give you both a good deal and the best of what his stand has to offer.
However, some farmers’ markets have rules that prohibit end-of-day price cuts, and some farmers donate their unsold produce to a local food bank rather than selling at a loss. Your best bet is to talk to the person working the information booth and find out if end-of-day negotiating is allowed.
Farmers, growers, and makers love to educate their customers about what they do. This engagement is part of what makes the farmers’ markets so unique. You can talk directly to the person who’s producing the food you’re taking home. This provides you with a fantastic opportunity to find out more about their farming practices, their values, and the items they’ve chosen to grow.
Use this opportunity to ask plenty of questions. For example:
- Where is your farm located?
- How long have you been farming?
- What other fruits and vegetables do you grow?
- When was this fruit or vegetable picked?
- Was this produce grown without pesticides? If so, what do you use to keep insects at bay?
- What grazing practices do you use with your livestock?
- How should I prepare this food?
- What crops do you have coming up next month?
Opt for Whole Vegetables
Some farmers trim their vegetables of greens and roots to make them look more appealing to customers, which is standard practice in the grocery store. However it’s smart to buy whole, untrimmed vegetables when you can.
Whole, untrimmed vegetables will last longer in the refrigerator. Buying untrimmed vegetables will give you more time to eat these foods and avoid food waste if they go bad before you can eat them.
You can also get more for your money with whole vegetables because you can often eat the vegetables tops. For example, beet and radish tops can be sauteed and eaten like kale or collard greens or turned into pesto. Carrot tops make a great addition to homemade stocks or you can sautee them with olive oil, salt, and garlic for a healthy and delicious side dish.
Not all your food needs to look perfect or pretty. Many farmers sell “seconds,” produce that is slightly bruised or not as large as the full-priced items, yet tastes just as great or is perfect for canning. You might have to cut off a few bruises, but your vegetables will taste just as good as their prettier cousins. And the reality is that many of your vegetable recipes have chopping as the first step anyway, so cutting off a tad extra won’t be a big deal.
Learn to Love the Rain
It’s a guarantee that shoppers will head to the market in droves on a sunny day. However, the crowds disappear when it’s cold or rainy. Shopping on days when the weather is less than perfect means you’ll have a great selection to choose from. Vendors might also be more willing to lower prices a bit when the market is slow.
Try Before You Stock Up
Meat vendors are increasingly common at farmers’ markets. Purchasing locally raised beef, pork or chicken can be a great way to stock up on healthy, antibiotic-free meats. But before you stock your freezer make sure you know what you’re getting. Purchase one pound of whatever they’re selling and cook it at home before you place a large order.
This is also true of any fruits and vegetables you haven’t cooked with before. Trying small portions in advance ensures you won’t waste money on meat or produce you aren’t satisfied with.
Buy in Bulk
After incorporating the above tip, you are ready for this tip. Purchasing in large quantities helps the pennies add up. The trick to buying in bulk is to make sure you have proper storage.
If you have the space in your refrigerator or freezer, buy certain items in bulk when they are at their harvest peak. Tomatoes, peaches, and strawberries are particularly useful in bulk. Tomatoes can be made into sauce and peaches can be frozen or boiled and canned. Strawberries or other berries can be turned into popsicles, jam, and smoothies. If you own a dehydrator, you can also buy up large amounts of fruits like persimmons and apples when they are at their season peak to save and use them for many months into the future.
Organic Labels Aren’t Everything
Not all produce needs to be purchased organic. Many farmers utilize organic growing practices but don’t have the organic label because it’s costly. Ask the vendors about their growing practices to decide if you want to purchase a product without an organic label. You can ask if they are sustainable, if they spray, and what they use to spray. Ask where the items came from and where the produce is grown. You want to try to buy things that are local, otherwise it’s the same as purchasing it from a regular grocery store.
If you are thinking about starting a home garden, wait until farmers’ market day to buy your starter plants in spring. Prices on fruit and vegetables starters are often significantly less than at big box stores. You can often find more diverse fruits and vegetables and herb plants at your local farmers’ market, including rare heirloom varieties never heard of before. These unique plant varieties can make home gardening ever more interesting and exciting because they allow you to try new foods.
Follow Social Media
Follow your vendors on Instagram and Facebook. Why? First of all, it’s fun to see what they are doing. Second, it’s informative because they often post new crop availability ahead of time and you may be able to adjust your shopping list. Third, you could directly message them to ask for a preferred order or special availability. With advance notice, farmers will often put aside a fast selling fruit and vegetable for their regular customers before it sells out. They also sometimes use social media to post their favorite recipes.
Bring Cash and Other Supplies
Many farmers’ market vendors can accept debit and credit cards, but there are still plenty which remain “cash only.” It’s always a good idea to bring cash with you, especially smaller bills, so vendors don’t have to make change for larger denominations.
Also bring plenty of reusable shopping bags or even a compact shopping cart, especially if you are planning on buying plants. Some markets have a zero waste policy, which means vendors might not provide plastic bags at all.
Watch Out for Unscrupulous Vendors
Most farmers’ markets and vendors are legitimate. However, there are always going to be some bad apples that spoil the party for everyone else. Most farmers’ markets have rules about who is allowed to join and who isn’t. These rules can help ensure that every vendor there is the actual grower or producer of what they sell. However, some markets don’t have any participation rules, which means you can get vendors selling produce they bought on close-out from a larger farm or warehouse.
Knowing what’s in season in your area will help you avoid the unscrupulous vendors who buy bulk produce from a clearing house and resell it at the local farmers’ markets. For example, if you see a vendor selling strawberries in August when they are in season in your area in June, you know to stay clear of them.
A vendor who can’t or won’t answer your questions is another red flag. Most farmers are excited and happy to talk to you about what they make or grow and they want to answer your questions. However, a vendor that doesn’t have an answer or shows unwillingness to talk might be a reseller.
Budget for Some Fun Purchases
While it’s important to avoid impulse buys (as the market can be full of temptations), a big part of the experience is setting part of your budget aside for unexpected finds. You might see a lovely bouquet of sunflowers or a flavored olive oil that will be fun to cook with. You never know what you’ll find, so make sure to set aside some money to try something “new” and not “necessary.”
A Final Word
Walking through a farmers market is a delightful way to spend a morning. It’s almost sensory, with tables full of brightly covered fruits and vegetables, towers of homemade gems and pyramids of freshly baked breads
Without a plan and a bit of discipline, people can easily spend next week’s food budget at the market. So follow these tips to ensure that you won’t overspend.