Hit your local farmers market armed with these helpful, healthful, money-saving tips.
For plenty of us, it isn’t summer without regular, tempting, and sometimes overwhelming visits to our local farmers market(s).
Overwhelming choice. Overwhelming bounty. Overwhelming crowds. Produce we don’t know how to cook. And, at the bigger markets, a bustling, often winding layout of vendors and paths. Once you know a market, it feels like a cozy community, but even us veteran farmers market shoppers can reel a bit when we visit a new market.
Whether you’re gearing up for your first visit, or you’re just looking to maximize your weekly shopping trip, we hope these tips from all of us at Edible Communities help you make the most of it.
1. Go early
If you want the best selection and fewer crowds, going early is your best choice. You’ll have your pick of the prettiest heirloom tomatoes and won’t miss out on the limited number of squash blossoms. (Although one dedicated market-shopper we know is such a friend of the farmers that she goes at the end of the market specifically to buy up what wasn’t so popular.) Concerned you’ll miss out on deals? Don’t be, most reputable markets forbid end-of-day discounting anyway.
2. Eat before you go
Don’t stuff yourself—you’re going to want to taste the ripe cherries or fresh goat cheese before you buy—but you’ll be able to save yourself from both the mini-doughnuts and overbuying if you don’t show up hungry.
3. What to bring: big bags, reusable containers, and small bills
Sure, most stalls offer thin plastic bags if you need them for individual items, but being able to tuck everything into a big canvas tote or sturdy backpack will make getting your haul home easier—and reduce the chance of it ending up all over the sidewalk due to a busted bag. Rinsed and dried clamshell boxes or other reusable containers will protect delicate produce such as apricots and berries from being crushed. We’ve even been known to bring egg cartons for transporting ripe figs home. Finally, vendors won’t expect exact change, but if you can save them from having to break bigger bills, it’s the nice thing to do. This is especially true if you’re following tip #1 and going close to when the market opens.
4. Have a (flexible) seasonal list
Studies show shopping with a list helps reduce impulse buys at grocery stores. While we don’t suggest foregoing all impulse purchases, having a general sense of what you need or want can help you avoid the “what am I going to do with all this?” panic that can happen when you pick up everything that looks good, especially when the harvest is in full swing. Even a list of “vegetables for three salads and fruit for snacks for the week” gives you something to measure your purchases against. Shopping at a farmers market will get you in-tune with the seasonality of what grows near you, but the quickest research ahead of time will help set your expectations of what you’re likely to find at a local market this week.
5. Visit the information booth
Most certified and producer-only markets have a booth or table with information about the market. Some markets feature events such as chef demos or cookbook signings, others offer services such as credit card script, bike valet, or parking validation.
6. Take a walk before you buy
At most markets, prices tend to be pretty similar for similar items from stand to stand, but you may find more varieties of apples at one stand or better-lettuce at another. Walking the entire market before buying gives you a chance to create a game plan for both what you’re going to buy and what you’re going to do with it when you get home. If ripe local tomatoes are finally in, you’ll likely want to pick up a bunch of basil to go with them.
7. Ask questions
Farmers markets offer a chance to learn more about where your food comes from and how it was grown. If you’re curious about where the farm is, what it’s like or how they grow their food, ask! The truly savvy farmers market shopper also knows to ask the farmers how they might prepare an item. This is the food they feed their own families and they often have great cooking suggestions.
8. Embrace dirt
Produce is rarely washed or otherwise prepped at farmers markets. Root vegetables will have dirt clinging to them and many will have leaves attached. If it’s been rainy, lettuce may be splattered with bits of mud. Many vegetables will last longer with that dirt attached, so if you can resist the urge to scrub it clean right away, that’s good. And most fruit—berries especially—will be at its best if not washed until right before using, since it tends to soak up some of the water, which can lead to mold or rot.
9. Be choosy but respectful
Feel free to sort through any fruits and vegetables before paying for them to make sure they all fit the bill and prevent disappointment later. If you want uniformly sized peaches for your crostata, find them. Most vendors at farmers markets take great pride in their produce and won’t mind you searching or asking for exactly what you want. That said, there’s never a reason to squeeze or poke the peaches in the process—a good sniff should do the job.
10. Peak buying is smart buying
Most fruits and vegetables both ease into their season and ease out of it, meaning those first tomatoes aren’t always the best tomatoes and the last of the cherries may not be as perfect as the ones the week before. We’re not saying not to join in the fun of that first taste of the season, just know that those first cucumbers signal many more cucumbers in the weeks to come—make your buying plan accordingly.
11. Ask for deals, but don’t expect them
In general, haggling over most purchases isn’t cool at markets, but if you want a whole flat of green beans, there’s no harm in asking for a better price. If you have a big canning or freezing or pickling or drying or baking project in mind, it’s a good idea to arrange a large purchase, with a possible deal, in advance. Respect that, as mentioned above, reputable markets tend to have rules against day-end discounting, so don’t expect to sweep in as the market closes for deals.
12. Think beyond produce
Lots of farmers markets have stands selling other yummy from-the-farm foods such as eggs, honey, meat, or flowers. Coastal markets may have seafood fresh off the boat. Some markets feature local bakeries using local products in their baked goods. Locally roasted coffee or locally produced chocolates may be on offer. As you get to know your market and its vendors, planning your visits and getting your food shopping done becomes easier and easier.
13. Make a plan
Whether you started off with a list or not, once you get your farmers market haul home, consider making a plan for how you’re going to make the best use of everything. Greens and other more delicate produce should be used within a few days, while squash and root vegetables will stay in good shape for at least a week.
14. Revisit that plan for next week
Before you head out for your next visit, reflect on what you ate (and didn’t eat) from your last trip. What could you have used more of? What didn’t go over so well at your house? Use that information to draw up your new (flexible) list and hit the market anew.