‘Tis the season for…farmer’s markets!
Ours actually opened a month ago, although some (we have about a dozen locally — I know, I’m lucky!) just opened in the last week or so. And now’s when they start to get all the really awesome stuff. It’s time for strawberries, greens, honey, eggs, and lots more awesome stuff.
If you’ve never shopped at a farmer’s market, though, you may not be familiar with how to do it, and get the most for your money. Farmer’s markets can be expensive. And there are other issues you should be aware of, too. So let’s explore how to shop most effectively!
1) Know What You Want
Before you hit the market, know what you’re looking for. Check out your market’s website (if they have one) or a site like Eat Wild to find out what’s in season right now, so you know what will be available. The market (should) will only have what’s seasonal, so don’t expect to find bananas or pineapples in non-tropical regions! Tomatoes won’t be available in June, nor apples. Strawberries aren’t available in August. And so on. So find out what’s going to be available, and plan what you would like to buy.
Why? Farmer’s markets are often so beautiful, and the food is so fresh, that you might be tempted to snap up a lot more than you really need or will use. This can lead to blowing your grocery budget and wasting food. And local food isn’t so great if it doesn’t get eaten.
2) Bring Bags
Some farmer’s markets will have bags available for you, but you shouldn’t count on it. And it’s just better for the environment if you use cloth bags, plus they’re usually easier to carry than plastic or paper. Bring a bag or two and stuff your purchases into it. If you’re going to be buying a lot, consider bringing a wagon to carry your food in — it can cart your children around, too! A cooler is a good idea if you’re planning to buy eggs, milk, or meat, especially if you will be at the market awhile.
3) Bring Cash…or a Card
Many farmer’s markets do not accept checks or cards, so bring cash with you. However, in some areas, farmer’s markets have started to accept food stamp (EBT) cards, for those of you with this type of plan. The markets in Columbus do. This means that even those of you with limited budgets can come and take advantage of the market! If you’re unsure if your market accepts anything other than cash, stop at the information booth and ask.
4) Walk Through The Whole Market
Many booths will be set up, and many will be selling similar products. If it’s your first time at the market, or you haven’t been in awhile, walk through the market first to see what people are selling and how much they’re asking. Prices will be similar, but sometimes one farmer will have a box of “seconds” (produce that is physically marred but perfectly fine to eat) or a special or just a plain old lower price. Don’t buy the first one you see! Once you’ve walked through the market and have an idea of who’s offering what and for how much, go back and buy what you want. Once you’re familiar with the market, you’ll know your favorite vendors and you can go straight to them.
All of this said…yes, farmer’s market prices can sometimes be more expensive than other places, even local health food stores. I usually look for specialty items that I can’t find other places (like my beloved basswood honey that I haven’t had in more than a year). I’m willing to pay a little more for these items every now and then. Plus, I think it is important to support local farmers when possible. Even if you’re only buying small quantities on occasion, it’s worth it to visit and buy here and there.
5) Ask How and Where Foods are Grown
Not all markets, and not all farmers, have the same standards. There is a particular farm that comes to the market near me, and while they are transparent about their practices on their website, there is no documentation (that I have seen) at their booth. I know they grain-feed their cows. I believe many people assume they only grass-feed because it is a farmer’s market. This bothers me, but really — it’s the consumers who need to be asking the questions and not assuming.
Some farmers may spray their crops. Some may even buy their produce wholesale instead of growing it themselves! If you do see tomatoes in June at a “local” market, you can bet this is the case (unless they specifically say they raised them hydroponically on their own property — but I wouldn’t buy hydroponic produce anyway). Never, ever assume that everything is safe and organic and awesome just because it’s a farmer’s market. Ask. And don’t buy if they won’t answer you or don’t seem to know.
6) Keep Your Children Close
Markets are usually very busy, and many are set up with very narrow aisles. It’s best if you can wear your babies and keep bigger children by the hand, rather than using strollers or wagons. There may not be room to maneuver these things through the crowd very easily. Also, because it’s so busy, children can get lost. They could also dart into the street, which is usually also busy.
Keep them close to you, and if they are likely to run — wear them, or bring enough adults to control them all. Get a friend to go with you, if you need to! Or, if you are worried, leave them at home with another parent or babysitter. I trust my three now (with the baby in a carrier) but until a few weeks ago, my almost 3-year-old was quite worrisome because he likes to dart away — fast. Better to keep them safe.
7) Enjoy It!
Many vendors will have snacks and samples out. There will probably be trucks that are selling prepared foods. Allow your children (and yourself!) to sample some foods (make sure you help the younger ones). Sometimes, plan to buy a prepared snack to support the local businesses and to enjoy. We bought an organic smoothie at a recent trip to the market and the kids and I all shared it. Was it cheap? Not even a little bit. But it was a rare treat, and we all enjoyed it. 🙂 The farmer’s market can be a bit expensive if you do this often, so plan for a treat now and then.
What are your best tips for shopping at a farmer’s market?
**This post has been entered in Kitchen Tip Tuesday.**
A dozen farmers markets! WOW! We only have one, and prices are sky high! Trying to do my best growing my own stuff in my back yard…
Pssh. Maybe all you northerners have to wait until July for tomatoes, but down south tomato season is already getting going–especially this year, since the weather’s been so warm! Our market’s FB page announced some of the vendors will have the first of the season’s tomatoes on Saturday, huzzah! A few vendors have had green tomatoes for a couple weeks now already.
Regarding tip #4: maybe this isn’t a problem at larger markets, but here there are some items that probably only one grower will have–typically tree fruit (peaches!) or berries. If you walk through the whole market and then come back for those items (or show up much after eight), they’ll be gone. So I snag those right away (if they’re in my budget–fruit is usually super expensive, though super delicious), then peruse more slowly for the other items.
Good tips, Katie!
We have sold crafts at markets for the past several years. I love the market mentality! If you are looking for really great savings or large quantities for canning/storage, start coming toward the end of the day and offer discounts to take what hasn’t sold. Most farmers donate or toss their leftover produce and would be happy to sell it at a discount at the end of the day instead of taking it home.
We have scored amazing deals that way, and it allows you get bulk foods for super cheap that you can freeze, dry or can to enjoy all year.
commenting on #5) I live in SE WI…one summer my son worked for someone who sold produce at the Farmers Market & on his own property. I had always assumed whatever he sold he grew on his property. That wasn’t always the case as 1 day my son’s job was to remove the stickers off 1 of the produce that was to be sold.