What You Need To Know About Farmer’s Markets – And Ten Tips For Maximizing Your Money There

FoodSpring is coming and that means that soon the farmer’s markets in my area will be kicking into high gear again. Let’s make it clear – farmer’s markets are the place to go for inexpensive and fresh produce. If you’re not familiar with a farmer’s market, it is a place where local farmers, gardeners, food producers, and other home manufacturers can sell their wares directly to the public. The benefits are numerous: very good prices compared to the supermarket (because there’s no middleman), extremely fresh food (often organic), and often some interesting and eccentric items as well. If you have a farmer’s market available to you, it’s usually well worth the time to stop by at least once and see what’s available.

That being said, there are a few things you should know and a few techniques you can follow in order to maximize the farmer’s market experience. Here are ten tips for maximizing your farmer’s market experience, especially if you’ve never gone before.

Go early. This gets you the best selection. You might get slightly better prices going late, but the food will be heavily picked over and some of the interesting/best stuff will already be gone.

Bring cash. Farmer’s markets aren’t supermarkets; it’s a cash economy there. Be sure to put some money in your pocket before you go or else you’ll be going home empty handed.

Bring a sturdy cloth bag. This is the best way of carrying things you buy as you move from vendor to vendor at the market. If you don’t have one, you can take a plastic bag, but a sturdy cloth one fits in much better with the farmer’s market aesthetic (environmental soundness and the like).

Don’t plan your buying ahead of time. Usually, I advocate a shopping list; not here. A farmer’s market is a place where the selection is unusual and varies greatly from week to week. You should go there looking for interesting fresh foods to base meals around, not supplies for preparing those meals. Go there and buy what looks tasty; you can get the supplemental things you need later.

Bring the family. Farmer’s markets are very entertaining places, much more worthwhile than the sterile environment of the supermarket. Pack up the kids before you go; they won’t get bored with the variety of things going on here.

Check your expectations at the door. I’ve never been to a farmer’s market that was utterly predictable. Don’t go in with expectations – let the experience guide you.

Talk to the vendors. This is especially true if you’re new. Ask any question you might have. Unlike the supermarket, most of the people at the farmer’s market are there because they love what they’re selling, so they’re usually quite happy to answer anything you want to know.

Ask for samples. If you come across something unusual and you’re unfamiliar with it, ask for a sample. Without this, I would have never discovered one of my favorite foods, soft mozzarella cheese prepared from goat’s milk. When I first tasted it, I immediately bought quite a bit of it and I loved every bite. I would have never even seen such a thing at the supermarket, and I certainly would have never tried it or bought it without the farmer’s market experience.

Process things as soon as you get home. This food isn’t coated in preservatives like the “fresh” produce at the store is. When you get home, decide what you’re going to eat in the next twenty four hours and freeze the rest. Don’t let it sit out for days like you might do with store-bought foods.

Go regularly. Don’t sweat it if some of the items you buy the first time aren’t stellar. Keep visiting and you’ll eventually figure out what you should be buying – and which vendors sell the best produce. For example, there are at least a dozen tomato sellers at my local market. The majority of them are good, but one… well, she must sprinkle something magical in her garden because her tomatoes are mind-bendingly good.

A farmer’s market is a frugal person’s paradise, particularly those who value fresh and environmentally sound products. Find out when and where your local farmer’s market is and give it a try.

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17 thoughts on “What You Need To Know About Farmer’s Markets – And Ten Tips For Maximizing Your Money There

  1. Kim says:

    Sometimes it pays to go late. Many vendors will offer deals on produce ( like 3 lbs of green beans for a buck) so that they don’t have to take it home with them

  2. Tyler says:

    My dad has been selling his produce at farmers markets for quite a few years. These are all good tips. I would also add is to ask about a lower price if you buy a bunch of something.

  3. 3bean says:

    Here’s another tip: Some localities “Farmer’s Markets” also include produce sellers who aren’t the farmers…. ie, people who buy wholesale produce and re-sell. If it’s important to you to buy from local producers, ask around and get to know your vendors. Another tip-off that you’re buying from produce wholesalers are big cardboard boxes under the table atht don’t look they came from your local farm or if they’re selling produce th0at isn’t in season.

  4. TheGlutton says:

    If you are not local to a farmers market or a farm you can search using a great tool for locating fresh veggies and/or farmer markets:

    http://www.localharvest.org/

  5. TheGlutton says:

    Also you can find farms all over the country that allow you pick your own..

    http://www.pickyourown.org/

  6. Kirk Wylie says:

    Don’t forget two other rules, both relatively related:

    1) Be VERY careful about samples. Although it’s nice to have the samples, most farmers markets don’t have any ability to clean anything as they go, and so they’re not necessarily hygienic (even less hygienic than your typical supermarket where they have washing up facilities). Be very careful here.

    2) Things NEED washing. Many people don’t bother to wash anything from a supermarket because the supermarket does a pretty good job of making sure that apples and the like are pretty safe. Not so from a farmers market, where there’s a near 100% chance that the organic apple needs to be washed before it’s safe to eat from a hygiene perspective.

  7. EA says:

    You don’t always need cash, often a check will do. Or in some places you have more options.

    The farmer’s market I used to frequent (in a New England town of 4 or 5 thousand people) had a pilot program with a foodstamp-card reader (I don’t know what it’s called). There was a booth at the edge of the market using power and a phoneline donated from the church next door that allowed people with foodstamps (on a debit-card type thing) and WIC to get “farmer’s market money” they could use to buy fresh food at the market. At the end of the day, the farmers turned that scrip in for a check from the program which they could deposit like any other check.

  8. Marcus Murphy says:

    I love our Farmer’s Market here in San Diego. It being such a fair climate year round there is always a farmers market. It is huge and there is always something new to discover. Although you usually would advise going early, since it is such a huge market here many farmers are overstocked on a lot of things. That and my favorite fruit farmer has a $5 baggit sale half an hour before the end. $5 nets you a plastic bag that you can cram as much fruit into as possible. $10 will usually net me the whole weeks worth of fruit and some leftover to make pastries, fruit tarts and the like (that freeze well).

    All in all a good post for people who are relatively new to farmer’s markets =)

  9. r says:

    Foodstamps! Yes! EA, that’s a great point: traditionally, farmer’s markets have been carefully set up to accept food stamps. Although the switch from actual stamps to cards has made this more difficult, it’s still a central goal and works in many places. Thanks for the reminder!

  10. Andy says:

    Is haggling appropriate?

  11. lc says:

    count your change

  12. PD says:

    I used to work at a farmer’s market and for produce it’s true that the best stuff is usually available first thing in the morning (especially for perishables like berries & tomatoes), on the other hand it is definitely possible to get major deals at the very end of the day. As noted above, and from personal experience, the folks working there are not particularly motivated to put things *back* on the truck.

    The best time to take advantage of this is fall: loose potatoes, apples, pumpkins, squashes, etc.

  13. Dboy says:

    Cheap and fresh veggies, fresh herbs, dried herbs in bulk, tofu, and rice, can also be found at asian grocery stores.

    Dboy

  14. Danielle says:

    Mine even had the sierra club there last week giving away FREE fluorescent light bulbs. I scored big time!

  15. Nathan says:

    I work at a couple local farmer’s markets and the best tip I can give is to be friendly. Making eye contact, smiling, chatting etc. is appreciated and in some cases it can get you a rounded down price on the weighed produce.

  16. Steph says:

    Andy – no.
    LC – get a life.

  17. et says:

    We sold fresh perishable produce for 5 years at a local certified market. We found all the vendors AND patrons to be scrupulously honest & generous. Vendors are very aware of the need for competitive pricing. Scales are monitored by the state. We’d round down or throw in a little extra, provided samples/recipes/helpful hints; buyers would tell us to keep the change. Although we didn’t like having to load up/dispose of leftovers, it was also discouraging that it seemed that people who could more easily afford to pay full price would routinely show up late & expect a bargain (or come early another day & STILL expect the bargain price). Our market had a couple of homeless shelters & food banks that would come around at the end, to which we willingly gave donations. The best outcome for us? Even though we no longer sell there, when we shop there the vendors we had worked alongside still give us items at no or greatly reduced cost! If you have ever tried to grow enough produce to sell, you’d know how much effort goes into the process & would never try to haggle with the farmers again. They earn every penny they ask for.

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