Eight Ways to Make the Most of a Farmers Market

My passion for farmers markets is part of my identity.

I mean that literally: I used to fill out online dating profiles that asked me to list “five things I couldn’t live without,” and I would inevitably write: Basketball, books, farmers markets, family... and then I would be stuck. I’d spend an hour trying to think of something witty for the fifth one before giving up and putting “phone” just like every other unoriginal person. (If you’re a girl, “4th of July” is an appropriate fifth thing. Why do women give so much love to Independence Day on their online profiles? Is it code for something?)

Point is, farmer’s markets are important to me, and I know my way around them. Here are my tips for making the most of them this summer:

1. Make Friends with the Vendors

Not only does this make the whole experience more enjoyable, but it can also save you a significant amount of money. There was a guy in Los Angeles who sold vegan cookies, and I really hit it off with him. I didn’t even buy all that much from him, but whenever I walked by we’d do a head nod, give a fist bump, or have a short conversation.

This built a nice rapport between us, and it paid off when I decided to make a bulk purchase to send some cookies to my little sister to celebrate her going off to college. Cookie Man hooked it up big time, throwing in tons of free goodies once he knew they were going to my sister, whom he also knew. 

I’m sure that trumped whatever Hallmark card and Reese’s candy my Mom sent. (Sorry, Mom. Happy Mother’s Day!)

2. Don’t Get Upsold

A true farmers market vendor-friend is great. They always want you to be happy and will never push something on you unless they’re absolutely convinced you’ll love it.

But, if you’re not a pita chip fan, don’t let someone talk you into it just because the flour for this chip was milled by a single old man in the woods whose family has been perfecting this recipe for 10,000 years. No matter how high-quality the chip is, if you don’t like the idea of chips to begin with, you probably won’t like it.

I’ve made this mistake with cheesecake before. Never again. No matter the quality of the ingredients, I always find it to be like fungus-flavored wet paper towel. Cheese and cake should come far apart from each other and in separate meals. Bring on the hate comments, I’m ready! 

3. Go When You’re Full

People always seem to remember this rule for supermarkets, but no one mentions it when it comes to farmers markets. I think it should be a core tenet of all food shopping. 

I’m even more prone to impulse buys at a farmers market than at a grocery store, because a real person is there pushing stuff on me. It’s an issue.

Having eaten beforehand allows you a little more control over your actions. You can stick to your list, still be friendly with vendors, and stay within your budget.

4. Use Vendor Punch Cards

Buy 10, get one free deals aren’t just for coffee and burritos, you know. At the market I used to go to in LA, it took me a while to realize one of the best vegetable vendors in the joint offered a punch card for frequent visitors. 

At first, I would sample veggies from many different vendors, so whenever they offered me a loyalty card, I would just say no to speed up the sale. But after a few months I realized I was favoring a particular stand, so I asked about their rewards program. I was happily given a punch card, which ended up saving me hundreds of dollars over the course of the year.

5. Find the Sweet Spot, Timing-Wise 

This might depend on the particular market, but I think showing up about 30 to 45 minutes before closing is perfect. The vendors are anxious to get rid of their stuff at a discount, but they aren’t going anywhere anytime soon. And even at a big market, 45 minutes is enough time to do a lap and see all there is to offer.

Sure, the stuff will have been picked through, but I’ve never been dissatisfied with the quality of stuff bought later in the day. That’s part of the joy of the farmers market – it’s the freshest, most natural stuff in your area! Ninety-five percent of the produce is going to be delicious, and 95% of the food will still be available even if you do your shopping in the last 30 minutes of operational hours.

It’s kind of like going to the airport to catch a domestic flight. You don’t want to get there too early, so you’re forced to sit around and burn through all your reading material before the flight even takes off. And you don’t want to cut it so close that you have to beg your way to the front of the security line and then run through the terminal like you’re the hero of a bad rom-com trying to stop a plane from taking off

Arriving near the end means the crowds have died down, the crying babies have gone home, and the vendors are ready to offer things on the cheap.

6. Don’t Be a Slave to the ‘Certified Organic’ Label

It costs money to become certified organic. The official USDA estimate for a farm or business to get the USDA organic label is $750, but different sources vary and it can sometimes be a lot more. Farms on a lean budget, or those that just don’t want to deal with the hassle, simply won’t do bother with the certification process.

These growers are still likely to have excellent, nutrient-rich produce. Organic is as much of a branding buzzword as it is a sign of quality. Farms that aren’t certified organic might have saved money in foregoing certification costs that they can pass on to the consumer.

Look at the pictures of the farm on display. Talk to the people and get a sense of their spirit and love of the soil. Taste the samples. Heck, you can even visit a lot of these farms if you want. If you get a good vibe, then their food is probably just as healthy as the next booth over, whether they are technically organic or not. 

7. Bring Cash (But Not Too Much)

Many vendors accept credit cards, but it’s quicker and easier for everyone involved to use cash. My problem for awhile was that no matter how much cash I would show up with, I would spend all of it. I did better once I decided that I was bringing $60, and if I spent it, that was it.

If you’re a farmers market addict like myself, you have to treat it like a Las Vegas casino. I’m like that friend in Vegas who pulls you aside and says, “I’m giving you my ATM card, and no matter what I say, you do not give it back to me.” After an hour at the blackjack table, he inevitably begs for his card back.

That was me at a farmers market, but my vices were date rolls, persimmons, and any other exotic, overpriced delicacy I could find. If you go in with a plan, and a set amount of cash, you’re more likely to stick to your budget and not get carried away. 

8. Appreciate the Non-Monetary Benefits

One thing about the farmers market I appreciate is that it seems to encourage an atmosphere of freedom and looseness, especially among parents. Adults who wouldn’t dream of letting their kids walk down the block to visit a friend without watching them like a hawk the whole way tend to ease up a little at the farmers market. You don’t see many kid-leashes or stern talking-to’s. Everyone always seems to be enjoying themselves, safe in the knowledge that they’re among friendly members of their community.

Sure, sometimes this results in a newly empowered three-year-old grinning at you as he shoves his entire filthy hand into the free-sample bin, but I’ll accept that inconvenience.

Another great perk is that people always want to share recipes. There is something inherently more pleasing about learning techniques in this fashion over using a book. I think we humans are hard-wired to appreciate an oral passing-down of traditions and techniques, and what better way to learn than from the guy who’s been perfecting his sourdough recipe for 50 years?

Summing Up

If you want to meet great people, enjoy high-quality, affordable food, and get some fresh air, farmers markets are the place to be. Follow these tips to make the most of a nice afternoon while supporting local businesses at the same time. Sure, Whole Foods is delicious, but it’s still a mega-corporation. And I bet no one there has ever given you free box of cookies.

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