Spring 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.