When I began my real-food journey in 2006, farmers markets were my lifeline. Not yet committed to growing my own food but becoming aware that I wanted to avoid the industrial food system, I began slowly: asparagus and strawberries in the spring, pawpaws in the fall, tomatoes when I felt like it.
My ascent into farmers market shopping picked up as the years went on. Now, in seasons that I’m not growing my own food, most everything I eat fresh comes from the farmers market.
I’m obsessed with real food, and I believe in building community and voting with my dollars. Farmers markets entertain all of these values.
Wherever you fall on the food-values spectrum, here are tips for making the most of your trip to visit a farmers market:
1. Plan Before You Go
Especially if you’ve never been, learn about the farmers market so you’re prepared for what you’ll find.
“You might be able to learn about parking options, pet policies, special events, the vendors you might see there, and some markets even have map layouts posted so you can plan your trip,” says Kelly Crane, executive director of the Oregon Farmers Markets Association.
2. Go Early
“The best or new products sell out quickly,” says Janie Maxwell, executive director at the Illinois Farmers Market Association.
That’s not to say you shouldn’t go at all if you’re late, but don’t let farmers’ partially empty tables color your view of the quality of the market. The goal is for farmers to sell out of their products, after all.
And forget the idea that you should go late to haggle prices. Farmers set their prices to target the income they need to make their operation profitable. If farmers markets aren’t profitable for the farmers, there will be no farmers markets.
3. Follow Your Market & Farmers
“I love knowing my farmers and recommend following your farmers and farmers markets on social media,” says Maxwell, who has been shopping at farmers markets since she was a kid. “You will learn a lot and find helpful tips, as well.”
4. Go for Community
“If you like the market, make it a habit of going by meeting friends, scheduling a play date or considering the market ‘family time.’ Think of the market as free entertainment for children or a way to hang out with your friends that isn’t at the bar, for a change.”
Many markets host special kids days, live music or chef demonstrations. These all have special community appeal.
5. Bring Bags
You’ve heard this one before—bring a bag when you visit a farmers market. It bears repeating, particularly now that some states and municipalities are instituting single-use plastic-bag bans, as in Oregon.
“There is a mandatory fee if you forget yours and need to purchase one,” Crane says.
Plus, “It is better for the environment and also cheaper for you and the vendors in the long run,” she says. Crane knows first-hand about the hidden costs of being a vendor, as she was a market farmer in West Virginia for four years.
Maxwell also suggests bringing a wagon or stroller for your big purchases and a cooler with ice for hot days.
6. Bring Cash
With the advent of mobile credit-card processing apps, it’s easier than ever for farmers to accept credit cards at the market. The fees associated with this process, though, can add up quickly, meaning even if a farmer does accept cards, a cash purchase will go farther.
“Most larger vendors these days have their own credit and debit processors at their booth, but not all do,” Crane says.
“Especially if you are attending a smaller or more rural market, it’s possible they are a cash-only market or that in order to use a card, you might have to purchase tokens at the market info booth; in which case, it may be easier to just bring cash with you.”
7. Try Something New
Farmers markets offer the opportunity to eat foods that you rarely see in a grocery-store setting. These might include pawpaws—this country’s largest native fruit—squash blossoms that are too delicate to sit on a grocery shelf, tomatoes that actually taste like tomatoes, small-batch ferments and hand-produced artisan cheeses.
8. Support Beginning Farmers
As you become a market regular, you’ll find your favorite farmers. Giving new folks a try is important, too.
“Here in Oregon, we estimate that our 120-plus farmers markets support over 6,000 vendors, with approximately 1,600 of them having less than three years’ experience,” Crane says.
“With the average age of farmers in America rapidly increasing each year, it’s more important than ever to support new growers.”
9. Be Flexible
If you visit a farmers market in the central U.S. in August hoping to find locally grown snow peas for your stir-fry, you’ll probably be disappointed. (Snow peas are cooler-season crops.) Be open to substituting ingredients in your meal plan to match what’s available.
10. Shop for Values
You may be on the lookout for producers who are Certified Organic, Certified Naturally Grown, Animal Welfare Approved and the like.
“It is important to note … that just because a small farmer is not participating in one of these inspection programs does not mean that they are not producing in a sustainable or ethical way,” Crane says. “It just means that there is no one that they are accountable to for proving it. These programs can be expensive and require a great deal of record keeping, and some small farmers may not see the value in it.
“If you, as a shopper, have questions about unregulated marketing claims that a farmer is making (‘sustainable,’ ‘humane,’ ‘socially responsible,’ etc.), the best thing to do is to talk to that farmer.… It’s then your job as a customer to decide what types of agriculture you want to support.”
11. Buy Big In Season
Putting food by allows you to eat local food most of the year. Purchasing in big-batch quantities helps farmers to keep growing this food.
“Help your local farmers by learning to freeze and preserve food in-season,” Parks says. “Your farmer or other customers can help you get started. Start with a box of tomatoes — preferably seconds or ‘uglies.’
“Just wash and core them, roast them at 350 [degrees Fahrenheit] until they fall apart. Let them cool; bag and stack them in your freezer. It is the simplest recipe, and I encourage all my customers to start there. Pesto is level two.”
12. Go in the Off-Season
“Having year-round income can be an amazing boon to farmers market vendors,” Crane says. It’s likely that you’ll find more than you expect at an off-season market in your area.
“Even in cold climates, many winter markets offer fresh greens, micro-greens and storage fruits and vegetables,” Maxwell says.
“Farmers have access to season-extension systems that make growing possible year-round. And many farmers use cold storage for their late-fall products … Also, winter markets may continue to offer meat, poultry, eggs, cheese and baked products that are available year-round, as well as artisan products.”
13. Get the Most for Your Money
“Many markets accept [Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program cards], and many offer matching dollars for every dollar you swipe on your SNAP benefit/EBT card,” Maxwell says. “Check with your farmers market in advance.”
If you’re not purchasing your groceries with SNAP, perhaps you can help a market support its food-access efforts.
“Here at OFMA, we believe that access to fresh, healthy, local food is a basic human right — regardless of income level,” Crane says. “Buying this sort of nutritious, unprocessed food anywhere, farmers markets included, can be expensive for families.”
If you’re in a position to help, reduce barriers to local food access by paying it forward and donating to a program designed to increase access at farmers markets.
“There are really well-recognized national SNAP-matching projects, like Wholesome Wave, or your state may have a Double Up Food Bucks program, or your market may even self-fund a matching program through local fundraising,” Crane says.
“You can ask about this at your market’s info booth and find the best way to donate, if they have a program.”
14. Keep in Mind Your Impact
There’s this notion that farmers markets are “too expensive.”
First of all, that’s not true, in particular for organic produce. Compare prices at the farmers market and the grocery store, and you’ll sometimes find the market offers a bargain.
Second, even if that were true, the extra $0.50 you might spend on lettuce when you visit a farmers market is a great economic multiplier.
“By shopping at a local farmers market, you are helping to grow and support your local community’s economy,” Maxwell says. “Farmers take home about $0.97 of every dollar spent at the farmers market. According to [the U.S. Department of Agriculture], farmers selling through the traditional retail system get $0.17 for every dollar spent at retail.”
Whether you’re in it for the food, the community, the economics or the fun, carving out time from your week to visit a farmers market can make a difference to your health and your local farmers’ bottom lines.
Sidebar: Farmers Market > Grocery Store
“Shopping at your local farmers market has benefits far beyond getting the most nutritious food,” says Rachael Harms Mahlandt, communications and marketing manager at Portland Farmers Market, in Portland, Oregon.
“You’ll get fresh air, strengthen your local economy, reduce your carbon footprint (thanks to minimal packaging and less fossil fuels required to transport your food), and build relationships within your community.”
As if you needed more reasons to visit a farmers market, Illinois Farmers Market Association executive director Janie Maxwell has five for you:
- Local food is more nutritious. It is harvested within 24 to 48 hours of your purchase. Peak ripeness is peak nutrition. (Maxwell is also a registered dietician.)
- Local food tastes better. Food picked at the peak of ripeness tastes better than food grown for transportation.
- You may get varieties and products that aren’t available at grocery stores.
- Farmers markets promote health.
- Farmers and farmers markets need customers and sales. They depend on your support and the dollars you spend.
This article originally appeared in Urban Farm 2020, now available on newsstands and online.