Rows upon rows of fresh produce. Friendly farmers hocking their fare. Baskets of ripe tomatoes, asparagus and peppers spilling out from the individual stalls. If you’re used to shopping in a grocery store, a farmers market can be a pretty delicious — albeit overwhelming — place. So why bother?
Well, aside from knowing that you’re purchasing fresh produce grown by local farmers, it’s a great chance to connect with where your food actually comes from while meeting the people who grow it. You’re also prone to eat healthier with so many wholesome options to choose from. And, if you play your cards right, you can probably scout a better deal than the grocery store.
So how to make all of this happen? Here are some tried and true tips we’ve learned from visiting some farmers markets ourselves.
Know the Rules
Each market is run by different management, which means the rules can vary from place to place. That includes what farming methods the vendors need to abide by, whether they can discount their product during certain times of the day, and how much competition is allowed. In order to get exactly what you’re looking for (organic produce, the best deal etc.), reading up on the farmer’s market website or chatting to the farmers on-site before purchasing is a good way to go. Be sure to ask lots of questions too: “Do you spray your food?,” “Did you grow this?” and “Can people visit your farm?” are good opening questions if you’re looking to start a dialogue.
Looking for organic? Ask the farmer why his or her crops aren’t up to snuff. They may not spray, but they might be missing some other key requirement to be legally certified.
Timing is Everything
Looking to get the juiciest peaches and the ripest tomatoes? Head over to the market first thing when it opens; that’s when all of the best produce will be available. Just want a plain ol’ deal? Ask if there’s any “Number Two” fruit (the uglier, cheaper fruit no one wants) or head there towards the end of the day. Some farmers will have slashed their prices by then.
Bring your own bags — and a cooler
Most farmers will hand you a basket or a bag, but they’d really prefer not to. By bringing your own, you not only help the environment, but you avoid the risk of the flimsy, breakable bags that might not be able to withstand the weight of your produce. As for the cooler, that’s just a surefire way to ensure that everything stays fresh until you get home. With everything tucked safely inside your cooler bag, you won’t feel the need to rush out of there so soon.
Look for a deal
See something you like? Odds are another vendor could have it too. Be sure to do a complete walk-around first in order to compare size and quality. Ask for (and offer to pay for) a taste test if you have any questions.
Find what you’re looking for? If you have a deep freezer, know some preserving methods or simply have a friend who’s willing to share in your spoils, buying by the case is cheaper. Even better, if you can negotiate buying a biweekly case with the farmer in question, you might be able to talk him or her down on the price even more.
Know the crop calendar..
…but don’t come with a firm shopping list. The point is to buy fresh, seasonal foods and then build a recipe around that. Coming armed with a recipe and a need for specific ingredients will only leave you tired and frustrated. Instead, get an idea of what’s fresh during that time of year and go from there. Plus it will help you spot the frauds — while it’s obvious in Canada that a mango at the farmers market probably didn’t come from a local farm, it might not be so obvious when they’re selling asparagus (which is typically ready from the end of April until early July) in early September.
Try something new!
If you head to the farmers market with an open mind, you never know what you might discover. And isn’t that the real beauty of buying locally sourced food?
Happy shopping! Remember: it’s an adventure.