Shopping the Farmers' Market
Where I live, the farmers’ market season runs from May to December and I savor every moment. Nothing beats picking your own fresh produce or chatting up local farmers to get gardening or cooking advice. Here are my tricks of the farmers' market trade.
You may know where one local farmers' market, but I bet there are others in your area. Local Harvest has a huge -- and growing -- database that you can search by zip code. (You can also look up local family farms and CSA programs, too.)
What I love most about the farmers’ markets is the ever-changing produce offering. You really get a sense of seasonal foods by seeing what's for sale. To find out when a favorite veggie might be hitting the stands, visit the Healthy Harvest Food Guides for month to month info for your state. You can also search for produce guides by state at Field to Plate.
The main difference is that farmers' markets sell food and other goods from multiple farms. They often migrate from town to town throughout the week as well. Farm stands are typically smaller, more permanent fixtures that are located close to -- or even at -- a local farm. With a farm stand, your choices may be limited (depending on what that farm grows), but you still have access to the freshest items possible. Both are good places to visit.
Farmers’ markets (especially large ones) can be overwhelming. You might see several farmers selling the same thing or even selling produce you've never seen before. Start by taking a quick walk through the entire market before you buy anything -- that way you can scout out what looks good and what you want to buy. This keeps you from buying more than you need, too. Give yourself a weekly budget (or just pocket a set amount of cash) and that can help you save money. Once you've been there a few times, you might want to prep a list of foods to find. Leave some wiggle room for unexpected treasures.
Fruits and vegetables are plentiful at the markets -- especially at the height of summer. Be on the lookout for things other than produce, including fresh flowers and plants, baked goods, eggs, meat, fish, local honey, juices, cheese, milk and yogurt.
Different farmers grow different things -- some specialize in fruit trees and have fabulous peaches in the summer and apples in fall. Others might have the best cucumbers or peppers. I like to buy a few things from multiple farmers. Keep an eye on any differences in their prices (or how much cheaper it is than the supermarket). Don't be afraid to ask if something seems more expensive than you'd expect. They probably won't negotiate, but they might let you know a little more about that food's value.
One of the most important things you can do at the market is talk to your farmer. Ask for prep ideas. Sometimes sellers give away printed recipes for that week's harvest. Most will be thrilled to talk to you and may offer up a sample. There’s something so wonderful about getting to know the people that produce your food -- you certainly can’t do that at the grocery store.
Many farmers markets are town- or city-run operations, and they’re always looking for volunteers to help. Contact your local city hall to see how you can pitch in.