How To Shop At A Farmer's Market

Finding the freshest, healthiest, and tastiest produce at a farmer’s market requires asking farmers the right questions:

5. When was this picked? You ideally want fruit and vegetables that were picked one or two days before arriving at the market.
4. Can you recommend a recipe? Farmers usually have creative ideas for turning their produce into delicious meals. Don’t pretend you would know how to prepare Kohlrabi without asking.

3. Is it organic? Fruit and vegetables are not organic just by virtue of their presence at a farmer’s market.
2. What are the farm’s sustainability practices? Do they rotate crops and utilize bio-diversity?
1. Are those free range eggs? Chickens that roam freely and much on grass produce eggs with a richer, orange-yellow yolk.

Farmer’s Market Shopping Tips [wannaveg via Frugal For Life]
(Photo: _e.t)

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  1. Brent says:

    Don’t forget “where is it from”. Many farmers markets will bring in stuff from far away just like grocery stores do whenever they don’t have a good supply locally. If you’re going to the trouble of going to a farmers market, you surely want to get something that was grown by the local farmer.

    Brent

  2. spanky says:

    I love farmer’s markets.

    I’d add that you should check out the whole thing first, before you start buying. When you have a lot of different farms, you’ll get a lot of overlap, so you want to compare sellers. I bought three batches of beets a couple of weeks ago, because each seller had better beets than the last. Fortunately, I really like beets.

    Also, I don’t like the list suggestion so much. If you have a few staples you really need, that’s OK, but I always have better luck with produce if I go in with an open mind, and just buy whatever looks good. I’ve even been thinking about joining one of those farm share things next year, where you pay upfront and just get a box of whatever’s good that week.

  3. Benny Gesserit says:

    What are the farm’s sustainability practices?

    Are you serious? This poor guy/gal has worked long and hard (REALLY HARD) to get this stuff in front of you and you have the NERVE ask him/her to respond to a question like that? For $3 worth of okra?

    I’d wouldn’t be surprised if his/her response was “Umm, bite me, weasel.”

  4. feralparakeet says:

    At the local curb market (which is the closest thing we had to a mega farmers market in reasonable driving distance growing up), we only had to ask the owner one thing about any fruit or vegetable we were interested in – “Are these any good?”

    If they were so-so, he’d kind of nod. If they were good, he’d light up and show them off to us. He doesn’t show them off anymore since he’s had a stroke, but he still lights up, and he still has the best produce around.

  5. jawnz says:

    A good assumption to make at a farmer’s market is that with few exceptions the produce being sold came from the same wholesaler that supplies the grocery chains.

    With this in mind make an effort to find the few actual growers in the marked – so yeah, it’s a good idea to check out all of the market first. Take a close look at all of the boxes behind the stands and keep an eye out for things that look real – like dirt – and things that don’t. Just this morning at the farmer’s market I saw the “farmer” taking eggs from a case and packing them into one-dozen containers. The side of the case box said they came from 3 states away. Be realistic about the season, e.g. if you live in Michigan at this time of year the tomatoes are NOT local.

    Find the real growers and support them in any way you can

  6. ReaderRob says:

    I use the local farmers market as a starting point. Since so many of them bring in produce from the local food terminal rather than growing and harvisting it themselves, I take the time to talk to farmers when I need something new.

    Talking to the farmers gives me the opportunity to ask them if it’s ok for me to stop by their farm and buy things directly from them when they’re not busy / at the market.

    Usually on Wednesdays or Thursdays, I’ll drop by their farm and load up for not only half the price but twice the freshness.

    Farmers are a suprisingly technical bunch who often enjoy computers. The 2 farms I visit regularly exchange my computer / web services for food. It works out great – I’ll fix their e-mail or help them extend their wireless network to the barn and bingo-bango, I’ve got myself months of free food and a better relationship with the folks who grow it.

  7. ancientsociety says:

    “A good assumption to make at a farmer’s market is that with few exceptions the produce being sold came from the same wholesaler that supplies the grocery chains.”

    Ahhh, no. Just because a farmer happens to take eggs from a case and put them into dozen cartons (how do you know he didn’t get an EMPTY case/carton/etc.? Do you realize how expensive simple boxes can get when you’re running your own business?) or that they have tomatoes early in the year (it’s called “hothousing”, you CAN grow tomatoes early in the season so long as you protect against frost and cold), doesn’t mean they “bought it from a wholesaler”.

    Besides, that makes absolutely no sense for a farmer with X acres of farm or ranch land capable of supporting said crop, would buy it from a distributor at markup to (possibly) sell at the market. There’s no garuantee that said item will sell.

    I would add that you should only ask these questions when the stand workers aren’t horribly busy and be polite. My wife works at farmer’s markets and it’s hard enough to keep items stocked, money changing correct, and answering simple questions; then to be interrogated about the farm itself. If you’re really nice about it though most farmers and stand workers will be happy to answer any questions. They may even invite you to view the farm in person!

    Also, PLEASE don’t barter or haggle over prices! Can’t say how many times I’m appalled that people will try to haggle over direct-from-the-farmer produce which almost always costs the same or less then what you’d spend at a supermarket. Please remember that’s its already hard for most small organic farms in America today without cheapskates trying top nickel-and-dime them.

  8. Jigen says:

    The store I work at brings in locally grown produce. We always have old people coming up to us complaining that our product isn’t as good as the stuff at the farmers market. Funny thing is, the stuff thats sold at the market is what fails to meet our stores quality standards, and we turn away. Guess its just more proof old people have nothing better to do than complain.

  9. We shopped at a Farmer’s Market for the first time yesterday (in Lompoc, CA) and it was an excellent experience. It wasn’t as large as I thought it would be but I think that is simply because of the area – other towns (Avilla Beach, for example) have huge Farmer’s Markets that are events for the entire town with entertainment – from what I’ve been told.

    Regardless, it was a great experience and saved us a butt-load of money. We spent $6 on fruit and veggies to last a week, something that would have cost $15 – $20 at the Commissary on base, and $20+ at a grocery store downtown.

    At this rate we can save $500+ per year shopping at the Farmer’s Market for our standard fruit and veggies and pick up the onesies and twosies at the store.

    For the record: 1 Broccoli, 1 Cauliflower, 1 Zuchini, 3 Summer Squash, 1 Red Onion, 6 White Peaches, 3 Navel Oranges – no more than $6 total.

  10. karmaghost says:

    Where is it from? is a good question if you can get an honest answer. I work at a grocery store part-time and find that during the summer, there will be a decent amount of people that come in from the local farmer’s market to buy produce that they later sell at their stands. They likely only do this if they’ve run out of something as the profit wouldn’t be very high, but it’s something to consider.

  11. tcp100 says:

    “2. What are the farm’s sustainability practices? Do they rotate crops and utilize bio-diversity?”

    You guys are going to give some farmers something to laugh about with their buddies, that’s for sure.

  12. harleymcc says:

    [www.halifaxfarmersmarket.com]

    This is the oldest one in North America.

  13. @Jim (The Canuck One): “Are you serious? This poor guy/gal has worked long and hard (REALLY HARD) to get this stuff in front of you and you have the NERVE ask him/her to respond to a question like that?”

    Most farmers here who do the farmers markets are very PROUD of their sustainability/environmental practices. Commodities farmers aren’t typically found at farmers’ markets. Local farmers growing labor-intensive non-commodity crops (that’s be fruit and veggies) typically do so for the direct-to-retail or direct-to-restaurant markets and generally are involved in some form of environmental preservation.

    You can learn an awful lot about USDA standards, labeling, and farming practices by asking. (Politely, when it’s not busy, as noted above.) For example, few farmers around here bother with USDA organic certification because it costs too much to get certified for a small-scale operation, and the only large-scale farms here are commodity farms.

    Localharvest.com lists farmers markets as well as CSAs (farm subscriptions) and farm-direct sales. Your county extension may also be able to put you in touch with farms that will do direct sales. Every one that I’ve met invites customers to inspect the farm and generally hosts a couple of “showing-off” days a year to show off the farm and their practices and products in a sort of party picnic atmosphere.

  14. rosy501 says:

    This may seem like a given, but one more suggestion I’d add is making sure you get there early, especially on weekends. There aren’t as many toddlers running around or crowds jamming up the walkways. Most importantly, you get first pick from the produce, and are more likely to be able to strike up conversation with the farmers as they’re not yet overwhelmed with business.

    A friend of mine goes every Saturday morning, right before they officially open, when the merchants are still unloading their trucks. He’s gotten to know his favorite farmers by their first names, who has the best of what, where each farm stand is located in the market, and manages to get in and out in 20 minutes for a full week of groceries. I’m not nearly as efficient because no matter what kind of list I have, I still find myself browsing everything. Plus there’s a switch in my head somewhere that doesn’t let me wake up early on Saturdays :).

    @ancientsociety: That’s nuts that people would haggle over the produce! The prices at our farmer’s market are so inexpensive, and the quality is almost always better and fresher than our local grocery stores. Every time I go, I always leave there with way more cash in my pocket than I thought I’d end up with.

  15. RichAndFoolish says:

    Only 1.5 of those questions have anything to do with produce quality.

    The rest is PC bullsh*t. You would rightly find yourself escorted out of many farmer’s markets for asking crap like that.

  16. Chicago7 says:

    @cfaslave:

    No kidding. Where is it from is the FIRST question. I thought it was odd last year that in late spring they had produce that was not growable (??) in Chicago at that time.

    I looked in the back of the truck and saw boxes labeled like it was shipped in from California. You could have gone 1 block to the Jewel and bought the same produce for about 1/2 price.

  17. Chicago7 says:

    @karmaghost:

    Wow. What farmer’s market do you go to where the prices are lower than the chain food store? Not true at any of the ones I go to.

  18. spanky says:

    @Chicago7:

    It depends on the farmers’ market, the grocery store, and what you’re buying, of course, but in general, the farmers’ markets are cheaper, from what I’ve seen. Especially with relatively fragile things like lettuce and tomatoes, assuming you get the same quality and type. I get big bags of spring mix from the farmers’ market for about 20% what they charge at the grocery store, and the grocery store’s is all wilted and sad.

    Around here, it’s mostly just the ornamental farmers’ markets–the ones set up in the suburbs to look quaint or something–that have higher prices.

  19. PattM says:

    I’ve got to put in my 2 cents on this–My husband and I are raise produce for farmer’s markets for the last 7 years. I have heard all the questions above at one time or another (657 times on a Saturday morning) and I have never been offended by being asked our farming practices. We are not strictly organic, we do use pesticides, albeit sparingly, and are not as bio-diverse as the “crunchy-granola” crowd would like us to be.

    The largest part of what we do is not providing fresh, healthy produce to our customers; it is educating them on where their food comes from, how it is grown, the difficulites of growing on a large scale vs. a back yard garden and how to prepare the items they have just purchased.

    As far as price, hell yes, I’ve worked hard to bring our products to market and we struggle to price things accodingly to pay for our time and materials, but to stay in competition with grocery stores. BTW, we both work full time jobs in addition to the farming.

    Support your local growers, insist that your local market consists of local growers, seek out producers of milk, eggs and meat in your area and talk to the farmers. We love to share what we do! Even when I am crazy busy, I will take the time to answer your questions, goofy or not, because the five or six people beside you will also listen.

    Also, take your time at the market. Walk through the entire market, see what catches your eye. Ask if tomatoes/sweet corn/grapes are in season yet in your area. Often times, if the grower doesn’t grow that item, the can point you to another grower that does.

    Bottom line, get to know what is local to your area (central IL–bananas–no)and when fruits and veggies come into season and how long that season usually is. Ask the growers where their farm is and you will usually get specific directions to the place. Ask if you could stop by an visit sometime. I tell people to come by on a Friday night and they can help us pick! Ask if you can buy produce mid-week at their farm. Show an interest in them; learn their names and give then yours. Tell your friends about your favorite farmers and meet at the market for coffee and a little shopping.

  20. speedwell (propagandist and secular snarkist) says:

    I grew up eating kohlrabi, so I never had to ask. You can use the middle part of cabbage, too (the part you usually throw away) like a root vegetable to pickle or put in soup.

  21. erica.blog says:

    A lot of farmers’ market sellers would be thrilled to chat with you about their farming practice — as long as they’re not too busy at the moment, or neglecting other customers. Demanding information on sustainability practices up-front probably isn’t the way to go, necessarily, start a polite conversation with them first…

  22. bethnewt says:

    At my local farmers’ market, all produce has to be from within a 50-mile (or is it 30-mile?) radius. Your market might have a similar rule – ask!

    Every farmer I’ve talked to has been happy to tell customers all about their farm, where it is, and how things are grown. They’re proud of what they do and love to talk about it.

    Remember than terms like “organic” and “free range” are often just buzzwords – they don’t mean much by themselves. Some farms may use sustainable and humane practices but not be certified as organic; others may go above and beyond the definition of “organic” or “free range” and would love to tell you about how they grow their veggies or treat their animals, and why they think their methods are best.

    Asking for a recipe is also good advice, even if you think you know how to prepare the thing. For example, I asked about the turnips at my market one summer and was advised to saute them gently, since they’re young and tender, rather than use the same recipe as for crusty winter turnips.