Thursday, May 8, 2008

How to shop at a farmers' market

Shopping at a farmers' market is not the same as shopping at a supermarket. You'll enjoy the experience more and get a lot more out of it -- more than you're expecting, perhaps -- if you keep a few things in mind.

Get in the zone. The farmers' market is not Kroger. Knowing how your food was raised and buying fresher, tastier, sustainably-raised food that supports your local farmers is balanced with some things you might at first see as disadvantages: it takes longer, some items might be more expensive (especially at certain times of year), and you can't always find exactly what you're looking for. But after a while, if you're in the right frame of mind, you'll see that these are actually advantages, too. When you spend more time shopping, you tend to get to know the farmer and the food better. When you pay a fair price for food, you tend to start eating in a way that is sustainable (and healthier.) When you don't find what you were looking for, you tend to broaden your food choices and discover new food items you may not have used before. Shopping the farmers' market is part of an entirely different way of looking at your food, one that allows you to become part of the process rather than simply being the end-consumer.

Show up early. Especially if you're looking for something early or late in its season, as many farmers will run out right away as early birds snap up the less abundant items. Plus lines are likely to be shorter and farmers will be able to spend more time with you talking about their offerings.

Or, come late. Often late in the day is a great time to get deals on stuff the farmers don't want to take home, especially anything more perishable or difficult to transport.

Be prepared to spend some time. This isn't a supermarket where you zip up and down the aisles throwing boxes and cans into your cart. Here, you can ask about the items. The grower or producer of the item knows more about it than you might imagine -- after all, if they're growing it, they're almost certainly eating it. And the people in front of you want to ask some questions, too, so try to be patient.

Accept the seasons. You won't find apples or tomatoes at the farmers' market in May, or asparagus in August. One of the joys of eating locally is that the start of each item's new season is a cause for celebration. In May at the farmers' market, that gorgeous bunch of asparagus was probably in the ground a few miles away last night or maybe even this morning. During asparagus season you can have asparagus every night for a week and not get tired of it because you know you aren't going to see fresh local asparagus again until next year. Come September, an apple that was picked yesterday will spoil you forever for what you can find at the supermarket in June. You may just decide that picked-yesterday-ten-miles-from-here apple is worth waiting for.

Be flexible. If the spinach is all gone, consider kale or chard, which can often be used interchangeably in recipes. No Granny Smiths? Ask the farmer which of his varieties will make a Granny Smith eater happy.

Try something new. At a farmers' market, you'll often see things you'd never see at the supermarket. Pea shoots, garlic scapes, squash blossoms, green garlic, chive blossoms, sorrel -- for the most part these are too perishable or too difficult to transport to show up anywhere but at a farmers' market. Pick up a bunch and ask the farmer, "How do you use this?" He'll be happy to tell you how he likes to prepare it, and he may even have a recipe copied off.

Don't expect perfect beauty. The blemish-free produce at the supermarket was raised in a monoculture, sprayed to kill every possible threat whether present or not, chemically fertilized to encourage growth, and the variety was chosen for beauty and ease of transport, not taste. At the farmers' market you'll find varieties the farmer chose because they grow well in his particular conditions and he thinks they taste good. Most don't spray, or spray only when disease or insects are actually present. Most fertilize only with compost, not with chemicals. The end product doesn't always look exactly like the perfect produce you'll find at the supermarket, but it tastes better and is fresher, better for you, and better for the environment. There's a beauty in that imperfection.

Ask questions. Where is your farm located? Do you grow or raise what you are selling? (If you don't feel comfortable asking a farmer this, ask the market manager whether there are rules about this for farmers at their market -- there often are.) What are your growing methods? Can people visit your farm? Why did you choose to grow a particular variety? What's good today? Do you have any cooking tips? Do you know if anyone else here today might still have some radishes? Will you have tomatoes next week?

Develop relationships. If you visit a market regularly, you'll see the same farmers over and over. Some of them will be happy to save things for you next week if you've become a regular and they know you'll show up. Some farmers change their planting plans in response to requests from regular customers -- one farmer I know has developed a specialty in Japanese vegetables because he's developed relationships with several transplanted families. If you'd love to be able to find a certain item at the farmers' market, tell a farmer! You'll be much more likely to see it in his stall next year if you've developed a relationship with him this year.

Be prepared to pay the true cost of producing your food. It's not a garage sale, where you can expect to pick up stuff cheaper than at retail. Most farmers at farmers' markets are not producing on a large scale. They're not receiving subsidies on their products to help lower the price. They're operating small diversified farms, which is better for the environment. They are trying to do the right thing, but they still need to make a living. You can help by being willing to pay a little more for your food, especially early or late in the season. It tends to balance out in high season for produce. In August and September when everyone has tomatoes coming out their ears, you can buy tomatoes cheap. In late June, not so much. But for certain items -- mostly animal products -- you'll almost always pay a little more at a farmers' market. That's because raising animals on pasture without subsidized grain and water costs more than conventional CAFO'd meat, dairy, and egg operations. Learning the true cost of meat has encouraged my family to treat it as an ingredient rather than as the ingredient in our meals. It's better for us and better for the environment.

Bring a friend. Know a foodie who doesn't shop at the farmers' market? Or maybe just someone who is always saying, "Wow, I really should check out the farmers' markets, too." Offer to take them with you. Last time I took a friend she bought so much food I ended up with a dinner invitation.

Become part of the process. When you shop at a supermarket, you're simply an eater. You have a very limited part in the process of bringing food to your table. When you shop at a farmers' market, you have an opportunity to become part of the process, but only if you take advantage of that opportunity. If you treat the farmers' market like Kroger, you'll probably be disappointed.

This post was featured at Vegetarian CarnivalCarnival of Improving LifeMake It From ScratchFestival of Frugality, Homesteading Carnival and Carnival of Tips.

31 comments:

Veggie Option said...

What a wonderful post! It made me get all teary-eyed and weepy - but in a good way - to know that the hard work farmers do is appreciated. My farming family thanks you. :)

Finspot said...

Agreed. These are all really good reminders, with the common denominators being: slow down, take a more personal and community-oriented approach to food shopping. Great post!

Debs said...

Nice post. I've been shopping at farmers' markets since I was born, and going every week is something I look forward to. In the summer, I sometimes even hit 3-4 markets in one week (during particularly obsessive weeks).

Developing a little bit of a routine with your market helps. I generally know which stall I have to make a bee-line for, because I want to make sure I get the milk/mushrooms/eggs/whatever they're likely to run out of. After a few of those places, I make a loop just to look at everything. Then I start buying.

I also like to encourage friends to go to the farmers' market, or to bring them along. So many people list it as "something I should get around to doing one of these days."

vudutu said...

Yet another great post Val, you hit all the bases, the only thing I would like to add is bring a friend, if everyone of us vowed to "convert" a friend and they vowed to do the same we will all eat better! Hope to see you at Findlay tomorrow, IF I can get up early!

valereee said...

Thanks, all!

veggie option, you're making me tear up a wee bit, too! :)

debs and vudutu, bring a friend! What a great addition!

liberal foodie said...

oops, I left a comment on the wrnog post.

Val, thank you for the tips. Those questions are helpful. I rarely ask questions because I don't know how to start up a conversation; hopefully this season that'll change.

Jen (Modern Beet) said...

Very nice post!
One other farmer's market tip I have is if you're not too picky, go towards the end of the market, find a stand with fairly diverse offerings that's not too busy, and then ask the purveyor to fill you a bag with $20/$30/$40/etc worth of produce -- it's a really easy way to get a good variety of vegetables for not too much effort, and they'll sometimes throw in an extra item or two since you're buying so much from them

maybelles mom said...

WONDERFUL post. You are exactly right.

valereee said...

jen, great tip for budget farmers' market shopping! I would imagine most farmers would much rather not take the stuff back home, especially anything perishable. It's really a win-win.

liberal foodie, I'm such an introvert that starting those first conversations with farmers at market was difficult for me. It felt intrusive somehow. But once I did, I saw that most of them are so happy to have you asking them questions that they'll take on more than their half of the burden of conversation. :D So now I'm just babbling at everyone. Not all are talkers, of course, but in general they welcome the chance to tell you all about their wonderful products.

valereee said...

updated post to include suggestions from debs, vudutu, jen. Thanks, guys!

Cin Twin1 said...

Great blog! I also want to add that I bring cash to Findley Market when I shop, and lots of small bills. It speeds up the process so that another customer has a chance to ask questions and talk to the local vendors.

vudutu said...

One more thing to be aware of. 99% of the produce at the year round stalls at Findlay comes from the same distributors, out of the same warehouse and is not local. In the spring, summer and fall I go to the local farmers shed first then Madisons, then the stalls to get what the farmers don't have. More of the year round stalls are becomeing aware of local and do supplement, ask if they carry local, make them more aware. One exception this winter was buttercrunch lettuce grown in a greenhouse I was told, it looked to be hydro grown and was great. Val do you know who the grower is? Hey Val we are up early, perhaps we will see you at market!

SuperAngel said...

Thank you so much for your submission in this week's THC. I enjoyed reading this post.
This has so much wonderful information to know in it.
This week is
The Homesteading Carnival #49: My Mama Edition>. Please stop by and check it out. If you would, please let your friends know about it too!
Prayers and Blessings,
Miss Amanda
Owner of The Daily Planet, writer forGrowing In Grace Online, Home School Blog Awards, and moderator for HSB Literary Club.

The Baklava Queen said...

Don't know how I missed this post before, valereee! But I would add that for those of you who feel a little introverted and don't know how to start talking to the farmers themselves, talk to yourself. :-) I know it sounds silly, but if you see some really good-looking produce at the market, don't hesitate to let out an "involuntary" cry of delight -- "Oh, that looks so good!" Nothing gets a farmer's attention like genuine appreciation for what they grow. (It's like complimenting a parent on their kids.) THEY will start talking to you! :-)

Adam Pieniazek said...

Great post. You make farmers markets seem more a social and educational experience rather than just a plain consumerist need. As I'm just starting to cook for myself and my family I'll for sure be asking lots of questions about preferred recipes. Finding rare produce also sounds great as I'm decreasing my meat consumption and am certainly looking for as much variety as possible.

That's a great tip Jen...I'll have to remember it when I get un-sick enough to go shopping! Especially since I'll be biking to the market so I can only take home about $20-$30 worth of produce anyway.

Adam Pieniazek said...

Dugg and Reddited

Katy said...

Saw this on Digg and totally agree with all of it! Farmer's markets are very different from shopping at a grocery store, and thank god for that! I always feel a little creeped out now when I see those huge piles of shiny, unblemished, symmetrical green and red apples in traditional grocery stores -- they're like the Stepford children of fruits and veggies. :-)

smallnotebook said...

What a great and thorough post! I can't wait to go to the farmer's market in June.

Rose said...

Great post! All that advice is so true. I wanted to add one suggest. Which is to bring your kids to the market. It's a great way to get children interested in healthy food. It also helps turn it into a fun family outing instead of a chore like grocery shopping. My almost 3 year old thinks going to the farmers market is awesome and spends the trip eating what ever season treat is available (cheese curds, strawberries, cherry tomatoes, etc.) At some point I'm going to write a post on marketing with kids, but haven't gotten to it yet.

sara l said...

One of the things that makes this my favorite time of year is the reemergence of the local farmers markets.

In addition to getting groceries I think its a great time to enjoy the sunshine, talk with friendly people, and learn more about what grows naturally in your area.

Angie said...

Great post! We just love visiting our Farmer's Market!

Green Me said...

Beautiful and thoughtfully written! I have a small addition to you your "advantages." When it comes to not finding what I want, such as dill to go with the spinach and parsley for a spinach pie, it inspires me to do more gardening at home!

valereee said...

Very true, about doing more gardening at home! Though I always have to admit I garden with much more enthusiasm than competence.

Hip Hostess said...

Great post! I got a friend at work to agree to go to the Union Square farmer's market every Wed. during our lunch break so even when I am feeling lazy I have someone to motivate me (and vice versa). It is a fun way to spend a lunch hour and really makes me feel more connected to my food.

Also, things can be a lot less expensive at local markets. For example, I bought a large bunch of ramps last week for $3 at my local farmer's market. Went to Wholefoods the following day and saw "local" ramps advertized and they were selling for $15.99 per pound.

Tiffany said...

I just found your blog while I was looking at Modern Beet. This is a fantastic post which does really cover everything you need to know about the market. I especially like the one about being prepared to pay the real price of your food. Here in the DC area, people do often complain that the market can be expensive. You are right, though, produce prices are reducing as everything is coming more into season. And, I would much rather pay more for my meat than eat something from a CAFO. I look forward to reading a lot more on your blog!

Vi said...

this is a great, informative post! i'll definitely share with friends who haven't experienced many farmer's markets!

valereee said...

Thanks, Vi!

leslie said...

outstanding article
everything i feel in the perfect wording
thank you

valereee said...

Leslie, thank you so much! Cool blog you have!

Mati said...

Great post!

If you find or develop a great recipe, especially a special interest one (gluten free, etc.) - bring a few copies for the farmers, who are often looking for options that appeal to different shoppers.

find farmers market said...

Nice post and lots of information about the provided farmers market..