Has your favorite market started its season? With the cost of food climbing and interest in local foods growing, you might be wondering how to get the most from your farmers market this season. My husband and I manage one of the most progressive farmers markets in Colorado (See that beauty up there? That's our market.), and in those six years, I've come to find a few tips and tricks that will help you save money, find the best foods and make good relationships with your growers.
Go Early, but Not Too Early.
The best stuff goes fast. A farmer may only have a single flat of ripe, juicy blackberries or a couple of pounds of fresh green peas, so arrive early to make sure you get the best pick of the market's high-demand, seasonal fruits and vegetables. Take care, though, not to go too early: some markets disallow sales prior to the official hour and the sale you ask the farmer to make early may very well slow down set-up thus reducing the sales she or he can make later.
Or Go Late, but Not Too Late.
Farmers may discount their produce toward the end of the day. No one wants to cart a half case of unsold tomatoes or peaches back to the farm where they have row after row ready for another harvest. If your budget is tight, attending late may yield the best deals. Sometimes, farmers discount their produce as much as 20% by the end of the day just to get it sold so they don't have to take it back to the farm. Of course, the rules and regulations of some markets actually disallow this sort of end-of-the-day blowout pricing, so keep that in mind if you're late to arrive. Keep in mind that you shouldn't expect this kind of discount, or ask for it; rather, be aware that it is a practice that some farmers use.
Rules and regulations vary wildly from market to market. Just because it's at a farmers market, doesn't mean it's organically grown or even sold by the person who did the growing. Now our farmers market has some of the strictest rules in the nation. We require that all produce be Certified Organic or Certified Naturally Grown, that all meats, eggs and animal foods be pasture-raised and grass-fed. Even prepared food vendors and concessionaires are required to only use Certified Organic ingredients. We also audit every vendor to make sure those rules are adhered to. Of course, our market is an anomoly - most markets don't have these kind of requirements and some have no regulations on what can be sold or who can sell it.
So, take the time to ask questions. Do you spray? What do you spray? What are your cows eating? How much time do they spend on grass? Is your farm ever open to the public? Do you grow what you sell?
Offer to help a market manager.
Market managers need help, too. While customers bitch and moan about prices, or lack of out-of-season produce that has no place at a market (seriously, guys? You want oranges in Colorado ... in July?) and farmers are complaining because they know their rival got the sweet spot in the market (FYI: there is no sweet spot in a market) your market manager is busting his or her hump making sure vendors have change, tents are weighed down so they don't fly into your car during a wind gust, calling ambulances for heat stroke victims and sending that random dude who showed up trying to sell Chinese pocket knives home. It's a lot of work, and they need a lot of help.
By offering to help, you not only support your market and the market manager (market manager burnout is the #1 reason for market failure according to a study commissioned by the Oregon Tilth Association), but also get to know your farmer. And some markets, like ours, compensate volunteers with huge bags of fresh produce, grass-fed meats and pasture-raised eggs at the end of the day.
Bring Your Own Bags & Baskets
Most vendors don't supply and don't wish to supply customers with disposable bags. Other markets, like ours, are designated zero-waste zones and don't allow vendors to bring new plastic bags for customer use. By bringing your own bags, you reduce waste at the market and in your own home. Plus, there's just something exceptionally beautiful about a basket brimming with bright green lettuce, dark red cherries, orange apricots and other lovely fruits and vegetables.
Bring a Cooler
Good markets offer considerably more than fruits and vegetables. You'll find meats, fish, milk, cheese, yogurt, fermented foods and ready-to-eat items that require refrigeration. By bringing a cooler, you can keep fresh foods that need to be kept cool cold and go back to spend more time at the market - listening to music, watching the kids participate in children's activities or lunching at one of the concessionaire's stands. This way your lettuce won't go limp, your berries won't melt and your meat won't thaw. When I go to market I keep a cooler in my car, load up, and head right back.
Bring Cash and Small Bills
By bringing cash and small bills (plenty of 5s and 1s), you'll spend less time checking out and more time shopping. While bigger farmers markets usually have a credit card machine, they are cumbersome, costly and it can be hard to track them down. Bigger vendors will usually offer credit card and debit card processing; however, this privilege comes at the farmer's expense. By bringing cash and - specifically - small bills, you keep money in your farmer's pocket and you make it easier for him to make change for the masses of folks who bring nothing but $20 bills from the nearby ATM.
Buy by the Case
You want to keep your miles-to-the-plate low and keep eating local foods year-round, so consider preserving the harvest and purchase by the case. Buying by the case and in bulk quantities is cost-effective as most farmers will discount whole boxes of fruit and vegetables by 15-30% - you may even enjoy a further discount if you commit to buying a case or two a week for the duration of the market. With that level of commitment, you're getting wholesale prices. And it's this way that I can manage to buy 30 lbs of local organic cabbage for just $0.75/lb for homemade sauerkraut or sweet cherries for $1.50 / lb to freeze or dry.
Buy the Ugly Stuff
You can reduce your costs even further by purchasing #2 fruits and vegetables. Folks can be fickle about the food they eat and if that peach lacks just the right blush and if that apple isn't perfectly round, they can be difficult to sell. The flavor is the same and these fruits and vegetables are great to preserve for the winter months. Cases of #2 produce can be discounted as much as 50%. Take care, though, to check the produce thoroughly before making your purchase; some unscrupulous farmers have tried to pass off moldy peaches or maggot-filled sour cherries as #2 fruit (I've learned the hard way). #2 fruit means that the appearance is marred, but not the quality.
Know the Crop Calendar
You'd laugh if you knew how often I have to field a question on why we don't sell bananas at our Colorado market, or why apples aren't available in June or why cherries aren't available in October. If you want to eat in season, you need to respect the seasons. Part of the pleasure of shopping at your local market is developing an appreciation of fresh, local foods at the height of their natural season. If you're unsure when apricots will be in season or when the snap peas will stop producing; visit the farmers market information booth.
Many markets produce a market-specific crop calendar that will tell you when various fruits and vegetables available at your local farmers market will begin and end. If your market doesn't offer this service, your county cooperative extension office or your state's department of agriculture will. Celebrate your market and your local farmers. Buy fresh, buy local and buy in season.