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Tips for Shopping at Farmer's Market

Tips on shopping at a farmers’ market by Andrew Knowlton from this month’s Bon Appétit magazine.

Dear Shopper,

I thought I would share some tips on shopping at a farmers’ market by Andrew Knowlton from this month’s Bon Appétit magazine. I realize I may be preaching to the choir, but when did that ever stop me? I also have some comments that reflect my personal observations from more than 10 years as a market manager and longer than that as a shopper.

1. Yes, eggs, milk, and produce are more expensive than at the supermarket. But where else can you get just-laid eggs with bright-orange yolks, milk capped with cream, and vegetables that go beyond garden variety? What’s more, the taste is exponentially better. So don’t hassle the farmer about price.

We do not permit haggling, which sometimes confuses our shoppers who are new to American markets. In many countries around the world, haggling over price is expected, and proficiency in the practice is revered. But not here.

In the U.S., where prices are posted everywhere else you shop, you can expect that to be the case at a farmers’ market, too. It helps the farmers by not putting them in a position of having to deal with numerous hagglers, and it certainly moves the lines along faster. Maybe if the markets were open all day long, we might appreciate the dramatic and/or comic relief.

The other, more subtle message of this tip is the assumption that prices are higher, though for better and healthier products. And that is true. Pound for pound for the same items, you will often pay more at the market. But not always, and often in-season produce will be cheaper at a farmers’ market.

There is another consideration, however. If you are shopping at a market to improve your diet and your health, then eventually you will be substituting fresh foods and healthier prepared foods for junk. You will be buying four pounds of potatoes for the same price as a one-pound bag of potato chips. You will be buying two pounds of peaches for the same price as two packages of cookies. And you will be buying yogurt and berries for little more than the cost of a couple of boxes of sugar-laden cereal. If you are doing that, then you really can save your money and your health at the market.

2. We all want beautiful corn, tomatoes, and peaches, but that doesn’t give you the right to shuck, squeeze, and poke every single one in search of perfection.

Amen! And while some of our farmers are availing you of a bin or box in which to shuck your corn on site, please don’t pull down the husks just to see what it looks like. Learn to look for the plump, tightly wrapped ears that will be the sweetest and juiciest, and don’t expose the corn to the drying effects of the heat and sun so that no one will want them.

3. When it comes to plastic, let me just say: Bring your own %*!)@ bags.

Knowlton does have a point, though I wouldn’t use his language. But some of our farmers use recyclable bags, and some use biodegradable bags, so no one is going to question your personal choices at the market. And if you do use the reusable bags, make sure to wash them occasionally.

4. Leave the dog at home.

As long as your dog is well-socialized and not aggressive towards children or other dogs, we are happy to see them at the market. We will ask you to remove any dog that growls or lunges, but we have only seen that happen once in five years. Since that incident, that dog has received additional training and is now a welcome visitor.

5. Unless it grows in your region, don’t expect to find it at your local market. Of course, if you live in California, you can ask for anything….

Don’t expect to see out-of-season produce at our markets, though you probably know by now that you will find it at many of the markets in our area where “producer-only” or “local-only” is not enforced. We do make allowances for products such as coffee and chocolate that are not grown in our area and that require processing, which qualifies them as “value-added” products such as baked goods and prepared foods.

6. Each visit, buy one ingredient you’re unfamiliar with—perhaps garlic scapes, fava beans, or pattypan squash. It’ll make you a better cook.

This is a great idea, and we will probably have a recipe using such items either as handouts at the market or on our website. And if we don’t, you can email me to ask for one.

7. To shop like a chef, go right when the market opens. You’ll have your pick of produce. Bargain hunters go 30 minutes before closing, when many stands offer discounts.

Our markets are not open all day as some are across the country, and in most cases you will find what you came for up until the last 30 minutes of the market. But if I announce something in the newsletter or on a Patch site that is new to the market, expect it to sell out early, even for only that first day. I have been encouraging more of our vendors to offer last-minute discounts on some items.

We are lucky to have organizations that glean from several of our markets, so we do not feel compelled to get rid of everything each market. Our farmers are conscious of the fact that their leftovers feed people who would otherwise not enjoy much fresh food at all.

8. I love free tastes of peaches, too, but they’re samples, not meals. Leave some for others.

Max Tyson of Tyson Farm says “Hallelujah!”

9. If you’re new to a market, walk around before buying: You might find a better selection a few booths away. After you’ve shopped there a few times, get to know your farmers: Not only will you get cooking advice, you’ll feel more connected to your food.

Several years ago, I quoted Alice Waters on this topic. She has always felt that the communion between the shopper and farmer is the essence of buying local. And she should know.

10. Want to be a farmer’s best friend? Bring small bills and change.

It doesn’t take too many visits to a market to realize the need to have cash in hand. We do encourage all of our vendors to accept credit cards in this area, where you can go all day and not need cash for anything. But some vendors will never do that, and we want you to be prepared. They are often the small farmers who come the longest distances to market and who need to keep it simple. Your continued support of all of our vendors is much appreciated.

Photo by Sarah Sertic/Tribal Spider Arts

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