Shopping at your local farmer’s market is fun but can take time to get used to. Americans have grown accustomed to having whatever they want, food wise, at their finger tips regardless of season. As a grower, I want to share some tips that I feel will help the seasoned farmer’s market shopper as well as the newbie.
1. Seek out a producer only market.
The beauty of shopping at a local farmer’s market is being able to talk and buy directly from the person that has produced the food. I am not a fan of markets that allow people to set up mini grocery stores and sell produce from hundreds of miles away. I understand that everyone has to make a living, but in my opinion a farmer’s market should be just what it is called; a market belonging to the farmers. These small, local markets are essential to the survival of small family farms. Large farms that sell wholesale have large corporate grocery chains that buy from them. There are many certifications with hefty fees that are required to sell to large grocery store chains that many small farms cannot afford to pay.
We also ask our customers if there is something that they would like for us to grow. How cool is that!? A lot of farmers will try different crops if there seems to be an interest. I have seen more variety available at the farmer’s markets than what is available at the grocery store.
The most important thing about a producer only market is that you can find out exactly how your food was produced and get to know the farmer. You can find out if any chemicals were used, fertilizers etc. We have an open door policy at our farm which allows our customers to come out and visit. Transparency is crucial when it comes to being an informed consumer. You also know exactly where your dollar is going. There is no middle man when you buy straight from the farmer.
2. Learn to Eat with the Seasons
I am sure you have heard this before but it needs to be repeated. Farmers can only grow what the weather will support. Call your local agricultural extension office and get a copy of a seasonal produce chart. Most of this information is available online as well. This information lets you know what to expect currently and what to anticipate will be available in the future. This will also come in handy when talking to farmers about what they are planning to grow for the next season. If you aren’t sure how to prepare a particular crop, ask farmers if they have any recipes and search out recipes. The market where we sell has a chef come and do food demonstrations. The chef calls all of us farmers early in the week to find out what we will have available and then plans his menu accordingly.
Remember that the seasons not only control produce but they can also control pasture-raised meat availability. Since our chickens are raised on pasture they can only be raised during certain months of the year. We can’t put them on pasture when it is too cold and we don’t put them on pasture when it is terribly hot. Summer in North Carolina, where I live, can be very different in the mountains than the piedmont. We have a lot of customers that stock up on chickens when we process in June because they know that they may not be available in the middle of August and they will have to wait until October when we process our next batch.
Matt Huggett, the chef that cooks some delicious food at our market.
3. Get There Early
This is pretty easy to understand. If you want the best selection be there when the market opens.
4. Plan Your Meals After Your Trip to the Market
I know this seems a little backwards, but remember this goes along with purchasing food that is regulated by nature. This is where having cookbooks that feature whole foods come in handy. You can check out my post on my favorite whole food cookbooks for some ideas.
5. Bring Something to Carry Your Goodies
Having something to carry all of your purchases in is important. Some farmers offer bags, but some don’t. Some of our customers that live within walking distance pull a wagon and load it up with their goodies. Baskets with handles work great as well. If you are buy meats and eggs I would highly recommend bringing a cooler.
6. Bring Cash
Many farmers like us are now able to take payment with credit/debit cards. Many only accept cash. I recommend bringing cash in a variety of 1′s, 5′s and 10′s. Twenty dollar bills are harder for making change.
7. Treat Each Farmer as an Individual Store
I tell people to think of a farmer’s market in the same way they think of a mall. You don’t expect the stores at the mall to have the same practices, so don’t assume that each farm will either. Don’t barter like you would at a yard sale. Some farmer’s don’t mind this but some do. You would not go to Wal-Mart and when your total comes to $10.59 ask the cashier if they will take $10.50 for your purchase. If a farmer cut their price by $.09 for 100 people they would loose $9.00 that day. While that may not seem like a lot, multiply this amount by twelve weeks (the average length of seasonal markets) and that total is $108.00. Farmers have many expenses and every penny counts.
Shopping at farmer’s markets can be fun, rewarding and healthy. You get out in the fresh air, meet great people and eat some of the freshest food you will ever put in your mouth.