Farmers’ Markets: What to Know before You Go
Almost nothing boosts our mood better than a farmers’ market bursting with brightly colored produce and brimming with like-minded food lovers who have a fondness for locally grown goodies.
According to the USDA, which keeps track of these things, there are now nearly 7,200 farmers markets that have taken root throughout the U.S. (a growth of 17 percent over the previous year.) No doubt, eaters have discovered that they can connect to their food here in a way they can’t in sterile supermarket aisles, where produce travels an average of 1,500 miles before it’s displayed and then kept on a kind of spray-misted life support.
Not only can farmers’ markets vary wildly depending on their location and time of year, but visit one regularly, and you’ll notice it, too, cycles with the seasons — it’s part of the fun and also the challenge of shopping this way. Want to find a market near you? Just plug in your zip code at the handy USDA market-finder site.
Here are our best tips on how to maneuver through your local farmers’ market and embrace the unexpected.
• The Basics: Bring cash in small denominations and hoard a little extra for the surprise finds that await you. It would be tragic to pass up those just-foraged chanterelles because you spent your last dollar on a bag of fingerling potatoes. Remember to bring bags or even a small cart if you plan on stocking up. If you have the space, stiff storage containers will protect those tender berries, and an extra ice pack can keep meat or cheese chilled until you get home. If you’re looking for quality, shop early. If you’re looking for deals, shop late.
• Embrace Curiosity: That odd cut of meat, weird looking fruit or weeds like lambs quarters or purslane you spy on a farmer’s stand may just turn out to be your new favorite. Don’t be shy! Ask the grower about its origin, flavor, and tips on how to prepare it. And ask about seasonality — you might not realize those dainty quail eggs are actually seasonal and won’t be available three weeks from now. Bring the kids! They’re often the best icebreakers when it comes to asking about an unfamiliar fruit. They learn, you learn, it’s a win-win!
• Friend Your Farmer: Your grower knows exactly what’s peaking this week, which type of fruit is right for you (say, which grapefruit is sweetest or has the fewest seeds), and what’s available for only a tiny window of time. Lean in, ask advice, and remember this is a two-way relationship. “I need you just as much as you need me,” says farmer Peter Schaner of Schaner Farms, who has been selling at several San Diego markets and at the famous Santa Monica Farmers Market for nearly 25 years. And while everyone wants a good deal (more on scoring those in a moment), maybe think twice before haggling too hard with your farmer. If the prices seem higher than what you might find at a megastore, it’s because it’s reflecting the true cost of what it takes to grow food, without the government subsidies large producers are able to secure.
• Organic or Conventional: I’m a fan of organic and believe farmers who go the extra mile to get their fields certified organic deserve the recognition, but I try not to get hung up on the official designation. Not every farmer can afford the organic certification, but that doesn’t mean they don’t adhere to organic practices. On the other hand, sometimes less scrupulous vendors try to pass wholesale produce off as their own. Southern California had a rash of that behavior a few years ago with vendors making false claims. If organic is important to you, ask specific questions about where the produce is grown, how the farmers manage pests, and how long they’ve been in business. If they’re unwilling to answer, raise an eyebrow and move along.
• Best Tip on Reducing Food Waste: “Don’t think about what you should buy or which fruits or vegetables are richest in vitamins or healthiest for you. Instead, choose the produce you’re most excited about and that inspires you visually. You’ll be less likely to let it wilt and die in the fridge and more likely to eat it!” says produce expert Cheryl Sternman Rule, author of the cookbook Ripe: A Fresh, Colorful Approach to Fruits and Vegetables.
• Steals and deals: When peak season hits, don your preserving hat and inquire about bulk deals on items like tomatoes or berries that are perishable, hard to transport, and often burst into ripeness within a short time period. Be willing to buy seconds (produce that may have a flawed appearance). Shopping on rainy days is another tip veteran shoppers lean on, but one of our favorites is simply to establish a relationship with your farmer. That’s how we discovered one vendor would give us free chicken feet (hello, rich chicken stock!) with any purchase, or would throw in the gizzards the last three customers passed on. (Free chicken liver pâté, anyone?) Be gracious and say “thank you” when your farmer-friend throws in a bouquet of mixed herbs as a nod to your repeat business. Sometimes it’s nice to let the deal come to you.
Put your farmers’ market finds to delicious use with our fresh fruit and vegetable recipes!