How to Shop at a Farmers' Market
There are many things to think about before you go to a farmers market and while you are there. It’s best to be prepared.
Before the market
Bring bags. Most vendors will provide plastic bags but it cuts down on the farmers’ costs and helps to reduce waste if you bring your own reused plastic bags to put vegetables and other products in. This will help keep other items you buy, such as crafts, dry. Also remember to bring a few reusable shopping bags or back pack for carrying all your items, it will put a smile on the vendor’s face!
Bring cash, especially small bills. It helps vendors if you bring smaller bills, so they will not run out of change. Also if you have the exact change, the transaction will go quicker. Stop at the bank if you need to first, vendors will really appreciate it.
Find out if you qualify for 3SquaresVT (formerly food stamps), which will provide you with an EBT card or Farm to Family coupons. All farmers markets in Vermont accept Farm to Family coupons for fresh produce and several accept EBT cards.
Know your seasons and what grows in your area. If you know the growing seasons, you will be better prepared to shop at the market. Try to learn what fruits and vegetables grow in your area and ask farmers what you can expect to see in the coming weeks.
View a vegetable season availability chart on the Vermont Agency of Agriculture site.
Think and plan ahead. If you know what is in season, you can plan a dinner menu ahead of time and look for those special ingredients, like fresh thyme or oregano. Look up recipes before you go to the market. Often farmers will give out recipe cards and this can help you shop while you are there or provide you with ideas for next week’s market.
Also be spontaneous. You forgot strawberries were in season, but get them while you can! Also, allow yourself to try new vegetables you have never tried or even heard of, like salsify or daikon. Ask the grower how they prepare it and get new ideas. Or take home some flowers for the kitchen table!
Remember, you need to carry everything home. If you have a car, this is usually not as much of an issue. But if you walked or biked to the market maybe bring a cart, wagon or stroller. You can also attach a cart to your bike. Be aware of other shoppers at the market and do not run anyone over!
At the market
Ask questions. If you do not know what something is, just ask. Growers expect these questions and are happy to share their ideas with you.
Make a full tour of the market. Take a stroll through the market to see what products the vendors have to compare prices and to seek out the freshest looking produce. A vegetable might also inspire you or baked good that will help you plan your dinner menu.
Go to the market early. The produce looks the freshest and least picked over when the growers first arrive. Vegetables, especially greens, can wilt if left out in the sun or wind. Also the best items (often in limited supply, like asparagus in May or strawberries in June) go first.
Or go to the market late. On the other hand at the end of the market, you can often find deals especially on perishable items that have been sitting out for a while at the market. Vendors do not want to schlep home produce and you could try to make them an offer. Also prepared food vendors often want to rid themselves of their leftovers.
Relax and have fun. Be prepared to spend some time at the market and enjoy yourself. Although you can try to shop quickly, that can often be difficult if there are lines or if the market is crowded.
Don’t expect perfection. Blemish-free produce is not as easy to grow as some people think. It often involves large levels of pesticides to prevent insects and diseases from affecting the harvest. The produce may not look perfect, but it probably tastes much better than the produce from California that sat in a truck for 4 days and that was harvested over a week ago.
Develop relationships. When you get to know the farmers that grow the food you eat, you can become more confident about where your food came from and how it was grown.
Be prepared to pay the true cost of producing food. Most farms that sell at farmers markets are small-scale diversified farms concerned about the environment. Remember that they need to make a living and need to charge the true value of what they grow. Most of them, because they are not large operations, do not receive subsidies from the government to offset costs. Be happy that you are supporting farmers in your community.
But don't assume it's too expensive. Especially if you're choosing certified organic foods, the farmers' market can have very competitive prices - sometimes even lower than supermarkets for foods in season. Check out NOFA Vermont's Farmers' Market Pricing Study to see how different products stacked up, and do some comparison shopping in your own town. You may be pleasantly surprised!