Going to your first farmers market can be a daunting task. The hustle and bustle along with unfamiliar faces and produce can make your head spin. But the benefits of shopping locally for fresh fruits and veggies are well worth it. Once you step out of the florescent lights and clearly labeled aisles of the grocery store, you might not ever want to go back.
7 Tips for a Successful Shopping Trip
1. Don’t go overboard.
Farmers markets are full of produce you may have never seen before like Chinese Long Beans. It’s great to branch out and try something new, but make sure you’re buying what you need and limiting your experiments. Otherwise, you’ll end up with a refrigerator full of rotten produce. “Like tomatoes?” asks Mark Menagh, Yellow Green Farmers Market general manager. “Then compare just the tomatoes at the stands that look most appealing. Buy your tomatoes and the other things you might want from that vendor. Keep the prices on hand then ... compare the quality and price of what you bought to the other farmers. This will create a trip through the market twice: first time through, sample what’s being sampled. The second time, buy some of what tasted really good from the specialty food vendors.”
2. Bring cash.
While mobile payment systems like Square and Google Wallet are starting to make a foray into farmers markets, these services charge a fee and many vendors will only accept cash. To make things easy on you and the vendor, make sure to have plenty of cash. “Think how much you spend at the grocers,” Mark says. “You will need that much cash to really enjoy the market. Some vendors take credit cards, but it’s usually awkward and since they are very small businesses, they pay a steep price to take your card.” Small bills will also come in handy when you’re buying for a small family.
3. Supply your own bags.
Some markets will have reusable bags for sale, but many require that you bring your own. Many vendors offer plastic bags, but the reusable kind is easier to handle and better for the environment. If you’re traveling long distances, you might want to consider bringing a cooler as well for things like eggs, butter and meat.
4. Buy what looks good.
If you really wanted to make a green salad, but the offerings are looking a little wilted or tired, don’t be afraid to change your mind. If the peppers are looking amazing when you go, and you have a great recipe, don’t be afraid to make a change.
5. Go early.
When the produce is freshest, it will look and taste its best. The market is also likely to be less crowded early in the morning. Plus, you’ll get the first pick of the best options. “The freshest food is always first thing in the morning, and always less crowded, but the farmers are usually pretty busy trying to get organized,” Mark says. “If you want to talk to the farmers, then visit a little while after the market opens.”
7. Ask any and all questions you have.
6. Prep your produce.
If you wash your produce before putting it away, it will be ready and waiting for you when hunger strikes. Many fruits and veggies should be cut right before eating to maintain freshness, but you can wash it right away, removing one more step between a hungry belly and healthy eating.
Part of the fun of farmers markets is discovering new foods and ways of cooking them. You might find yourself wondering, “What’s that weird, lumpy fruit and what do I do with it?” Just ask! “People at markets love to share their love of food,” says Denise Muir, owner and operator of Rabbit Run Farm. “At our markets there is always dialogue around how to prepare items, store items, shared recipe ideas and discussions on the origins of the varieties we grow and why that variety was chosen. There is a certain energy that true food lovers exude when they shop. Seek this energy out and get to know that farmer.” You might find a new favorite vegetable at the farmers market like these beans from Rabbit Run Farm.
One of the best things about a farmers market is the individual attention you’ll get from vendors and farmers. “The person in the booth is almost always an expert on what they are selling,” Mark says. “Lose all your shyness about asking questions, and start asking all those questions you have. Every answer you get will help you grow in your real food experience.”
And that’s the joy of shopping at a farmers market. Rather than browsing a limited selection of foods that have been sprayed, packaged, labeled and shipped to you, you can wander through rows of stands with friendly faces that will remember you and save you the best they have to offer. You can catch up with friends, learn about the growing practices behind the food you’re eating and get the most nutrition out of your meals.
“It might be a good idea to just walk around and look at everything, and absorb what is at the market before starting your purchases,” Denise says. After leaving her longtime career as a financial adviser, Denise opened her hydroponic farm and now sells to local chefs and shoppers at the Saturday farmers market. “Pick your staples, then try to find a new item each visit that you haven’t experienced before.”
When you’re thinking about how to transition from boxed and canned foods to real, fresh, whole foods, the vendors can really help you out. Denise recommends planning for about 20 pounds of fresh produce for a family of four, and more if the family is vegetarian or vegan. However you choose to make the transition, try to pace yourself and don’t make the change all at once. “Each family chef needs to determine how to move from using boxes and cans to fresh for their family. Every time you open a box or can, you are eating less tasty and less nutritious food.”
Sell your homegrown produce
If you’ve got an excess of garden bounty, you may have given some thought to selling at your local farmers market. While every market is different, there are some things to keep in mind before grabbing your own stand for the season. Do you have enough to keep up with demand? Do you have something unique to bring to the market? Will you have the time and energy to bring your best to market each week?
“Grow the widest variety of heirlooms and exotics, then keep track of their names and label them at the market,” Mark suggests. “There are plenty of field crops that can withstand the handling of larger farms. If you’re regularly feeding your family, neighbors and friends with what you grow, you are ready for the farmers market.”
Denise’s advice is to be honest with your customers and to really have a love and respect for what you’re growing. Let that show through, and people will be able to see the quality of your work.
“It is important to grow wonderful produce but it’s just as important to connect with your customer,” she says. “If you grow some of what you offer and bring some in from other places, tell customers that. Let people make informed choices and they will reward you with loyalty.”
Here are some more tips for selling at your local market:
1. Be knowledgeable. Make sure that you can answer questions about the fruits and veggies you’re growing, fertilizer and pest control techniques and more. When you can tell your customers more about your food, you can build a trusting relationship that will keep them coming back for more.
2. Talk to the market manager. Find out what the rules are before committing to anything. Every farmers market is unique and has its own rules about setup, takedown and what you can and can’t offer shoppers.
3. Don’t get overwhelmed. Many markets will allow you to be a “guest vendor” or give the market a trial run before committing to an entire season. Make sure you’ve identified what you want to sell and how much you can bring.
4. Stand out. Whether it’s your heirloom tomatoes or colorful tablecloth, find a way to brand yourself and stand out. What makes you different from the other vendors? Is it your organic practices? Or maybe it’s your free samples. Find a niche and exploit it!
5. Keep track. Expenses can add up when you’re transporting your offerings and spending the day at the market. Make sure to have your spreadsheets all lined up ahead of time to make it easy to track your expenses and income. It’s not a bad idea to include a checklist of supplies you’ll need like small bills to make change and plastic bags for shoppers who forget to bring their own.
6. Make friends. Not only is it important to have a great relationship with your customers, it’s important to get to know other, and possibly more experienced, farmers. They’ll have tips and tricks of the trade that you just won’t be able to find anywhere else.
To find a farmers market near you,
check out one of these databases: