To the uninitiated farmers markets are labyrinths of booths and mazes of stalls. Many products are utterly unrecognizable in their natural state. To the experienced but large family cook they have become more of a burden than a place of good finds and money savings. They denote the albatross of too much food for our size household.
Farmers markets are none of these things if we re-train our eyes and follow a few basic rules. They are the ultimate place for the small household cook to wander, discover, and above all, feed our spirits and our bodies in a perfect way. They are social places that inspire us to stop eating out (or on the run) and discover (or rediscover) the joy of making good, fresh things in our own kitchen.
The Basic Rules
—Take cash and small bills at that. Most booths at a farmers market will accept credit cards but why bother? Get $20 in some ones and fives and go shopping the old fashion way. The farmers appreciate smaller bills. And by $20 we mean that is a lot of food during peak season. More than enough for one and probably plenty for two, at least when it comes to produce. It will not, of course, go very far if you want to experiment with local cheeses, farm fresh meats, or other cool stuff like baked goods, coffees, or hand made soaps and lotions. By all means experiment with these products.
—Buy what you can carry. Unless you intend to can or freeze, only buy what you can carry comfortably. If you have wingman or woman make them carry some too. A person can eat in a few days about what they can carry (translations two of the reusable cloth grocery bags, one for each hand). When we see corn on the cob ten for a
dollar, or blueberries at a ridiculous price it is tempting to over buy. Purchasing only what we can carry allows us to enjoy what we buy without the worry and disappointment of waste.
—Bring your own bag. Most farmers have bags but bringing you own adds to the experience. Veteran market shoppers always have a couple of bags they dedicate to the farmers market experience. Again, it helps limit what you are going to but but it also helps the farmers. We want them focussed on growing our food, not running by Sam’s to get t-shirt bags. Every dime we save them is insurance toward us getting farm to table produce.
—Don’t bargain. We understand the dilemma: if you only need two cucumbers but the farmer is selling them three for a dollar it is tempting to ask “Can I get two?” However, the farmer has set a price that is, most likely, reasonable and a quantity that makes sense for most customers. If you feel three cucumbers is just too much find a friend and give one away. Most of the time the food is cheap enough where, at least in this case, a small amount of waste is alright. Experienced farmers market shoppers sometimes accept a bit more than they would normally buy and plan around it. Remember, fresh out of the ground radishes will only be around for a few weeks so buy the whole bunch and enjoy them while you can.
—Ask questions. Garlic scapes look weird but you like garlic? You like beets and yellow beets sound cool but never prepped one in your life? You want to try fresh greens but the last time you tried them they were bitter and sandy? Crowder peas sound like an Indie rock band but everyone else is buying them so… ASK FOR HELP. Out loud. Right around those other people at the table. You WILL get help, either from the farmer or from one of the shoppers. That is how you go from canned, red beets, to roasted yellow beats and parsnips right up next to your grass fed, farmers market, strip steak.
Along with rules there are always some cautions with farmers markets. As long as we are aware of these basic concepts we won’t be disappointed.
—Not everything is cheap. Many products are not shockingly cheap. Things like farm raised eggs, milk products, cheeses, and meat products are in fact more expensive than their mass produced cousins. You may or may not find value in any or all of them. However, many find that the quality and sustainability of such products far out weighs the cost. And in our size households cost is less of a prime mover than keeping us out of the drive through window.
—Not everything is of quality. There are always booths at farmers markets that sell honey, jams and jellies, bakery items, soaps, lotions, hot sauces, mustards, etc. Like any other product they will be of varying quality. So, like anything else, shop around and make the best decision you can.
—Not everything belongs in a farmers market. Be aware that there will be booths (even vegetable booths), that are selling things that you can find at any mega mart. Some booths will have a few fresh tomatoes and the rest of their booth has boxes of produce from the local mass produce distributor. The easiest way to tell is uniformity. A pile of potatoes from an actual farm will not all be the same size (plus they will be pretty dirty).
With these basic rules and cautions in mind you can successfully navigate any of our great local farmers markets. And you should navigate all of them. It is the ultimate in feel good shopping. The product is fresh. It is local. It supports local businesses. Above all it social. We can look, feel, ask, talk, and share our interest in eating better and supporting local. Nothing is more gratifying and, most importantly, tasty.
See you at the market!