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Ultimate Guide to Shopping at the Farmers’ Market

farmers market

Here’s how to shop at the farmers’ market, successfully navigating the stalls, scoring the best food and the best price, and putting more play in your shopping day.

If you live in the US, find a farmers’ market near you at the USDA.gov website.

buy local buy fresh

Buy Local, Buy Fresh

When you buy your food from a local Farmers’ Market, you are buying fresh food at its peak of goodness.

Nothing compares to the taste of in-season, just-picked produce.

Taste-testing is one of the benefits of shopping at the Farmers’ Market!

“Tasting the food at the market is the very best way to evaluate something. This is how you will develop your intuition and reawaken your ability to taste and discern.”

Alice Waters, chef of the Chez Panisse restaurant in Berkeley, California, and first woman to win the James Beard Award for Outstanding Chef

Fresh, whole food is cheaper from a local farmer.

Buying fresh, whole food – especially fruits and vegetables – is the key to a healthy diet.

You can purchase these foods cheaper and fresher from a local farmer than the produce in your grocery store.

Some farmers are so conscious of food insecurities in their community that they will take donations and only ask “pay what you can“.

In fact, many farmers’ markets are authorized to accept Significant New Alternatives Policy (SNAP) program benefits so everyone can have access the fresh, whole food. Learn more at FarmersMarketCoalition.org.

pay what you can sign and donation box

Supporting local businesses improves your community’s foodshed and economy.

Supporting local businesses, whether that’s farmers or artisans, is a big bonus.

In his paper Home Grown: The Case for Local Food in a Global Market, Brian Halweil says our food choices have “landscape-shaping and climate-changing implications” and insists the best way to reinvigorate the local food economy is to shop at our farmers’ market. He believes we should build our meals around seasonally available food for taste, for traceability, and for our community’s food self-reliance.

At my farmers’ market they have “My Pick” signs that let you know the vender is verified as a local farmer.

verified local farmer

Before You Go

Get cash. It gives you more options.

While many vendors are able to accept debit or credit cards, others either can’t (because there’s no internet access), or haven’t started using the technology. Be prepared to buy with cash!

If all you have is big bills (because you used the ATM machine) do the buy-gum-at-the-convenience-store thing so you have small bills. The vendors have limited money on hand for change.

While we’re talking about money, just a reminder: wherever there’s lots of people, there are going to be pick-pockets.

Keep your money in a place that’s easily accessible to you – in reach with one hand because you’ll have parcels – but safe from thieves.

buying from vendor at farmers market with interac sign

B.Y.O.B. – Bring your own bags.

woman shopping at a farmers market with a basket

Most vendors supply bags, but they may run out. It’s a good idea to be prepared. Bring your own tote bag or basket.

How long will you be at the farmers’ market? I use a cooler backpack:

  • to keep my purchases from wilting in the summer heat
  • so I can shop hands-free
  • so I can make it a fun day, talking to vendors and friends I meet instead of rushing to get food home
  • makes it easier to eat an ice cream cone without setting bags of food on the ground *wink*
  • can easily take a bottle of water in the side pocket

Here are a few suggestions, all available at Amazon.

Be prepared for the sunshine like a day at the beach.

Yes, we’re going shopping. So we forget to be prepared for a hot day, jam-packed with people under the blinding sun.

  • wear sunscreen
  • wear a wide-brimmed hat
  • wear sunglasses
  • wear loose, cool clothing
  • wear comfortable walking shoes
  • bring water

With these tips, you will be much more comfortable and much happier while navigating the masses. If you end your excursion with a headache and sunburn you won’t be as motivated to go back again.

woman buying food at the farmers market

Research what you’ll find when you get there.

produce available at the farmers market changes seasonally

It only takes a few extra minutes to be properly prepared.

Knowing what will be there helps you decide:

  • how much cash you might need
  • how many bags to take
  • how much time to devote to your visit

Know what is in season.

autumn produce and flowers at farmers market

Determine the fruits, vegetables and flowers that are in season in your area at the moment. What is available depends on your growing region and the time of year.

This will help you know how much you’ll be bringing home with you.

For instance: it’s fun to look at all the fall colors, but if you’re not into pumpkins, squash or garlic you’ll be saving money. (But it’s worth a trip for the pies!)

It’s so easy to know! The work has been done for you.

usda National Farmers Market Directory

To know what’s in season in your area, check SeasonalFoodGuide.org. Choose your state and the date you’re headed to the farmer’s market, and it’ll tell you what to expect to find there. You can even choose produce and see if what you’re looking for will be there.

Knowing what is in season protects you from vendors who buy from a clearinghouse to sell in their stall. If someone is selling produce that the certified local farmers aren’t offering, you know it’s not fresh.

Plan menus for the next few days.

Now that you know what is seasonally available, plan your menus for the next 2-3 days based on those items.

Make a list of everything you need for your menu.

  • fresh fruit and veggies for smoothies
  • salad components
  • side dish ideas
  • main ingredients like meat & fish that you want to build your meal around
  • desserts
  • bread & buns
  • condiments, herbs & spices

Know what you don’t need.

Check your fridge and pantry, and mark off your list everything you already have.

  • main ingredients
  • condiments, herbs & spices (so you won’t duplicate them if you see something interesting)
  • produce that you already possess
  • artisan items that haven’t depleted (such as honey)

The goal of having a list is so you don’t overbuy. It happens more often than you think. Everything looks so good and it’s so wonderful being there, we buy more than we can possibly consume before it goes bad.

Remember that you have to eat it within 2-3 days.

Set a budget for food & fun items.

Setting a budget before you leave home is a good habit.

It is soooo easy to overspend because everything looks so wonderful. (Especially when we find something unique by an artisan.)

If overspending becomes a problem, take cash in the amount that you can afford to spend. When the money’s gone, it’s time to go home – happy.

If it’s the first time going there, check out the farmers’ market online.

If it is huge, print out a map or grab one at the entrance.

  • referring to a map makes navigating the stands easier than looking at it on your phone
  • knowing where you need/don’t need to go saves time, so mark it on your map
  • highlight the restrooms and identify the stalls nearby – there are all sorts of signs everywhere at the market, so finding the restroom sign in a hurry is challenging
  • bring a pen to mark the map where you saw the best deals of the day so you can return later, and marking where you parked can be helpful too
woman checking items on map

Did you know that you can order items in advance and pick them up when you’re there?

artisan honey at a farmers market

Most market websites allow you to order artisan items and baked goods online two days in advance so you won’t miss out on your favorites. (Not applicable to produce though.)

Did you know that there will be live local entertainment there?

live entertainment at farmers market

Check out the entertainment of the day to see if you’re interested. Add a little more time to your trip and have fun! It’s a great way to discover new talent. (Make it ultra-memorable by joining in – but toss a couple bills into their guitar case.)

Did you know there are amazing eateries too?

raspberry sherbet in waffle cone

Most places also feature food service, either take-away or even a seated area.

This is usually specialty food – beyond burgers and fries – that you’re going to want to try. Make sure you have the time and money for this, too!

Between the taste-testing, the frozen yogurt, bubble tea and the awesome eateries, you will go home with a happy tummy.

Did you know that most farmers’ markets have a reward program?

reward program with items like homemade honey

Check online to see what kind of reward program your neighborhood market uses:

  • receive an email with specials (sign up)
  • punch-card program for visiting (where do you get your card punched?)
  • draw at entrance (where do you fill out ballot?)

Prizes can be something small every week like a jar of honey or a gift certificate to use on your next visit. Or there can be a monthly draw for something bigger like a dinner at a local restaurant.

Quite often the prizes are swag – a canvas tote or t-shirt with the market logo.

And sometimes there’s biggies like a farm tour & cookout for customers who have the most card-punches at the end of the season.

When to Go

Go early – at opening if possible.

go early to the farmers market for better selection

The best selection is right at the beginning of the day. If you are purchasing for a meal the same day, at opening is the best time to purchase the ripest fruit and vegetables.

If your community has a short supply of produce, it could be gone before the end of the day. This especially true of favored seasonal items such as berries, peaches and cherries that can sell out within the first few hours of opening.

There are always popular items with a short supply – especially by artisans and in the bakery section – so they can sell out quickly. Go early, and go straight to these stalls when you arrive. (If it’s your first trip there, check the map online so you don’t waste time looking.)

If there is a holiday within the next few days, it will all go! (The crowds will also be much larger.) Best to be first in line.

Or, go at closing to save money.

shop at closing of the farmers market to save money

The vendors aren’t thrilled about having to pack up their product and take it home, so you can get really good deals the hour before closing. (Some markets have a rule against end-of-day discounts, so check online before you go to avoid disappointment.)

This is also the time of day when the crowd has thinned out, making it easier to navigate the stands.

However – your choices are usually limited.

If you live in a community where there is an abundance of produce, you’ll do fine. The ripest will be gone, which is alright because you’re probably not going to rush home and eat it anyway. You’ll be buying for tomorrow’s menu, or within the next few days.

The artisans will probably still have products, but less choice.

At my local farmers’ market, it’s the baked goods that get sold out fast. If the bakery doesn’t tempt you, going at the end of the day works well.

Go mid-week.

buy at farmers market often to eat fresh food

Most farmers’ markets are open mid-week too.

Check online to see if your local market is open on Wednesday. Know which vendors will be there. (Some are only there on the weekend for the larger crowds.)

Which is our next point: there are fewer people shopping mid-week so it’s easier to get around, and is less claustrophobic.

Best of all: you can eat fresh, whole food every day by shopping at the market twice a week!

Go on a rainy day. (Or snowy day.)

go to the farmers market on a rainy day

Grab an umbrella and go even if its raining.

The vendors will be there, waiting. They depend on the income and it won’t be a good day for them. (They can lose up to 50% of their sunny-day income.) They will be happy to see you, guaranteed.

There won’t be a crowd, so its easier to go from stall to stall. You’ll be in and out faster than you thought possible.

Admittedly, it won’t be as much fun as it is on a sunny day, sitting in the warm sunshine, eating frozen yogurt amid seasonal flowers, fruits and vegetables with the hustle and bustle all around. But you’ll enjoy it in a different way. You will feel more of a connection with the vendors who recognize you and express their appreciation for your business.

On bad weather days you’ll have more of an understanding of the part you play in supporting your community’s economy and foodshed, and it will make you proud.

At the Farmers’ Market

Do a walk-thru before you make a purchase.

berries at the farmers market

Don’t buy the first thing you see.

You have berries on your list – and see them when you arrive. Only buy them if you’re not going to venture any farther. It is so disappointing to walk around the stands and find berries a lot cheaper!

Prices vary widely between vendors, so it pays to take your time and do a walk-thru of the market before deciding.

The only caveat is: unless it’s very busy. Then they could be gone before you circle back.

The best way to keep track of your finds is to use a printout of the market map from home or obtain a map from the information booth at the entrance. 

Mark on the map where you found the items and price that you like. At the end of your visit you can quickly loop back and make your purchases.

vendors stall at farmers market

If the market is too small for a map, jot a note in a notepad or on your phone. (I added myself to the contact list on my phone and just text myself a note. Easy to read when I’m ready to go, and I can delete the “notes” when I find a better deal.)

Talk to the vendors.

woman talking to vendor at farmers market

The Farmers’ Market gives you the opportunity to talk directly to the farmer, artisan or vendor who produced the products. This is traceability: “the ability to interact with the person who knows how the crop or animal has been treated throughout its entire life is a premium in an otherwise anonymous food system.”

The farmers are more than happy to talk about:

  • their farming practices, and how produce is grown
  • they’ll teach you about their produce and their origins
  • nutritional information
  • tell you how to prepare the item
  • sometimes even share recipes
  • teach you the best way to store it until you need it
  • ask for a sample

If you’re purchasing fruits or vegetables, tell the vendor when you’d like to eat it. They can help you choose the ripest to be eaten today or a choice that will be ripe when you want it.

Collect the vendor’s cards! Many of them will allow you to order in advance and pick it up on market day. It’s also fun to visit the farm when they have an open house or to buy direct from them.

You can’t get these benefits at your grocery store!

Here are a few rules to follow if you want to talk to the vendor/farmer:

  1. Don’t hold them up with small talk when their booth is busy.
  2. If you know you want to ask questions or try several different varieties of something, come at opening or other times it’s not as busy.
  3. Not all farmers want to bargain, especially at opening.
  4. If there aren’t sample signs, don’t taste test without asking first. (It happens!)
  5. Don’t over-handle produce. It’s better to ask for what you want.
  6. Be aware of how much space you’re taking up in front of the booth. Don’t cause a bottle-neck in the flow of traffic.
  7. Be aware that your stroller, bicycle or dog can be disconcerting to other market-goers. Always maintain control of your belongings so others won’t bypass their stand.

Understand that not all items are organic.

produce at farmers market needs to say certified organic

Just because the fruits, vegetables and other products are whole and fresh, it doesn’t mean they are organic.

In order to be organic, the farmer, artisan or vendor must agree to a set of production standards for growing, storage, processing, packaging and shipping.

  • avoidance of synthetic chemical inputs such as fertilizer, pesticides (natural pesticides permitted), antibiotics, food additives 
  • avoidance of irradiation and the use of sewage sludge
  • avoidance of genetically modified seed (GMOs)
  • use of farmland that has been free from prohibited chemical inputs for a number of years (3 or more)
  • for livestock, adhering to specific requirements for feed, housing, and breeding
  • keeping detailed written production and sales records (audit trail)
  • maintaining strict physical separation of organic products from non-certified products
  • undergoing on-site inspections

They are usually certified by the government, such as with the National Organic Program through the USDA.

Buy your produce whole.

whole radishes

The roots and leaves from vegetables are removed at the grocery stores to make them more appealing. Some farmers follow this practice, hoping to entice a sale because it’s what consumers are used to buying.

It’s better to buy whole, untrimmed vegetables:

  • they last longer, so there’s less waste
  • they provide more food: you can also eat the leaves of most vegetables, sautéed or in salads or pesto
  • most leaves are a great addition when making stock
  • if you compost, you appreciate the trimmings

Challenge yourself to try something new!

There’s always something new to discover at the farmers’ market! Don’t hesitate to ask about it. They’ll probably give you a sample.

Finding produce that you can’t get in the grocery store is exciting. Try something new and add an interesting change to your menus.

There are heritage tomatoes or carrots in a rainbow of colors, wasabi radishes, kohlrabi and zucchini blossoms, just to name a few.

Ask the farmer how to store, prepare and serve your new find. (Most do well fresh in salads or simply sautéed in olive oil with a sprinkle of salt.)

zucchini blossoms at farmers market
Fried zucchini blossoms stuffed with salmon and sun-dried tomatoes
Try fried zucchini blossoms stuffed with salmon and sun-dried tomatoes or cream cheese.

Consider buying in bulk.

farmers market vendor with basket of tomatoes while man shops behind

You can get a bargain if you buy in bulk, such as a flat of tomatoes or strawberries instead of a pint or quart.

Since you’ve collected the vendor’s card *wink*, you’ll be able to call them in advance and arrange a price and have it ready to pick up when you arrive.

Here’s how to store bulk selections:

  • stewed – tomatoes and strawberries can be served all year
  • in sauces
  • freeze fruits and vegetables whole or sliced – great for smoothies
  • canning
  • drying
  • jams & jellies

Some of the larger farmers’ markets have meat or seafood counters.

Farmers can offer a freezer full of different cuts of meat at a good price.

Just be sure to try a pound of your favorite cuts before you place a large order, to make sure you’ll like it.

fresh fish seafood sign

Shop for more than produce.

cut flowers at farmers market

Buy cut flowers and live plants.

You can usually purchase seasonal cut flowers every visit to brighten up your home or office.

In the spring, choose perennials or annuals for your flower garden.

It’s also the best place to find starter plants for your home garden. Prices are usually lower than department stores, with a wider variety.

gardening plants for sale

Buy handmade craft items from artisans.

organic soap at farmers market

You’ll find so many handmade crafts from organic soap to crocheted shawls and so much more. Make sure you allow the time to stroll through the artisan’s area just to see what is available. (Tuck some money away to spend on yourself or for unique gift ideas.)

Buy jams, sauces, honey and other edible artisan creations.

homemade jam for sale at farmers market

There are so many unbelievable flavors of jam, jellies, sauces, pickles, honey and so many more edible creations.

Of course you want to see them – and most of all taste-test them.

Baked goods are a popular purchase.

baked goods are popular at the neighborhood market

There are seasonal bakery items such as pies. And then there are the favorite baked goods and artisan breads that are available every week. This is always a must-see and must-taste section of the market. They are more expensive than in grocery stores, but so worth it.

At the larger farmers’ markets you can even buy seafood & meats.

There’s nothing fresher than the seafood, chicken, turkey, pork and beef that’s available at the farmers’ market.

You can even find cold cuts and deli meats at the market in larger cities.

If you’re lucky enough to have it available in your area, take advantage of it!

seafood at pikes peake farmers market

Don’t have a farmers’ market near you?

little girl with wooden box of fresh vegetables

There are subscription boxes, like the ones from Farm Fresh To You so you can have organic fruits and vegetables shipped directly to you.

It may not be as fresh as your farmers’ market finds, but it cuts out the miles and the middle-man in grocery store food.

Like this? See other things to do this summer.

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