10 helpful tips for shopping at the farmers market

The farmers market is one of the best places to find a variety of fresh and local produce, dairy and baked goods. Browsing the stalls and vendors can be a lot of fun, but can also sometimes feel a little bit confusing and at times even intimidating to navigate, especially if you’re trying to find specific items for your weekly meals. While I love just showing up at the market and finding inspiration with what’s available, it can also be helpful to keep a few helpful guidelines in mind to take full advantage of all the market has to offer. Here are some of my go-to tips to make shopping at the farmers market easy, breezy and delicious!

Note that availability and procedures will vary market to market and state to state. For the best bet, check out your local market’s website or social media where you can find specifics about everything from hours, vendors, payment options and even recipes to help you use up all the tasty items you buy.

1. Be flexible and get inspired by the seasonal options.

Unlike at a conventional grocery store where you can usually expect the same items week after week, the beauty of the farmers market is that it is seasonal and dependent on things like weather and Mother Nature. Instead of planning dishes before you go shopping, head to the market with an open mind and let the available produce guide your menu planning.

2. How to tell when something is ripe

Use your senses — especially smell, sight and touch.

With fruit like peaches, plums, nectarines or others, like melon — you want the fruit to be fragrant, which means the natural sugars have developed.

Visually, the color and fruit should look even and consistent without obvious bruises, and the fruit should give gently when you press your thumb in.

Similarly, avocados should also give gently when your press in your thumb; you don’t want fruit that is overly mushy. You're also looking for a general consistency of color.

With vegetables, you’re not looking for ripeness (vegetables are picked when they are ready to eat), but you want items that look fresh and crisp. Lettuce, herbs and other greens should look bright green without yellowing and the leaves should look crisp and taught — no wilting.

Finally, remember that ripeness isn’t always what you need; sometimes it’s smarter to get a few items that are ripe and ready to eat and a few that will take a few days so that you can space them out and enjoy throughout the week.

3. Sampling is definitely encouraged!

Vendors will often have small pieces of cut fruit, veggies or baked goods available for sampling — don’t hesitate to try things! There is no pressure to buy. They really do want you to try their products and hopefully find some things you love.

If there are items you’d like to try that are not obviously set out as sample, it’s OK to ask if you can grab a bite of a berry or a green bean. (That said, be respectful of any COVID safety precautions at your particular market. And don’t just chomp into a whole apple!)

4. Ask questions about unfamiliar items.

The farmers and vendors at the market are usually open to sharing ideas. Feel free to ask questions if something looks unfamiliar, or ask for tips on how to cook or store items. The farmers know best!

5. Is everything at the farmers market organic?

In the U.S., the term “organic” is a certification that can only be provided by the USDA after farms go through a lengthy accreditation process. Organic growers are prohibited from using most synthetic pesticides, fertilizers and antibiotics. That said, this process can take a few years (three years to transition), costs a yearly fee that can be prohibitive for smaller farms, and the process itself can be difficult in terms of the administrative steps involved. This means that many smaller, local farms at your market may be growing fruit and vegetables without synthetic pesticides or antibiotics, but don’t have the actual official designation from the government. Or, they may use conventional methods.

Your best bet is to ask questions and talk to the farmers about their growing practices, and use that information to make the best choices for you and your family.

6. Keep a cooler in your trunk or bring a portable insulated cooler bag.

If you’re planning on purchasing very perishable items like fresh meat, milk, cheese, eggs or even ice cream, a cooler will help keep these items at a safe temperature until you can refrigerate them. This is particularly helpful on very hot days, if you live a long drive away from the market or you’re planning on making any stops on your way home.

If you live in a city and are walking or using public transportation, an easy-to-carry insulated tote or cooler bag can help you keep those items at a safe temperature.

7. Cash is king but it's not the only way to pay.

While cash is usually the easiest and most universal way to pay at the market, many vendors will also accept apps like Venmo or Zelle, and also debit or credit cards (especially for larger purchases). If you do use cash, try to bring smaller bills.

For those who use government nutrition programs like SNAP, markets all around the country are authorized to accept SNAP benefits. The USDA website keeps an updated monthly list of markets nationwide that accept these.

8. Bring bags in a variety of sizes — small ones, too!

Many of us have gotten into the routine of bringing reusable bags when we shop at regular stores, but in addition to larger totes you usually bring to the supermarket, remember to bring along some smaller bags to help separate your items or protect more delicate purchases like herbs or tiny things like berries and cherry tomatoes.

9. Shop strategically: Buy lighter items first and heavier and perishable items last.

You don’t want to get stuck walking around the market carrying a watermelon like Baby from "Dirty Dancing." Buy lighter items like salad greens, mushrooms, berries and baked goods first, then circle back for heavier items like watermelon, squash or perishable products like meat, gallons of milk and anything that can melt.

10. The price is the price*

*But it can’t hurt to ask for a discount in some situations.

While it may feel more informal, the farmers market isn’t a place to haggle like a garage sale or flea market. Pricing is set the way it is at a grocery store and it’s important to respect that. But if you’re buying a very large quantity (say, for an event or to make jam), you can ask if a small discount is possible. Another time when it’s OK to ask for a deal is at the end of the day, just before the farmers start packing up. If you know in advance that you’ll be needing a lot of something in the future, you can also sometimes place a special order at an agreed-upon price.

Keep in mind that locally grown produce fresh from the farm will likely last longer than grocery store items, so you’re reducing waste and saving money in the long run.

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