Learning to Market

Shopping at the farmer’s markets is one of the great joys of my summers. It’s lively and vibrant – people milling about and interacting; masses of beautiful fresh produce, meats, flowers and goods; commerce happening on an intensely local level. Markets just hum with electricity in a way that a giant grocery store can never even aspire to. It’s an affordable way to get good, fresh food directly from the people who have grown it.

However, it seems that many folks are intimidated by going to a farmer’s market if they’ve never been before, so I’d like to offer some tips for the first timer.

– Finding a farmer’s market is pretty simple these days. The great majority of markets happen on Saturday mornings, running from 7:00 am to 1:00 pm (generally). There are also markets on Sunday mornings, and some areas have them on one morning or evening a week (typically to supplement a weekend morning market). If you’ve never noticed one happening in your city or town, you can check out websites like Local Harvest to find one in your area.

– In larger, urban areas (or well-appointed suburban and rural ones) you can find produce (both fruits and vegetables), eggs, dairy products (typically cheese – milk is rare because of pasteurization laws), baked goods, canned goods (farm-produced jams, pickles, etc.), mushrooms, meats, take-away foods (deli items, etc.), charcuterie (sausages, jerkies, etc.), cut flowers, bedding plants, vegetable seedlings and decorative items (gourds, dried flower arrangements, etc.).

– Cash is typically the only accepted form of payment. Most vendors these days can break a $20 no problem, but $50 might be pushing it. Try to bring an assortment of bills in $1, $5, $10 and $20 increments, depending upon your budget. Also bring a few dollars in quarters – most vendors price things in either even dollar amounts or to the nearest quarter.

– Many markets are now participating in coupon or voucher programs for elderly and/or low-income citizens. You can generally find this information on the market’s website or at the information booth at the market. If your market doesn’t have an information booth, just ask a vendor for the name of the market coordinator, who is usually in attendance.

– Try to bring your own reusable canvas or fabric shopping/produce bags. Most vendors will have paper and plastic on hand for your purchases, but bringing your own bag is better for the environment, the farmer (they have to buy those and that takes away from their profit margin) and your hands – everyone knows that carrying a bunch of plastic shopping bags is sub-par. Our market sells two different sizes of canvas bags at the information booth – they prominently feature the market’s logo and all of the proceeds go back into the market’s operational costs. If you find a market you love, why not buy a bag from them if you need a reusable one – help the market that sustains you with a little free advertising.

– If you don’t see a particular item you’re looking for at the market, talk to the vendors. If it’s not in season yet, they can tell you when it will be. If it’s not something that’s grown in your area, they can tell you why and suggest something similar or that you might like instead. Once you establish a relationship with a vendor, you might also be able to make requests – maybe next season they’ll plant a few rows of paste tomatoes for you if they know they’ve got a sure customer for it, even if they’ve only growing slicing tomatoes thus far. If you’re intrigued by something you’ve never seen before, talk to the vendor for that too – chances are they’ve got a good recipe or can point you to one.

– If you’re unfamiliar with the seasonality of produce, take notice of what is available when, and ask questions of your favorite vendors. You don’t want to miss June strawberries or morels in the springtime because you weren’t sure of how long they’d last. Good vendors can also tell you how to best preserve their goods for when they’re out of season – be it canning, drying or freezing.

– Timing is important. To get the best selection, get to the market as early as possible. This is especially true for limited-season, limited-take goods like morel mushrooms, cherries, and fiddleheads. Take a walk around the entire market before you make a purchase – see who has the best looking produce and the best price. Once you know who has what, you can make a second round and make truly informed buying decisions. Some, but not all, vendors/markets will have discounted prices in the last hour or half hour of market operation – it’s just not cost-effective for farmers to take home perishable goods. So if you’re a true bargain hunter and don’t mind the ugly and leftover (but likely just as tasty and nutritious) produce, that last hour could work to your advantage.