To many, the Farmers’ Market is a money pit of lopsided apples and expensive crafts. Environmentalists and foodies seem cult-like in their adoration for their local Farmers’ Market. But who cares about “heirloom” tomatoes when you can buy a carton of regular old tomatoes for pennies on the dollar at Wal-Mart? Some people think Farmers’ Markets are scams. Grocery stores are cheaper and easier, aren’t they? In fact, that is only true if you shop at the Farmers’ Market the same way you shop at Wal-Mart. Farmers’ Markets are designed differently from big industry grocery stores; they are actually designed to make it easier for you to get local, fresh produce at a reasonable price. But if that were true, why do you still find yourself spending all of your cash at the Farmers’ Market and walking away with nothing more than a beaded keychain you don’t need, four sweet potatoes, and a strange-looking fruit you don’t know how to cook? Likely, the unique shopping experience of the Farmers’ Market overwhelmed you, and you made some common but easy-to-fix mistakes. Shopping at the Farmers’ Markets can be thrilling, and inexpensive, if you address it like you would a video game. At the Farmers’ Market, gaining experience gives you additional perks and new areas to explore. Knowing the cheat codes is key: like who to talk to, at what time of the day, and what to talk about. So take this list as a walk-through manual to create a master plan to become a master player at your local Farmers’ Market.
15. First-Come, First-Served
Big industry grocery stores have been in hot water lately for throwing out wasteful amounts of unpurchased produce. Local farmers, however, supply Farmers’ Markets, and they put a lot of time, effort, and love into each of their food items. This means farmers can only produce so much, and they don’t want any of it to go to waste. For this reason, a Farmers’ Market is almost never overstocked. If you only find half empty bins of bruised peaches when you go to the Farmers’ Market, chances are you went at the wrong time. Think of the Farmers’ Market like a multiplayer video game. If you log in to play at 9:30 am on a Monday, most people will be at work or in school and unable to play. Every Farmers’ Market is different, but, for most, their peak time is in the morning or when the market first opens.
14. Don’t Go On An Empty Stomach
You know the saying, “don’t go grocery shopping when you’re hungry?” The same applies to the Farmers’ Market. Too many shoppers go to the market at breakfast or lunchtime to eat at the stalls that prepare meals. The tantalizing smell of home cooked sausages or fish and chips is difficult to ignore, but you may not realize that all the food items you need to make the same dish are only a few stalls away. And when you buy pre-made food, you are paying extra for someone to prepare the meal for you. It may seem expensive to purchase a loaf of bread, a whole chicken, and some celery sticks, but, with these ingredients, you can make a dozen chicken salad sandwiches at home for half the price of one pre-made sandwich at the Farmers’ Market.
13. Avoid The Crafts
If you find yourself wandering your local Farmers’ Market and seeing more hand-knit sweaters than fruit or vegetables, you might actually be at a flea market or a craft show. These crafts are fun and unique, but they tend to be overpriced. Quick tip: a “Market” sells mostly crafts, a “Farmers’ Market” sells food. Even so, many legitimate Farmers’ Markets still have a few craft stalls selling homemade soap or jewelery. Unless you are specifically looking for soap or a unique birthday gift, you should only look and admire at these stalls. If you don’t think you can control yourself around that nifty lamp built into a piece of driftwood, avoid the craft stalls entirely. Vendors sell produce and crafts in different sections of the markets, so it shouldn’t be too difficult to stay away if you only shop among the food stalls.
12. Become A Social Butterfly
At the grocery store, you tend to grab what you need, hurry to the cash register, and grumble if the cashier asks about your day. You can still do this at the Farmers’ Market if you want, but you’ll discover all the best deals if you start talking. You don’t need to prepare a speech. A simple “how are you doing today?” or “your lamb chops look great!” builds a relationship between you and the vendors. Soon, you can ask questions like “what is the best cut of steak if I’m pan frying them?” or “do you know who sells the best free range eggs in the market?” You can’t succeed in a video game if you skip the expositional dialogue with characters. You gain experience talking to people, and you’ll make new friends and get even more tips for shopping at the Farmers’ Market.
11. Get On The List
Don’t just talk to people at the market; listen too. Once you start talking to people, ideally vendors or owners, you’ll start hearing whispers of “lists.” Don’t worry; this isn’t a blacklist. You want to be on these lists. Because of the limited supply of the best produce at Farmers’ Markets, vendors hold these items for trusted clients who want a steady supply. Think of the lists as a membership that allows you to beta test early versions of the latest video games or get updates ahead of anyone else. You can get on lists for duck eggs, unpasteurized cheeses, or for the freshest fish. The best news? Unlike most memberships, joining these lists is free; you just have to ask.
10. Buy Local
This is the whole point of Farmers’ Markets; they want to build a market for local produce, so the best-priced produce is the local stuff. If you buy local, you’ll support your local farmers, and the Farmers’ Market can continue to thrive. What’s more, by buying local, you are buying the freshest produce available to you. Sometimes local farmers pick or butcher their products the same day you buy them. Forget about the two-day expiration date on the pre-made salads at the grocery store. Farmers’ Market produce is so fresh a head of lettuce can last for a month!
9. Eat Like The Deer In Your Woods
In other words, buy what is in season. Buying what is in season is both good for you and good for the environment. If farmers know it is in demand, they are more likely to grow the right produce at the right time. There is an old medical saying that says the remedy for an illness grows in the same place as where you caught the illness. If you want to be healthy and fit, eat everything that grows naturally around you. If you catch a cold in North America, don’t eat oranges which never grow there; eat fiddleheads, which are native to northern climates. In addition, when you buy seasonal food, it tastes the way it is meant to taste, i.e. great. Buying food out of season is like trying to play a video game with your TV remote. You won’t have a fun time.
8. Don’t Bring A Grocery List
Going to the Farmers’ Market with a grocery list is a mistake you can make before you even leave the house. If you are determined to make that vegan caponata from your Rachel Ray cookbook, go and get your ingredients at the grocery store. If you want to prepare your own, unique, and healthy meals, go to the Farmers’ Market without a plan. You never know what will be in stock when you get there. This makes for exciting surprises and awesome deals that you might not expect. If you go to the market dead set on making potato salad, you might not realize that sweet potatoes are on sale. Forget the potato salad, and you can make fresh sweet potato fries for cheaper than a box of frozen fries from the grocery store.
7. Become Food Savvy
If you start playing a video game without reading the instructions, you’ll find yourself pressing every key trying desperately to figure out how to play. The same applies to Farmers’ Markets. You can find the best deals at the Farmers’ Market if you read up on food. Many people don’t realize it, but a whole, free range chicken is packed with more nutrients than the chicken in frozen chicken strips. You can eat less and still feel full. One person can make a half a dozen meals out of a whole chicken and then use the bones to make soup stock for a half a dozen more meals. You’ll have to practice different cooking techniques, but the more you play in the kitchen, the easier it will become.
6. Buy In Bulk
Jump on any opportunity to buy in bulk at the Farmers’ Markets. There will often be deals on quarts of hundreds of strawberries or a half a cow’s worth of meat cuts. You may be discouraged by the amount of food you have to buy in one sitting, and perhaps by the price you will have to pay. But, many don’t realize that you’re actually paying less per item when you buy in bulk. Just freeze and pack away the food that you won’t eat right away. Because you froze fresh produce, it will taste better than produce at the grocery store, which is usually shipped from far away and left on the shelves until overripe.
5. Be Aware Of Prices
Many people don’t realize the bargain of buying in bulk because they see a big money tag and they move on to the next, cheaper item. Once you start buying in bulk, you’ll realize that you do get more from buying more. But don’t fall into the trap of thinking that paying more means you’re getting a better product. There are some money traps at the Farmers’ Market. The food promoted at the Farmers’ Market is local. Local vendors don’t want you to buy avocados or imported grapes. Non-local and imported food, usually tropical fruit, tends to be more expensive. Feel free to try out some of the more exotic, expensive food like dragonfruit and Concord grapes, but be aware that, if it isn’t local, it might be more expensive than it needs to be. Treat imported produce like an indulgence and not a necessity.
4. Don’t Be Afraid To Bargain
The most ambitious and unique video games often have the most glitches. While striving for the best produce, farmers sometimes create rejects. Alongside a flank steak twice the size of what you would find at your grocery store, there may also be a slice twice as small. There is a variety of products at the Farmers’ Market, but because the vendors pride themselves on the best, they are quick to accept defects. You can ask for a better deal for a smaller cut of meat or bruised vegetables. Just make sure to broach the subject calmly and logically. Simply point out that a lesser produce should be a lesser price. If the vendor says no, walk away. Vendors quickly learn what produce sells and what doesn’t sell, and they will often cave to your price. Walking away can be the best bargaining technique.
3. Don’t Go Until Your Fridge is Bare
Have you ever fished through your fridge only to discover moldy cheese shoved at the back of the crisper or pickled beets that are so old the expiration date has been rubbed off? Do you hate to buy fruits and vegetables because you find yourself throwing them out before you get to them? Likely, you have either too much food in your fridge, or you’re only eating half of what you’re buying. There is no incentive to clean out your fridge if you shop for food when there’s still food at home. Buy what is in season and on sale at your Farmers’ Market, so it will last, then refuse to return until your fridge is empty. You’ll force yourself to discover new foods and new ways to prepare food. You’ll never be wasteful again.
2. Re-Try Food You Think You Hate
Maybe you don’t like Brussel sprouts. You’re not alone. A lot of people don’t like them. But what happens if Brussel sprouts are in season and on sale at your Farmers’ Market? Get them. You probably learned to dislike a lot of food because you only ate from the grocery store. Grocery store produce is usually imported, old stock, and has lost its freshness. Fresh food consistently stuns people with its superior taste. Did you know that the hard pit of a pineapple is edible if it’s freshly picked? It tastes like a sugar cane! The same applies to any local produce sold at the Farmers’ Market. If it’s on sale, try new produce or produce you never liked. You may be surprised by the new tastes you’ll discover.
1. Don’t Forget To Go
If you want to get better at a video game, you have to practice. Farmers’ Markets are often outside the main hub of towns or cities, so going to the market can sometimes mean going for a long drive. It may seem easier to just forget the market and pop down to the nearest grocery store to pick up whatever is missing from your pantry. But you can’t get fresh, local produce and the best deals in bulk at your big industry grocery store down the street. It can be hard to convince yourself to go those first couple of times, but habits form quickly. After a few weeks, not doing your weekly shopping at the Farmers’ Market will feel like going to bed without brushing your teeth. You’ll always prefer the fresh feeling of eating Farmers’ Market produce.