Most communities have a local farmers market, and they’re popular for a good reason.
Many people delight in seeing rows of fresh produce like corn, strawberries, or bell peppers. They love smelling perfectly ripe peaches picked yesterday, finding a beautiful bouquet of sunflowers for $5, and buying homemade butter with a taste far superior to what you can find at the grocery store.
Farmers markets can make it easier to shop local and to eat healthy on a budget, especially when you know everything you’re eating was grown or made near you. However, it’s easy to overspend if you’re not careful. Fortunately, there are plenty of ways to maximize your grocery budget and come home with a basket full of fresh, locally grown foods.
Best Tips for Farmers Market Shopping
Farmers markets are a fun way for the entire family to shop together. You can make the most of your experience by following a few simple tips.
1. Learn the Rules
For example, some farmers markets are eliminating food sampling and cooking demonstrations, while others can no longer allow customers to touch the produce. Some markets will require all customers to wear a face mask and maintain a six-foot distance from other shoppers, while others might have specific one-way foot traffic patterns and hand sanitizer stations set up throughout the market.
Most markets will have the new guidelines posted at the main entrance. If you don’t see any instructions, ask the staff about the protocol they’re following.
2. Know What’s In Season
No matter the season, you can pretty much find any type of produce at the grocery store. Not so at the farmers market.
It’s helpful to know what fruits and vegetables are in season before you go so you know what to expect. The food and cooking website Epicurious has a useful map to help you identify seasonal produce in your area.
3. Plan a Menu
Once you know what you’re likely to find at this week’s market, plan a few recipes before you go. Write out a shopping list, how much you need for each item, and take the list with you.
Planning your meals helps you save money at the farmers market because you’ll know exactly which fruits and vegetables you need for each recipe. You’ll avoid overbuying foods and wasting money on produce you don’t need or can’t use.
That said, part of the fun and excitement of local farmers markets is experimenting with new foods, like homemade chutney or pattypan squash. Yes, it’s a good idea to have a plan, but leave some room in your budget for impulse buys. You never know when you’ll discover your new favorite food.
4. Do a Walk-Through First
Before you start buying, walk through the entire market to see what’s available and compare prices. Take a notebook with you and write down which vendor has the lowest prices or best selection for each item so you know where to go when you’re ready to start buying.
If the farmers market is large, the information booth at the entrance might have free maps of vendors, or you might be able to download and print a map before you leave home. You can also talk to the market manager, who is often located near the entrance, about the variety of booths in that day’s market.
5. Ask Questions
Farmers, growers, and makers love to educate their customers about what they do. This engagement is part of what makes the farmers market so unique. You can talk directly to the person who’s producing the food you’re taking home. This gives you a unique opportunity to find out more about their farming practices, their values, and the items they’ve chosen to grow.
Use this opportunity to ask plenty of questions. For example:
- Where is your farm located?
- How long have you been farming?
- What other fruits and vegetables do you grow?
- When was this fruit or vegetable picked?
- Was this produce grown without pesticides? If so, what do you use to keep insects at bay?
- What grazing practices do you use with your livestock?
- How should I store or prepare this food?
- What crops do you have coming up next month?
6. Opt for Whole Vegetables
Some farmers trim their vegetables of greens and roots to make them look more appealing to customers, which is standard practice in the grocery store. However, it’s smart to buy whole, untrimmed vegetables when you can.
Whole, untrimmed vegetables will last longer in the refrigerator. Buying untrimmed vegetables will give you more time to eat these foods and avoid food waste if they go bad before you can eat them.
You also get more for your money with whole vegetables because you can often eat the vegetable tops. For example, beet and radish tops can be sauteed and eaten like kale or collard greens or turned into pesto. Carrot tops make a great addition to homemade stocks, or you can sautee them with olive oil, salt, and garlic for a healthy and delicious side dish.
7. Know How to Identify the Best Produce
The produce at your local farmers market is bursting with color and nutrition. And while most farmers try to sell their fruits and vegetables at their peak, this doesn’t mean every item on the table is going to be delicious and high quality. This is why it helps if you know how to pick out the best. Here’s what to look for:
- Yellow and Zucchini Squash: Bright shiny skin, firm at the stem, and free of scrapes and bruises; choose small to medium sized squash for best flavor
- Onions: Firm and hard
- Corn: Bright green leaves that are slightly damp and wrapped tightly against the cob, the corn tassel — the silky top — should be golden or slightly brown and sticky to the touch
- Tomatoes: Bright shiny skin, firm flesh with just a little give when pressed, heavy for its size, smells earthy and herbal
- Okra: Pods are firm with a fresh green stem
- Cucumber: Dark green in color with no yellowed spots, the cuke should be firm to the touch with no wrinkles or soft spots
- Salad Greens: Leaves should be unbroken and smell very fresh, with no sign of sliminess in the bag
- Root Vegetables: Root vegetable greens should be bright green and not overly wilted, the body should be firm and free of cuts or bruises
- Eggplant: Smooth shiny skin with green stem and leaves; the flesh should give slightly when pressed
- Apples: Brightly colored and firm, heavy for their size
- Peaches: Fragrant, deeply colored, firm yet slightly soft when pressed
- Cherries: Shiny, fat, bright, and with stems intact
- Strawberries: Fragrant, bright or deep red — not green or yellow — with fresh, bright green leaves
- Stone Fruits: Fruit should be vibrantly colored and fragrant; the flesh should be firm but indent slightly when pressed
- Cantaloupe and Honeydew Melon: Rind should be pale yellow, with no dark green spots, and feel heavy for its size
- Watermelons: Firm, heavy, with one yellowed spot where it ripened on the ground, and sounds hollow when thumped on the side; the skin should be matte and not shiny, which could indicate the fruit ripened too long on the ground
- Blueberries: Rich blue color — not green or red at the top — and dry
8. Buy Plants
If you’re thinking about starting a home garden, wait until farmers market day to buy your starter plants in spring. Prices on fruit and vegetable starters are often significantly less than at big-box stores.
You can often find more diverse fruits, vegetables, and herb plants at your local farmers market, including rare and heirloom varieties you’ve never heard of before. These unique plant varieties can make home gardening even more interesting and exciting because they allow you to try new foods.
9. Bring Cash and Other Supplies
Many farmers market vendors can accept debit and credit cards, but there are still plenty who are “cash only.” It’s always a good idea to bring cash with you, especially smaller bills so vendors don’t have to make change for larger denominations.
Also bring plenty of reusable shopping bags or even a compact shopping cart, especially if you’re planning on buying plants. Some markets have a zero-waste policy, which means vendors might not provide plastic bags at all.
10. Go Early for the Best Selection
Many vendors sell out of their best fruits and veggies early in the day, so if you’re looking for the best produce then it’s smart to arrive right when the market opens. However, keep in mind that most vendors won’t negotiate on prices early in the day, so you’ll likely pay asking price for anything you buy.
It also helps to know which items are likely to sell out fastest so you can buy these items first. High-demand produce like berries, corn, peas, and heirloom tomatoes often disappear first, so purchase these foods as soon as you get to the market. If you become friendly with a favorite grower, they might allow you to place pre-orders several days before market day so that you’re guaranteed to get what you want.
11. Go Late to Save Money
If you’re looking to pick up fresh vegetables on a budget, your best bet is to arrive at the end of the day, right before the market closes.
Many vendors are more willing to negotiate a lower price right at closing simply because they don’t want to pack up all that food and bring it back with them. However, some farmers markets have rules that prohibit end-of-day price cuts, and some farmers donate their unsold produce to a local food bank rather than selling it at a loss. Your best bet is to talk to the person working the information booth and find out if end-of-day negotiating is allowed.
12. Learn to Love the Rain
It’s a guarantee that shoppers will head to the market in droves on sunny, delightful mornings. However, the crowds disappear when it’s cold or rainy.
Shopping on days when the weather is less than perfect means you’ll have a great selection to choose from. Vendors might also be more willing to lower prices a bit when the market is slow.
13. Try Before You Stock Up
Meat vendors are increasingly common at farmers markets. Purchasing locally raised beef, pork, or chicken can be a great way to stock up on healthy, antibiotic-free meats. But before you stock your freezer, make sure you know what you’re getting. Purchase 1 pound of whatever they’re selling and cook it at home before you place a large order.
This is also true of any fruits and vegetables you haven’t cooked with before. Trying small portions in advance ensures you won’t waste money on meat or produce you’re not satisfied with.
14. Remember That Beauty is Only Skin Deep
Sometimes there’s a big difference, cosmetically, between the produce you see in the grocery store and the produce you see at the farmers market.
The produce sold in grocery stores has to meet stringent cosmetic standards before it can be sold. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, stores reject one-third of all produce because it doesn’t meet these high standards.
Thankfully, local farmers don’t have to meet these standards when they sell at the market. You’ll likely see produce that doesn’t look like the produce at the grocery store. You might see crooked carrots, bumpy apples, or strangely shaped tomatoes.
The food might look different, but it’s just as delicious — if not more so — than your grocery store selection.
Farmers might also sell produce at a deeper discount if there’s significant cosmetic damage. For example, you can often find large quantities of “canning tomatoes” for a fraction of the price of regular tomatoes. If you know how to can your own food, this is a great way to save money and enjoy fresh-tasting produce all year.
15. Watch Out for Unscrupulous Venders
Most farmers markets and vendors are legitimate. However, there are always going to be some bad apples looking to spoil the party for everyone else.
Most farmers markets have rules about who’s allowed to join and who isn’t. These rules can help ensure that every vendor there is the actual grower or producer of what they sell. However, some markets don’t have any participation rules, which means you can get vendors selling produce they bought on close-out from a larger farm or warehouse.
Knowing what’s in season in your area will help you avoid the unscrupulous vendors who buy bulk produce from a clearinghouse and resell it at the local farmers markets. For example, if you see a vendor selling strawberries in August when they’re in season in your area in June, you know to steer clear of them.
A vender who can’t or won’t answer your questions is another red flag. Most farmers are excited and happy to talk to you about what they make or grow, and they want to answer your questions. However, a vendor that doesn’t have an answer or shows an unwillingness to talk might be a reseller.
Walking through a farmers market is an enchanting way to spend a summer morning. It’s almost sensory overload, with tables full of brightly colored fruits and vegetables, gleaming gem-like towers of homemade jam, and pyramids of fresh-baked bread.
Without a plan and a bit of discipline, many people can easily spend next week’s food budget at the market. This is why you should go into the farmers market with a plan so you don’t overspend.