Tips for Shopping at a Farmers’ Market

Farmers’ markets are a great way to get fresh, healthy food while supporting your local farmers directly.  We have some great markets in Tucson (various markets run by the food bank and the Heirloom Farmer’s Market, to name a few) and compared to other states, we have plenty of room for future growth.  But a farmers’ market is different from the grocery store and even veteran shoppers could use a tip.  Leadership Council member and director of Baja Arizona Sustainable Agriculture, Meghan Mix, explains how to best take advantage of your local markets in this post.

1. Know Your Seasons. If you know which fruits & vegetables grow in your bioregion each season, planning your purchases will be much easier. Many markets offer lists of what is fresh throughout the year. Talk to the vendors about what will be ripening in the next couple of weeks so you can plan ahead. One of the joys of eating locally is anticipating the availability of delicious seasonal food!

2. Go Early or Go Late. Visit the market early for the best selection. The most popular goods sell out first. It’s as simple as that. Visit the market late for potential deals and discounts. Some vendors prefer to discount their goods instead of taking them home.

3. Bring Your Own Bags. Most vendors do not provide bags, so bring your own tote with handles. Also bring produce bags to help organize your purchases. You can even reuse plastic food containers to transport delicate items (such as berries or tomatoes). And if you don’t expect to head directly home after the market, bring a cooler with ice packs to help keep your veggies fresh.

4. Bring Cash. Cash is the main currency at a farmers market, although some vendors may accept credit cards or checks. Paying with small bills or exact change will make purchasing easier and faster. Some markets can even run your credit card in exchange for tokens that you can use in place of cash. Ask at the info booth. Also be aware that many farmers markets accept WIC vouchers or food stamps. Again, ask at the info booth.

5. Do a Loop. Walk around the market at least once before making any purchases. See what is available, which vendor’s produce looks (and tastes!) the best, or if there are any deals. Make a mental shopping list. After your reconnaissance mission, circle back and make your purchases. And remember: only buy what you will be able to eat in a week or before the next market.

6. Ask Questions & Develop Relationships. Be prepared to spend some time at the market. Ask vendors about unfamiliar foods and how to prepare them and visit their website. Find out if a vendor specializes in a specific product or what his/her growing methods are. Personal relationships put you closer to the food you are consuming and can sometimes get you tips about upcoming specialty items or occasionally even a freebee or discount.

7. Bargains & Bargaining. Bargains are generally few and far between at a farmers market, and produce is often more expensive than the grocery store. Most vendors are not producing on a large scale or receiving subsidies that help lower prices. At a farmers market, you pay for fresher, more nutritious, and more flavorful foods that support the local economy. What you get doesn’t compare to what is sold at a supermarket. Also don’t expect to bargain; prices are almost always fixed. To lower your cash output, be sure to use all parts of the veggies you buy, ask if any “seconds” are available, and buy in bulk.

8. Don’t Expect Perfection. Much of the produce sold at the farmers market isn’t blemish-free. Supermarket food is grown for its hardiness and beauty, often at the expense of taste. By comparison, farmers’ market food is cultivated for its flavor and freshness. It may be slightly dirty or misshapen, but the tradeoff is worth it.

9. Be Flexible. If what you are looking for is sold out or not in season, try substituting it with something else. Experiment with new items or varieties.

10. Have Fun. Take your time, relax, and browse. Farmers markets aren’t only about the food – you can connect with friends and listen to live music too. It’s a fun way to shop that helps make your local economy stronger. Who’s your farmer?

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