With the number of farmers markets in the United States growing from just under 2,000 in 1994 to more than 8,600 markets listed in the USDA Farmers Market Directory, now is the perfect time to explore your local farmers market.
“When you shop at your community farmers market you are getting fresh, locally grown fruits and vegetables, dairy products and perhaps meat or fish, and that is great for your health,” says Stephen Lee, MD, a family medicine physician at Scripps Coastal Medical Center Eastlake. “Plus, you are supporting your local economy and farmers, and the food tastes better.”
Make the most of your experience at the farmers market with these simple tips.
1. Buy in season
Check out the produce at any farmers market, and you will know what is in season: berries in May, corn in August and apples in September. Learn when produce is harvested locally so that you have realistic expectations of what to find at the market. If you have a chance to do some meal planning before you go, you’ll know what you need and can shop accordingly.
2. Bring your own bag
Very few farmers markets offer bags, and those that do usually provide bags made of thin and insubstantial plastic, that often are used. Bring your own sturdy canvas bag, backpack or basket to ensure your produce makes it to your home intact. If you purchase eggs, cheese or other items that need to stay cold, it’s important to bring a cooler so you don’t have to worry about your fresh food spoiling.
3. Compare prices
If several booths are featuring the same fruits and vegetables, it can pay to shop around. A farmer with a prime location, closest to parking for instance, may charge more.
4. Shop early for the best selection
For the best selection, get to the farmers market early as the best items go first. If you prefer your shut-eye on the weekends, you may find less expensive produce during the last hour. Farmers often prefer to discount their wares at the end of the day rather than hauling them back home, but check with your farmers market because some frown on the practice.
5. Talk to the farmers
“This is one of the best benefits of shopping at your local market,” says Dr. Lee. “Most farmers and booth workers are excited to talk about what they do and to discuss their goods This is a rare opportunity so take advantage of it.” You can ask the location of their farm, if their produce is certified organic or for new ideas for cooking vegetables and fruits.
6. Know your produce
The produce at the farmers market will usually look different than what you will find in the grocery store. Learn how to pick out the best Brussels sprouts or a ripe peach — the misshapen fruit from the farm will taste better than the uniform, shiny fruit you see in the supermarket. If you aren’t sure, ask.
7. Bring cash
Many farmers markets are cash-only operations. It’s best to bring small bills to speed up your shopping. Many vendors at farmers markets now accept credit/debit cards, but to be safe, bring cash.
8. Expand your palate
Try different foods that you may have missed at the grocery store. “When you see an interesting or unfamiliar vegetable, fruit or cheese, ask the farmer what to do with it,” says Dr. Lee. “Or if it’s something you have always wanted to try, but didn’t know how to cook, check with the staff at the booth.”
If you don’t see anything tempting, ask the grower what is available that day that you shouldn’t miss and how to prepare it.
9. Bring the kids
Shopping at farmers markets is a good way to teach your kids healthy habits. Let them pick out a food that looks interesting to them, or give older kids a few dollars so they can buy some food on their own to bring home.