Most communities have a local farmers market, and they’re popular for a good reason.
Many people delight in seeing rows of freshly picked 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 eat healthy on a budget, especially when you know everything you’re eating was grown or made near you. It’s also a great way to shop local.
Benefits of Farmers Markets
According to the Farmers Market Coalition, there are 8,600 registered farmers markets in the USDA’s National Farmers Market Directory. Chances are, there’s at least one near you.
Farmers markets provide fresh, locally grown produce, as well as homemade or home-baked goods. Shopping at farmers markets has many benefits for consumers and for the broader community.
They Help Novice Farmers
Local farmers markets provide an easy way for beginning farmers to earn an income from their land or livestock. It doesn’t cost much for farmers to participate in a local market, so it’s an affordable way for these families to earn money as well as experiment with different products to find out what consumers prefer.
They Educate Consumers
Farmers are always willing to educate consumers about the produce they sell, as well as their farming practices. This helps people feel more connected to the food they eat. Many farmers and venders also readily share recipes for the produce or products they sell, which can inspire some people to cook with more fresh ingredients.
This education and interaction can influence consumer behavior long-term. A 2015 study published in the journal Agriculture and Human Values found that consumers who interacted with farmers at their local market were more likely to change their long-term shopping behavior, such as buying more organic or locally grown foods.
They Provide Social Connections
Think about what happens when you go to the grocery store. Typically you go in, get your shopping done, and leave. It’s a chore — one you’re usually ready to be finished with as soon as possible.
Now think about what it’s like shopping at the farmers market. People take their time and often see their friends and neighbors and stop to chat. According to research cited by the Farmers Market Coalition, people who shop at farmers markets typically have 15 to 20 social interactions per visit, while they only have one or two at the grocery store.
These numbers show that the farmers market is an essential space for connecting with others in your community. These social connections are especially important for seniors who might spend the majority of their week alone.
They May Accept SNAP Benefits
According to the USDA, the number of farmers markets nationwide authorized to accept SNAP benefits increased 35% from 2012 to 2017. Because of wider acceptance, more low-income families are gaining access to healthy, fresh, local produce.
You Get Better Produce at Lower Prices
Prices also might be better at the farmers market. A 2009 study conducted by the Project for Public Spaces found that 60% of low-income shoppers believed their farmers market had better prices than the grocery store.
Although not all markets have lower prices than the local chain grocery store, most are comparable. And you can usually find lower prices on organic produce.
Locally grown food is also more nutritious. According to Consumer Reports, most produce at the grocery store has traveled 1,200 miles to get there, giving vitamins and minerals more time to break down. Produce sold at the farmers market is usually picked the day before — or the morning of — going on the market.
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
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many farmers markets have changed their rules and protocols to comply with current CDC guidelines as well as individual state mandates, which are all different.
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 mask and maintain a 6-foot distance from other shoppers, while others might have specific one-way foot traffic patterns.
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 see what’s in season in your area.
Knowing what’s in season in your area will also 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.
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. If you struggle to come up with ideas, try a service like eMeals. Write down the ingredients, 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.
5. 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.
6. 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.
7. Bring Cash & Other Supplies
Many farmers market vendors can accept 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 ring 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.
8. Go Early for the Best Selection
Many vendors sell out of their best produce early in the day, so if you’re looking for top-quality, then it’s best 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.
9. Go Late to Save Money
If you’re looking to pick up fresh vegetables on a budget, your best bet is to arrive late, 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. Your best bet is to talk to the person working the information booth and find out if end-of-day negotiating is allowed.
10. 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.
11. 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.
Trying small portions in advance ensures you won’t waste money on meat you’re not satisfied with.
12. 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.
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.
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. Go into the farmers market with a plan so you don’t overspend.
What are some of your tips for shopping at farmers markets? What are your favorite finds there?