So you've decided to help your local economy and eat more fresh food by shopping at a local farmers' market. But how do you find a local farmers' market and what do you buy there?
What Is A Farmers' Market?
First and foremost it's important to know what a farmers' market actually is. Simply put it's a marketplace, frequently outdoors, where local or local-adjacent farmers sell their wares directly to consumers, rather than to grocery stores or supermarkets. Depending on the location you can find fruits, vegetables, meats, cheeses and other dairy, fresh baked bread, and other prepared foods like hot meals and snacks, fermented or preserved foods, flowers, condiments, teas, juices, beer and liquor, and much more. Farmers' markets that double as public markets also have booths or tables or tents with local artisans - selling jewelry, wood carving, pottery, sketches and paintings, hygiene products and so much more.
Why Shop At A Farmers' Market?
There are multiple reasons to shop at a farmers' market from eating local food with richer nutrients, to supporting local farmers and the local economy, to helping the environment by not supporting food items that travel from far away and contribute to pollution. Learn about eating locally by checking out this article, The Seasonal Table: 9 Reasons To Eat For The Local Season.
Farmers' Market Ins and Outs
It's important to know that farmers markets are not all the same. It depends on the area you reside in, what produce is grown within a certain distance to that farmers' market and how much you're willing to spend when you get there.
Here are 7 Things To Be Aware of When Shopping at a Farmers' Market:
1. Fair Price - Farmers' markets usually offer a fair price for the goods that they provide. The problem is if you've often purchased food from a shop or store you may be paying a far lower price than the food is actually worth - because of government subsidizing. Farmers' markets are peopled by farmers who sell directly to consumers, a literal farm-to-table situation, and these farmers are relying on their weekly customers to stay in business, not the big-business government subsidies that other larger farms live on.
That being said, while farmers are charging you what the actual food is worth - taking into account growing and labor and travel - you're still getting a great deal. Because you can pick out the best of the bunch and eat phenomenal, great-tasting food without having to grow it yourself (or pick it yourself, although some farms do have u-pick options).
2. Cash Money - many larger city farmers' markets now have the option to pay for your purchases using a credit or debit card but it's still much more common to find farmers and artisans who will only accept cash for their wares. When going to a farmers' market it's best to be prepared and bring the cash needed for your purchases. Also, try to keep your cash in smaller bills to make it easier for the farmer you're buying from.
3. Seasonal - It's important to be aware that the produce and other food items sold at farmers' markets can change per season and per grower; also, some farmers' markets - in fact, most farmers' markets - are only open during the major growing and harvesting seasons - meaning April through October, here on the east coast.
4. Prepare for the Weather - when the market is open, farmers and sometimes artisans will come no matter the weather because they're relying on each week's income. This might not seem like a big deal but when you take into account high winds, rain, ice, sleet, snow and the sweltering hot sun - you know, days when you might not want to be outside - you can see some of the drawbacks of outdoor markets. Make sure to bring your hat or umbrella or coat when you go shopping at a farmers' market so you're not soaking wet or wilting from the sun before you're finished shopping.
5. BYOB - that's right, if you're planning on shopping at a farmers' market it's best to bring your own bags. Some booths or tents may offer small plastic bags to carry your purchases in but if you're stopping at seven different tents and you have seven or more little bags from each it can get a little tedious. Best to bring your trusty reusable totes you've been collecting. :)
6. The Deals - if you're one of the first people to arrive for market day, or one of the last, you may find yourself in a position to get a deal from a friendly farmer. First to arrive gets you the option of best pick of the lot, and probably the farmer's full attention for any questions you may have if no one else is around yet and she's already set up. Near the end of market day when there's only a few minutes before the farmer packs up and leaves, he may offer to give you a discount on those last two cucumbers, or that last bag of spinach. While haggling isn't really acceptable during normal hours, near the end of the day you may have yourself a lucky break with a farmer wanting to sell as much as possible before heading home.
7. Local and Organic, Not Always the Same - while local farmers who sell their wares at farmers markets many times grow on small farms without using pesticides or harmful chemicals they can't always claim to be organic. The reason for this is twofold: firstly, to be able to claim to be organic a farm must be certified by the USDA and certification can be tedious and costly. Some farmers may simply decide to say 'grown without pesticides' rather than go through the effort and cost of the certification process. The second reason for non-organic certification is the proximity of these small farms to larger farms that do use chemicals. While the farmer you purchase from may follow organic farming practices, their neighbors may not and any chemicals from neighboring farms may seep into your farmer's soil. That being said, you can still thoroughly wash and peel your produce and get rid of at least 50% of the harmful chemicals.
8. People Make It Worth It - no matter how busy a market may be, if you make a habit of buying from the same vendors you'll find yourself being recognized again and again when you come back. Many of the farmers love to know that you love their food and are excited to talk about how it's grown and how they care for it until it comes to you. They're happy to see repeat customers because you're helping them as much as they are helping you. And, one of the many reasons that farmers sell at markets instead of directly to grocery stores and restaurants, is because they want to interact directly with their consumers. So don't be afraid to ask questions, chit-chat and linger - they want you there!
Find A Farmers' Market
So, you've decided to give shopping at a farmers' market a try but you don't know where to go? Here are a few links for finding markets in your area:
A) Local Harvest - they focus on local and organic markets and farms and list them alphabetically, but you can search by zip code or state.
B) USDA: National Farmers' Market Directory - a database set up by the U.S. Department of Agriculture using self-reported farms and markets searchable by state, zip code, products available and payments accepted.
C) Local Farm Markets - lists farms and markets within the U.S. as well as several other countries and a market submission form if you know of a market that's missing from the list.
We've done some on-the-ground research ourselves at farmers' markets in our general area and we've decided to do separate posts highlighting our favorite items from each market. Keep your eyes peeled for our next Farmers' Market Post - Highlights from Old Town Alexandria.
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