When you think “farmers’ market” do picturesque images of a weekend morning stroll through vendors’ tents with the sun shining and basket full of peaches, carrots with lush tops, and farm fresh eggs pop into your mind? Same. Maybe we fantasize about what it’s like to shop at a farmers’ market just a little—it’s not always that perfect! But if you’ve never done your weekly shopping at a market before, or maybe you need to just brush up on your skills now that more fruits and vegetables are coming into season, we have tips and advice to make this season’s market your best yet and make you a true farmers’ market connoisseur before you know it.
What to expect
There will be weather. Let’s rip that band aid off right now and dash that daydream of strolling through endless sunbeams. We live in Ohio and we know how to dress in layers for 30 degree temperature swings, bring an umbrella even if it’s sunny now, and be ready for mud or at the very least dew soaked grass. Market day is no different!
Once you’re dressed, take a moment to review the market’s instructions for parking and any rules for how to have an excellent market experience. This is a good time to think about your seasonal fruit and vegetable options too. If you’re going to shop for the week, keep in mind this isn’t a grocery store and you won’t be able to find local kiwi or mangoes.
Remember this isn’t one of those open air markets you may be familiar with from trips to other cities where vendors ship in produce, so don’t negotiate or haggle with your farmer. This is fresh food grown locally, possibly using sustainable or organic practices. Furthermore, the crafts, art and other items were not made on a mass scale, appreciate what you’re getting before you try to pay less.
Lastly, enjoy the live music, cooking demos, kids activities or other entertainment options. Yes, you can stop by, do your shopping and go on with your day, but you can also bring the family to enjoy the experience. At Countryside’s Howe Meadow farmers’ market for example, you can start your day in a National Park taking in the sites and smells of nature—which is a drastic difference from the grocery store!
How to shop
This isn’t the same experience as your weekly trip to your local grocery store, so there are a few farmers market shopping tips you should know before tackling the market.
- Do a lap – We know you’re excited, but don’t just jump in at the first tent you see. Walk the market and strategize which vendors you want to visit. You wanted to get your steps in today, right?
- Make a list ahead of time – You don’t want to waste time (yours or the vendors’!). So thinking about what exactly goes into that meal or how many cookies you need ahead of time is good practice. Everyone is happier when there’s no pressure or rushed feelings at the market.
- Bring a bag – Okay, several bags. Many markets are zero-waste and vendors won’t supply plastic bags. Plus, canvas or reusable bags are stronger so you can fit more of your farmers’ market haul safely into a sturdy bag.
- Pack a cooler – See the beginning about Ohio weather… But really, in the hotter months you may not want to rush through the market to get your frozen pasture raised beef or homemade frozen treats home. A cooler in the trunk can take some anxiety out of the day.
- Bring cash – Most vendors accept credit cards, but there are some who choose not to, and technology can be fickle when you’re trying to get a signal in the middle of a market. Plus, it’s nice to help vendors skip those pesky credit card fees sometimes.
- Try something new – Ask the farmer about the produce and how to cook it. New food isn’t scary! Also try asking the artist/maker/baker about how they make their products. Remember, this isn’t a typical shopping experience, so ask questions and don’t feel silly.
- Know what grows in your area – If you see something you know can’t grow in your area or is out of season, ask about it. Most markets have producer-only rules (e.g. only sell what you grow/produce), but if you’re at a new market and see something that can’t grow in that climate, ask!
- Come early or preorder – Have to get to a soccer game or have another commitment that interferes with market time? Due to the pandemic, most markets implemented a preorder system to help shoppers get their weekly groceries and support their favorite small businesses. Now, however, you can still use those same systems to get what you need without as long of a shopping trip or to secure a limited quantity of something if you can’t get to the market when the gates open (we see you strawberries…).
What to buy at a farmers market
In general, you can’t go wrong, but you can go overboard (speaking from personal experience). But since you’re starting with a list, you won’t make that mistake. Get familiar with the way fruits and vegetables are sold—pint, peck, bag, etc.—and use that to compare prices and value. Go for whole foods, nothing precut, and if you can get vegetables with the tops on, like carrots, go for it! Those tops can extend the freshness of the produce and are great in meals themselves or even for vegetable stock. (See the next section about storage to get the most out of your veggies.)
Don’t be afraid of seconds. In fact, if you’re buying in bulk to can or make jams get your hands on those seconds! “Seconds” is just a nice way of saying, “less pretty” or maybe, “a little older,” which is perfect if you’re turning those ruby-red tomatoes into sauce. If you do plan to buy in bulk, contact your farmer ahead of time and see what you can arrange for pickup on Saturday so you’re not disappointed and the farmer can plan ahead.
Lastly, the market is a great place to find local, one-of-a-kind gifts, treats and special occasion items. Artists and makers are what bring flare and inspiration to a market. Even if you don’t have something to shop for weekly, subscribe to their emails or follow them on social media to see what they create for the next time you need something special.
How to store what you bought
So you get your farmers’ market haul home and then you… panic. How do you store these treasures so they’re still picture perfect for your weeknight meals? How do you make sure none of this beautiful produce goes to waste? Here’s some advice.
- Most produce stays fresh longer in a sealed container like reusable silicon pouches, containers or reusable storage bags.
- Not everything goes in the refrigerator. EatingWell has a handy chart to help you organize and store your produce.
- You should always wash your produce before you eat it, but getting it dry is the key to success. If you don’t have a salad spinner yet, it’s time. You don’t want to put wet leaves in your fridge and you don’t want your dinner salad too wet right before the meal. A salad spinner will help you out of this pickle. And don’t let your berries stay wet. Wash them gently and store them in a container where they won’t rest on the bottom.
- Not all produce plays well together either. Some fruits and vegetables emit higher levels of ethylene and can increase the risk of overriding other produce around them. In general, keep your apples, stone fruits, pears and tomatoes away from others.
- Remember those tops? Now is the time to cut those off and choose how you want to use them. Save them as greens (like beet tops) or toss them in your stock freezer bag for later.
- Slice only what you’ll eat in a few days, but if you don’t need quickly accessible snacks, it’s better to put whole fruits in the crisper drawer.
The joy of experiencing a farmers’ market on a casual Saturday morning is a pretty great feeling not to mention a healthy habit. Plus, once you get to know the vendors, farmers, makers and other shoppers you’re not going to want to miss a weekend at the market! If you’re looking for a farmers’ market near you, visit us each Saturday between 9 a.m.-12 p.m., May through October, at Howe Meadow.