Farmers’ markets are full of bright, colorful fruits and veggies, locally harvested meats and dairy products, baked goods, artisans’ wares and maybe even a live band or two. With more than 10 markets in the region that happen on various days and evenings, there is ample opportunity to find the fresh products you are looking for. But in spite of its bounty — or because of it — shopping a farmers’ market can be overwhelming. So much to take in! So much to eat! So much to see!
Let us make it easier for you. Whether you’re a new farmers’ market shopper or you hit one on a regular basis, here are some tips for getting the most out of your foray to the farmers’ market:
One of the biggest perks of a farmers’ market is that you can talk to the person who grew or made what you are buying.
Gaby Gerkin, who manages farmers’ markets for the People’s Food Co–Op of Kalamazoo, recommends that you bring a list of questions the first few times you attend a market. Some questions you might ask:
- Where are your products from?
- Do you grow everything that’s on the table?
- If not, where is it coming from? Is it from a nearby farm?
Don’t just assume that all products that vendors are selling are locally raised products; sometimes the vendors are selling for other farmers or they are selling produce that is out of season in our area but in season in another.
Some markets have signs that indicate what percentage of items are grown or made by a vendor, a system that makes it easier to get around the market. At the Kalamazoo and Portage markets, look for any combination of four signs — Grower, Producer, Retailer and Artisan (see inset box) — to easily determine what a vendor is offering.
Gerkin also recommends asking about any labels you see. “If someone has a ‘Certified Organic’ or a ‘Certified Naturally Grown’ sign up, just say, ‘What’s that mean?’ Approaching vendors can be intimidating, but everyone wants to help.”
Engaging in conversation with a vendor can further clarify signs. For instance, some vendors buy produce from neighbors who don’t come to market. It may fill a void in their own products and a half peck of apples from their friend down the road is still a local product to you.
Time it right
Get to the market early to have your pick of the freshest produce, especially if you don’t like crowds. Markets get busy around 10 a.m. Later in the day you might find some deals, but you might also miss some vendors who pack up early if they sell out.
Speaking of deals, if a vendor needs to get rid of something, sometimes you can get a bargain, but be respectful if someone doesn’t want to give a discount. When you go to the grocery store, you wouldn’t haggle with cashiers over a price.
Ask for seconds
During peak season, some vendors heavily discount imperfect goods, and there’s no shame in asking if they have any of those around. Sometimes they will refer to these as “mis-picks” or “seconds.” A half a bushel of tomatoes deemed not plump enough for salads can still be made into a delicious sauce.
One of the biggest hurdles to shopping a market is just getting used to the environment and the market’s layout. The more you do it, however, the more shopping at markets can become your norm. At the height of the season you can find a market almost every day of the week. And, thanks to winter markets, you can buy local foods year-round: everything from produce to meat, bread, mustards and vinegar.
“Literally everything can be made here by your neighbors,” says Gerkin. “It doesn’t just have to be a fun atmosphere on Saturdays.”
Follow best practices:
- Bring your own bags. Most vendors have disposable plastic bags, but to really be in the spirit, bring reusable bags.
- Have cash. Many vendors accept credit cards, but some do not. To be safe, bring plenty of cash or checks.
- Circle the market when you arrive. Bring a shopping list to the market, but also take a lap to peruse the vendors and their wares to see what appeals to you before buying anything. After you’ve seen everything on the tables, you can go back to certain vendors for what you really want.
- Find out what is in season. Markets list this info on their websites, or you can ask a local farmer. Seasonal produce will taste the best, last the longest and may be more affordable.
- Inquire about food assistance programs. Many markets accept Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) Bridge Cards, Double Up Food Bucks, WIC Project Fresh coupons, Senior Project Fresh coupons and other alternative currencies. Check websites for details.
- Leave room for a snack. Grab food from a food truck, treat yourself to an iced coffee, or maybe plunge into that pint of fresh berries you just bought while catching up with a friend.
- Leave pets at home. Service animals are welcome, but pets are not allowed at most markets.