Throughout our marriage, my husband and I have shopped at various farmers' markets, both in the South and in the Northeast. For a number of years, I have also stood on the other side of the market tables, first selling my handmade line of bath products and then selling produce from our gardens and greenhouse. As I made my purchases at one of our local markets this past week, I thought about what I wish I had known during my first few trips as the consumer. Remembering what it was like to be a vendor at these markets, I also couldn't help but think what I wish customers knew from our point of view. Below I share some tips for helping you in your next shopping venture at your local farmers' market, keeping in mind that these come from someone who knows what it's like to be on both sides of the seller's booth.
- If you are looking for something specific, get to the market early before vendors sell out of the most popular items. I have noticed this happens with first crops of the season, especially berries, peaches, and corn. On the other hand, if you are not looking for anything in particular, show up an hour or so before closing time. Some vendors will mark down items at that time rather than have to load them up and take them home.
- Peruse the perimeter of the market before making any purchases. Many people spend all their money at the first few vendors' tables and never see what all there is to offer. You might be missing out on something terrific. I quickly scan each booth and then come back through to actually buy.
- Bring your own sturdy bags and cash. Though most vendors do supply plastic grocery bags, some run out and it is an additional expense for the farmer. Many markets now accept debit cards and some accept SNAP and EBT cards, but some individual vendors still do not have this capability.
- Look for vendors that sell organic, non-GMO, or naturally grown foods. I think the majority of the farmers who do this display a sign of some sort on their tables informing the public of their practices. However, when we first started out, we did not think to do that. If you have any questions about how the food is grown, ask the farmer.
- Chat with the farmers as long as you are not holding up the line or distracting them from making sales to other customers. Vendors who have a passion for what they do will love sharing their knowledge with other people. This was my husband's favorite part of both selling and buying at the markets.
- With that being said, however, if you're going to have a lengthy conversation with a seller, please buy something from them. This is different from asking them about their growing or harvesting practices because you want to know what you're getting for your money. I am talking about one of those 20 minute conversations where you're asking all kinds of questions and possibly even sharing some of your own ventures into growing or creating things, and you are taking up a lot of this vendor's time. Then it is only considerate to buy something from that booth.
- Don't quibble over prices without good reason. If prices seem higher than other vendors, ask why. It is usually more expensive for a farmer to grow naturally or organically rather than conventionally using chemicals and sprays. The same goes for natural soaps and candles and other such items that contain all natural ingredients and essential oils.
- Do expect fruits and vegetables to be different sizes and colors and possibly have some dirt on them. They are not all going to be uniform, shiny, and perfect because that's just not natural.
- If it is hot and humid, and especially if the tables are in direct sunlight, know that some things are going to look a bit droopy. I am especially referring to greens and carrot and beet tops, as well as a number of herbs. Even if they are displayed in some water, they will still look somewhat wilted as the day's heat sets in. Put them in the crisper as soon as you get home.
- Keep in mind that whatever doesn't get sold at that market is highly likely to end up on that farmer's table later that day to be served to that farmer's family. I only say this because I have seen customer's dogs' noses up against whatever is being displayed on the table. I have seen patrons rummage through baskets of berries or sniff items while having an obvious cold or other illness. Sometimes children with hands that are not so clean like to touch every brightly colored item that's at eye level. Then many of these people don't buy any of it, leaving it for the next individual who comes along or for the farmer to take home. This is also why it's a good idea to use a vinegar wash on your produce once you are home in your kitchen.
Farmers' markets and local CSAs are such gifts to our families and communities. They give us the opportunity to support local businesses and small family farms that are being lost in these days of mega-farms, mono-agriculture, and CAFOs. It is also a way for us to reconnect with our food production and food providers if we are not growing or raising our own. In the supermarket, we only have the package labels to inform us of the location and manner in which our food was grown. With local farmers' markets and farm stands, however, we can speak directly with the growers and sometimes even visit their farms. I encourage everyone to stop by your local market this week and see what all there is to offer. If you're a newbie, I hope these tips will help make your shopping experience an easy and enjoyable one.