I’m always a little jealous of the people who see a trip to the farmers market as a relaxing weekend outing. For them, it’s a chance to luxuriate in the rows of beefsteak tomatoes and mountains of kale. They may have a dog or a popsicle-licking child in tow. These people (...these people) meander along, picking up whatever suits their fancy, and once home, figure out what they’ll make with purslane and ground lamb.
If you’re one of these people, you probably have no need for the farmers market shopping strategies I’m about to share. It’s okay—you’ve mastered something I never will, and I bow to you as you toss back a cider doughnut.
I like to go into a farmers market with a plan. Otherwise, the sheer sensory invasion overwhelms me, and I end up weighed down with 37 pounds of peaches. Below are my tips, not all of which I follow—but trust that I aspire to!
1. Go early. It’s cooler. It’s emptier. You get the pick of the litter.
2. Wear sensible sneakers and a wide brim hat, which signals to others to steer clear of your produce war path. Carry an umbrella.
3. Buy a real cart, not one of the wire fold-up kind, which bruise everything inside it. You want something more like this (my cart of choice) or this (which I’m considering trading up for). Pro tip: Line the base with a soft towel or small blanket to protect your precious finds.
4. Bring cloth bags so you don’t have to put everything in plastic—it’s counterproductive, environmentally speaking, to make so much effort to buy local, sustainably-grown produce only to transport it in plastic.
5. When you get to the market, it’s tempting to dive in and start buying. But you should always do a loop first. Check out what’s new. I’m often surprised by what I learn, even at stands that I know extremely well. The farm may have tried out a new fruit this season, or discontinued something you were counting on. This way you won’t have the classic farmers market buyer’s remorse of having snapped up pints and pints of strawberries only to discover there were better ones 3 stalls away.
6. I’m not naturally inclined to talk with the farmers or other customers, but every time I do, I learn something useful about the food—that the cherry season will be short or that a new stall is opening. When I’m not up for this, I’ll sometimes just hang back and listen to other shoppers’ conversations with the farmers.
7. Have your money in a convenient place (and in the form of cash); no one wants to wait for you to dig out a five from your purse. I don’t own a fanny pack, but this is the one time I’d condone one.
8. Pick up root and firm vegetables first so you can use them as a foundation and cushioning for the more fragile fruits and vegetables you’ll add on top.
9. My non-research-based assessment of farmers markets is that the best eggs always run out early, so I always go directly to the egg farmer. Yes, this defies my advice to save delicate foods for last (see below) but I don’t like missing out on the eggs and that’s that! I shuffle them around the cart as I shop (though you could also dedicate a special tote just for them).
10. If you buy fish or shellfish, ask the fishmonger to pack some ice with it, so you don’t feel as rushed to get home.
11. If you don’t compost (or go out of your way to cook root to stalk), ask the person working the register to trim the tops off carrots and turnips for the farmer’s compost. This reduces your load and helps the land.
12. If you travel to your market in a car, put a cooler and a soft container in the back. The cooler is for dairy, meats, and fish. The soft container is for the tomatoes and berries. My mother uses a basket like this (or this) so she can carry it right from her car to her kitchen.
13. Buy berries, flowers, and all delicate fruits and vegetables last. (If you go to the market early, you shouldn’t have to worry that they'll sell out before you get to them.)
14. You don't necessarily have to taste an ingredient to get a sense its quality (and you should ask before you do). I'm not much of a sampler. The knives they use to cut fruit give me the willies. I smell, I touch (but am careful not to squeeze), and I make bets.
15. Save the pricey goods from the "luxury stand" for special occasions. At my farmers market, there is one fruit and vegetable stand that is easily 30% more expensive than the others. But their heads of lettuce are impeccable. They grow the purest Hakurei turnips you've ever laid your eyes on. I go here when I'm having a dinner party and want everything to look as good as it tastes.
What's your best tip for surviving the market in one piece, berries in tow? Tell us in the comments below.