Spring

Amanda Hesser's Strategy for Farmers Market Triumph

April 24, 2017

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!

Frowny tomato monster. #f52farmstand #f52life

A post shared by Amanda Hesser (@amandahesser) on

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.

28 Comments

Gus'Mom April 15, 2018
This is all great advice. The best farmer's market "advice" I received was from Chef Odessa Piper, founder of L'Etoile restaurant in Madison. She was one of the Midwest's originators of the farm to table movement and a legend in the city. One Saturday she held a class where she took students around to each of the stands and farmers she liked the best. I was lucky enough to attend this class and it was invaluable. It shifted my view of farmer's markets and how to use them.
 
Author Comment
Amanda H. April 15, 2018
Thank you!
 
Sue B. April 30, 2017
That's sad to hear about the Santa Monica farmers market! That market introduced me to foods I never tasted before...years ago.<br />Rows & rows of interesting foods. I do believe the farmers market world has changed throughout the last 20 years.<br />Ann Arbor, MI is one of my favorites.
 
btglenn April 30, 2017
I really can't afford to shop at the Santa Monica Wednesday Farmers Market because of the very high boutique-like prices. I do have a couple of go-to stands where prices for some items are reasonable - like for tomatoes which last longer than those at the standard markets. <br />NOTE: The Santa Monica Farmers Market, one of the first of its kind, started over 15 years ago-- specifically to help seniors to get produce at low and reasonable prices and to help farmers by avoiding middle-man brokers and selling direct to consumers. The market no longer has seniors shopping there, but now caters to consumers of means.
 
asbrink April 27, 2017
Love this article. Thanks for the tips! I just moved last month to Los Angeles from the Midwest, and while I had of course always heard about the miraculous bounty of LA farmers' markets, it was still mindblowing to see it in person! I spent weeks hitting up all the markets to find my "go-to" Saturday morning one with the best vendors for my needs [slash not too far in travel to in LA traffic slash convenient parking :) ]! Yes, I'm obsessed, but it's so worth it! I still hit up the Hollywood market most Sundays though to bask in its glory. <br /><br />Much to my husband [aka The Bagcarrier]'s woe, I actually love talking to the farmers and merchants about their wares--trying to learn as much as possible about their process, the seasonality, and what to expect for future product. While the products are gorgeous, excellence doesn't come cheap, and it's important for me to know what I'm paying for. I love that all the vendors are so free with their samples, but I make it a point not to take anything unless I have intent to buy. I never thought before about asking them to trim the stalks for compost! We're not able to compost much in our tiny loft, so this is a great tip for us. However, this will really depend on gauging the market situation--some stands, especially at the Hollywood market, are just so incredibly swamped.<br /><br />I left a snow-stormed town to land in LA in the throes of strawberry season, and I'm incredibly thankful every day for what we have available here. Not only is there produce here I'd only heard about but never seen before in the States (loquats! cherimoyas! sugar cane!), there are products that you simply can't buy in other states (raw milk!). I can't wait to make it through a year's worth of seasons to see what they all bring!
 
cosmiccook April 27, 2017
What really tees me off is to get to the market before they open only to find out even though I'm first a CHEF has bought all the good eggs or tomatoes etc.-even though its against the rules. I can't buy early nor do I think a chef should wipe out inventory that a people carve out their time to come to buy! Restaurants have resources we don't and if they want a certain farmers' product make arrangements for purchase other than market day.
 
cosmiccook April 27, 2017
New Orleans doesn't have the wide-ranging vendors and farmers that NY and other states have; items are typically main-stream and vendors few and the same so you get to know the product and farmer. I bring empty plastic containers/use a collapsible & insulated basket w chill blocks. My fruit is much less bruised and better protected. I'm walking distance; I go for specific items from specific vendors. Its usually strawberries, peaches when in season, dairy & tomatoes & lettuce from a certain vendor.<br />I don't buy much from the FM --they are incredibly expensive and frankly except for a few items the same as locally grown sold in our local grocery stores. I'm envious of the produce and descriptions of items available by 52 readers and contributors.
 
Stefanie S. April 27, 2017
Since 70% of what we eat comes from our local farmers markets, we have really worked on our strategies through the years! Since we store our veggies in plastic bags in the refrigerator, I let the vendors put those veggies in bags, which then get tucked into our totes. Eggs, milk and cheese are purchased first and walked back to the car to be put into the cooler with ice packs and towels. While I love the idea of asking vendors to trim certain items, they are much too busy. I think I will ask our market if we can start a compost bucket with a pair of scissors tied to it so we can trim and then compost enthusiasts can raid the bucket!
 
asbrink April 27, 2017
Love the idea to put the produce directly into the bags you'll store them in in the fridge! What a great and simple way to cut out extra steps and get your veg into the fridge faster after getting home! Thanks!
 
[email protected] April 27, 2017
I put a cooler, with ice pack, in the bottom of my shopping cart so I don't have to worry about the perishables while I wander.
 
Author Comment
Amanda H. April 27, 2017
Ooh, like this idea! Even just an ice pack; will try it.
 
isabelita April 30, 2017
I like a cold pack from Trader's to which I add a cold pak from the freezer. Takes less room in the shopping cart and it is lighter. I like your shopping cart suggestions although pricey and more for subs or a rural area. I shop at the Farmer's Mkt in New York City (Union Sq.) A regular shopping cart can be cushioned and you just need to know what goes below and on top.
 
Sue B. April 27, 2017
I go on Saturday morning to our small little Laguna Beach farmers market. It may be just a few rows but GREAT variety. I am a chef but I really like the aspect of the people you meet. Sometimes I don't feel like getting up early to get there when it opens, but then I'm wondering if the girl who sells the French breads passed her test working her way through school. So many interesting people who get up in the middle of the night packing up their food to drive hours to bring us farm fresh. I marvel at what they are doing to give me great food for the week. I love seeing the vendors & getting to know them through the years, the social aspect of it is so different from the rest of my life that I embrace.
 
Mimi April 27, 2017
Thank you for these tips. We have fortunate to have incredible farmers markets here in Santa Barbara and this is by far my favorite carrying tool: http://www.hookandgo.com No need to stack most fragile on the bottom.
 
AntoniaJames April 25, 2017
Our East Bay market is calm and pleasant so, thankfully, surviving it in one piece (the question posed above) is never a challenge. May I respectfully share a few other tips?<br /><br />For greater efficiency both at the market and when I get home:<br /><br />(a) I combine like-priced items together in a single bag for weighing, e.g., onions and cabbage cost the same per pound, so same-price items go into one bag together. This saves time in weighing / paying; and<br /><br />(b) I empty paid-for bags of root vegetables, onions, potatoes, apples and similar sturdy items directly into the bottom of my large canvas bag, re-using those smaller bags for other shopping. <br /><br />Leafy greens like red head lettuce, kale and chard sold by the unit go into one or two large bags together. While handing the other bags to be weighed, I tell the vendor, “2 kale, 1 chard, 1 lettuce” and “1 beets” so he or she can add them in while weighing and toting up the other items. (We have three marvelous local organic farms which each sell many items, so it’s common for me to buy 6 or 7 from one, and 4 or 5 from one or both of the others. All of their produce is great quality, obviating comparison shopping.)<br /><br />We use compostable bags for our food waste here, which is picked up from weekly from the same bin as yard trimmings. Beets always tend to be dirty — which I don't mind because it means the attached greens have not been unduly exposed to moisture - so I use a compostable “bio bag” which I then re-use - no washing necessary!<br /><br />To make my shopping even more efficient, I use a large canvas bag with a single, roomy outside pocket in which I keep all my smaller bags, neatly folded and organized for easy retrieval. Cash for purchases goes into a pants or vest pocket with nothing else.<br /><br />Finally, I have found that there are so many advantages to being friendly to the vendors and establishing good relationships with them. This post has gotten rather long, so I’ll just leave it at that. ;o)
 
luvcookbooks April 26, 2017
Ox your comments.
 
AntoniaJames April 28, 2017
Thank you, Meg. ;o)
 
Noreen F. April 24, 2017
In Wisconsin, the first week or two of certain desirable items (strawberries, raspberries, ramps, morels), they WILL run out even if you're at the market early, so those are the first stalls I hit. It means a lot of rearranging in my bag as I buy the rest, but definitely worth it!<br /><br />Other than that, I do the loop first to see what's new and who's got what this week. I'm also a dedicated farmer's market tourist. If I'm visiting or vacationing, I have to check out the local market, even if I'm not cooking anything!.
 
AntoniaJames April 24, 2017
Noreen, so do I! This first thing I did when I took my son to UW-Madison his first year was to find out when the farmers market would be, and then to arrange our schedule to make sure we didn't miss it. What an incredible market it is! (My son ended up going every week it was open while he was in Madison.) ;o)
 
Noreen F. April 25, 2017
Yup, Madison is an uber-market! I don't get down there very often as it's a 2 1/2 hour drive. I did once get up at 3 am and drive down, hit the market, did other shopping and then headed home, but I'm not so sure I could do that anymore!
 
Panfusine April 24, 2017
Nothing beats the Unions square market in NYC for me personally, I usually end up looking like a overloaded mountaineer by the time I'm done, weighed down with a backpack for me (and a couple of cloth bags weighing down each arm) and sometimes my 11 y.o who gets to cart the produce that he likes!
 
M April 24, 2017
Almost all of the tips are spot-on. But respectfully, carts are a terrible suggestion for farmers' markets that pack tons of people into a small space for a very limited amount of time, unless you are unable to carry bags. While they save you from weight, they are a nightmare to others. <br /><br />In a stimulation-rich environment with no shortage of attention-grabbers, cart kindness is the first thing to go out the window. There isn't a farmers' market I've attended where I haven't seen or experienced cart pushers running into and over people/feet/kids, blocking the access of goods for other shoppers, and blocking paths -- esp when shoppers in wheelchairs/etc are trying to navigate the same congested spaces.
 
Kristen M. April 24, 2017
I think carts are fine for people who are mindful of others (equally true of strollers, large bags, dogs, toddlers, etc.). As a New Yorker, I'd rather encounter a cart than a lollygagger on their phone (rude!).
 
M April 24, 2017
Oh, how I want to live in a world where people are mindful! Instead, most public spaces these days function like human bumper cars. <br /><br />Carts are just more easy to head off at the pass than criticisms on children and pets! :)
 
Kristen M. April 24, 2017
No child better get in the way of my Shewolf sourdough. (Just kidding!)
 
Gj C. April 24, 2017
I think going during the week at lest busy times is ok for cart shopping. But not on the weekend or high traffic times like lunch hour at some markets. So, I guess know your market busy and not so busy times🤔
 
David W. April 27, 2017
Agreed, carts/strollers are a nightmare and pets have no place in food shopping. Be kind to your vendors and carry small bills. Nothing spoils a vendor's day like the person with a $100 bill for a $2 purchase particularly at opening time.
 
mizerychik April 27, 2017
I'd much rather everyone have carts than dogs. My local farmer's market is populated with people who think that it's equivalent to a dog park. I've seen multiple almost fights between animals, and as someone who is contact allergic, I have to be extremely wary of irresponsible people who let their dogs rub up against people because "he doesn't bite." Thanks, that's going to help my horrible rash so much.