Sunday, June 12, 2011

Farmers Market 101

Farmer's Markets are increasing in popularity all over the country as awareness around the importance of locally grown and organic foods increases. They are a great way to feed your family healthful, local meals; are fun to attend; and can even save you money.

Since our CSA (community supported agriculture) program isn't yet producing yield, our family went into the farmer's market this morning to get our produce. This early in the season there isn't always a lot of harvested produce available, but the experience is one that we want to share with our children, and we needed to replace some plants which our chickens got ahold of in the garden!

Here are a few tips from our family to yours to help you navigate the waters of the market:

1. For the best selection, get there early; for the best deals, get there late
Our market opens at 7 am, and by 7:30 all of the really neat and unique stuff is likely to be gone. So if you're looking for a special variety of garlic or a particular type of lupine, your best bet is to get there early to beat the crowds. On the other hand, if you're there for the bargain, as I am, getting there late is advantageous. Often farmers will have leftovers that they'd rather unload then bring back to the farm. This is particularly true with perishables like cut flowers or lettuces. Today I bought a $4 bag of organic spinach for $2 because we were there as things were closing down.

2. Remember that this is still grocery shopping... don't abandon your sense of a good deal.  Farmer's markets aren't designed to save you cash inherently- they are designed to support local business by funneling more profit directly to the farmer rather than through an intermediary. This is a very good thing for everyone concerned, but it's easy to get caught up in the experience and WAY overspend. So bring a grocery list that you've prepared and don't stray from it. If you see something great available at the market that you just have to try, then have your meal plan with you as well and make changes. For example, today I was able to get the last bunch of early asparagus. I hadn't included it in my meal plan, but because I brought it along I changed the side dish from one night of the week to be fresh asparagus and bought without reservations.

3. Go to the farmer's market before you go to the grocery store
Because you never know for sure what you're going to see at the market, you should go there first and buy what you can locally, and then head to your grocery store to fill in the gaps. There are some seasonal good bets- in early summer here I can count on seedlings, fiddleheads, spinach, arugula, broccoli, strawberries and carrots, but unless someone has a good greenhouse going I may still need to purchase fresh tomatoes at the grocery store. Going to the farmer's market first allows me to get what I can locally and organically before going to the next best thing.

4. Don't shop with the kiddos, or if you do, go with a plan!
OK, I didn't take my own advice during this morning's jaunt, but at least Daddy was there to help out. I have found that the millions of distractions and general lack of concrete walls to confine kids can be a real challenge (particularly when they know there's a playground just on the other side of the hill, or when one vendor is offering hula-hoops made from recycled materials!). So, I come prepared. I prepare grocery lists for the kids whenever possible, using downloaded pictures from the internet to represent vegetables for my non-readers. This way, they have a job and can keep an eye out for our target produce. I also always bring a wagon because wagons transport produce and children- whichever is the greater need. Snacks are a good bet as well, and cameras can even be great to keep kids entertained while they document their own experience. I also arm my little ones with their own bags to help carry the produce they pick out. Remember to do the little things together- count the plants, choose the bushel of parsnips, and make payments to vendors together. Kids will always stay closer to you the more invested they are in the process. Oh, and take breaks as necessary! (Here we are enjoying the benefits of the park our farmer's market is held in.)

5. Stay as "hands-free" as possible.
Go in streamlined- often markets are set up on narrow pathways in parks or in allies in the city, and you're fighting against crowds to both browse and buy. So only carry what you need to avoid being pushed out of carefully scrutinizing your products. Infant carriers and backpacks are a great option, if applicable!

6. This sounds silly to even mention, but don't forget to bring cash. 
Yes, we live in the new millennium and many vendors really do take debit and credit cards right in their booths, but it's still not smart to count on it. Bring the amount of cash you're likely to need so that you can buy the necessary products, but I don't recommend bringing your whole grocery budget unless you have serious willpower because it's all too easy to see a mint plant, for example, and to overspend in the name of saving money through it's yield all year long. Only buy what you need, with cash. 

7. Buy produce that's in season
Buying what's in season in your area is the best way to get great prices on fresh, local produce. You'll pay for the privilege if you don't. For a list of what's in season in your area, go here.

8. Be flexible. 
I went to the market today in hopes of buying strawberries because I'm having a canning party in two weeks during which time a bunch of friends and I are going to make strawberry jam. Because of the rain and cold weather we've been having though, the strawberry crop isn't ready yet. I'll have to hang on until next week- buying before the crop is really ready is going to cost me a lot more money, so I'm happy to wait.

9. If you're looking for a CSA or regular vendor, go for a couple of weeks before you commit
Not all farmers are at the market all weeks. For the best shopping and price comparing, you'll need to go for several weeks in a row to gather your data. Make a list of what you want to buy and how much it costs so that at the end of your information gathering period you'll be able to compare like products with accuracy. Today our family was looking for a new source of pastured, organic beef and not a single vendor was able to give us price quotes. Next week we may meet five vendors who can meet our needs, so it will pay dividends for us to shop around and be patient.

10. Ask your vendors about bulk options, CSAs or even Facebook!
Oh yes, technology has a place even in the farmer's market. Sometimes vendors want to develop a patronage and so they launch a Facebook page, have an email list, or will even offer Groupons to generate interest. Be sure to ask about ways that the farm is trying to communicate with people- by doing so you can help your local farmer to get the word out about her great products, but can also save yourself some money. Because I referred three friends to my vegetable CSA this year, I was able to get a discount on my share cost. These options can also alert you to upcoming produce deals for the next week, so by knowing in advance you'll be able to plan your meals around what's going to be available. Some vendors also offer bulk options for items they have a lot of, so it's worth the time to ask around. Check out this website to get started.

11. Before you commit to buying in large quantities from one vendor, do your homework!
We'd like to think that everyone at the market is there because they love healthy, whole food, and are dedicated to nourishing families and sustaining the environment. By and large that is certainly true, but occasionally the exception arises and you don't want to fall prey to someone who isn't going to honor a deal. One vendor's pastured pork isn't necessarily the same as another vendor's so to speak, so you want to research before you buy. Check out social media like Facebook or Twitter to see what current customers are saying about your vendor, and ask for references. Buying in bulk or signing up for a CSA is a huge investment, so make sure that you're comfortable with where your money is going before you spend a dime.

Happy shopping!



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