Real Food Tips: 10 Pointers for Farmers’ Market Shopping

Farmers’ market season isn’t quite over yet, and we’re actually lucky enough to have a market close by that goes all winter long. It took me almost a year from the first time I ever stepped foot in a farmers’ market (which was just at the beginning of last year!) to figure out there is definitely a method to the madness. So following are some of our best tips to help you navigate and optimize your local market!

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Matthews Farmers’ Market near Charlotte, NC
  1. Find and shop at a grower’s only farmers’ market. This ensures all products are local. Here in Charlotte we love the Matthews Farmers’ Market (pictured) because it is the biggest grower’s only market in the area. I once went to the Charlotte Regional Farmers’ Market, which allows third party vendors, and saw blueberries from Chile for sale.
  2. Ask if the market manager sends out an email or newsletter showing what you can expect to find on upcoming market days because it can be a big help with meal planning.
  3. Arrive as close to the opening time as possible because the “good stuff” can run out fast. I also prioritize my shopping list. For example, if it is the first weekend that greenhouse tomatoes or field-grown corn are available, I go to those vendors first because I know they’ll be gone in no time.
  4. On the flip side if you show up at the end of the market you might find some smashing deals because I guarantee no farmer wants to take their produce back to the farm.
  5. Map out which farmers are certified organic or are not necessarily certified but follow organic practices and be sure to give them most of your business. All you have to do is ask if they use chemical pesticides/fertilizers or more natural methods instead and if you’re at a grower’s only market they will surely know the answer. If you find yourself struggling between the choice of local/conventional produce vs. organic/well-traveled produce…I hate to tell you there is no perfect choice.
  6. If you have kids let them tag along and give them a buck or two to buy something. My 6-year-old daughter would never eat cucumbers at home, but for some reason she likes to buy one herself at the market and take a couple big bites out of it while we are shopping!
  7. If you are looking for something specific ask questions like…Does anyone sell ground beef around here? Do you know where I can find goat cheese? Just because you don’t see a sign for something doesn’t mean they don’t sell it.
  8. Don’t be fooled by the baked goods. Sure the muffins for sale are a far better option than the highly processed ones you’ll find at Starbucks, but chances are most of them are still full of refined grains and sweeteners (like sugar) so just know what you are buying.  It all goes back to asking questions!
  9. Don’t forget to bring cash and reusable shopping bags or a cooler with ice packs if it is a hot day.
  10. Enjoy the sense of community and get to know the hand that grows the food you feed your precious family!

    BONUS TIP (added 6/2015): Once you get the hang of things ask your favorite farmers if you can “reserve” eggs, produce and meat prior to market day (many give out an email address for this purpose). This will save you the trouble of showing up just after they sell out of whatever it is you need – and might even allow you to sleep a little later, too!

If you have any other tips of your own please leave them in the comments below.

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77 thoughts on “Real Food Tips: 10 Pointers for Farmers’ Market Shopping”

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  1. I find many, many of my local farmers now accept debit and credit cards which is awesome! I shop early for best pick, but have also gone later for better deals. Don’t overlook the “ugly fruit” which may be slightly bruised – I have gotten very good deals on them which I use mostly for jams and other canning, like peach slices. Ask your farmer about his farming practices; many of them are more than willing to discuss that with you. Don’t like what you hear from one, move to another.

  2. Many of the local farmers here who come to the grower’s market will sell shares. For a flat fee, they will deliver a box of their best stuff each week.

  3. Great tips! We have a year-round Saturday morning farmer’s market at a local park. My husband and I go every week for the bulk of our grocery shopping. We’ve developed relationships with some of our farmers/suppliers to the point where we take them treats at the holidays. And often, a bundle of asparagus, a dozen eggs or a jar of oysters is saved just for us.

    I am on the board for the park’s “friends” group. One of the most common rants I hear from vendors is about people who tie up their time telling them about their diets/allergies and/or who eat a lot of samples then don’t buy anything. Be mindful of their time, especially if the market is busy. Your local farmer is also a businessperson and is supporting his/her family … and in such a wonderful way, by feeding us the good food!

  4. On the cash tip SMALL BILLS and QUARTERS. Most people bring 20’s. Lots of farmers will toss a little bit extra if you pay with exact change at mine they love when I pay in quarters

  5. If you can’t find or reach a grower’s only market, what’s worked for me is a) knowing what fruits and veggies are grown in your area and at what point they’re in season, and b) asking the vendors where things are grown. These two tips together help me avoid the booths that are run by third parties, and I’ve gotten to know some of the vendors personally.

    As for me, I’m new to your blog — saw your book in the bookstore yesterday and was very intrigued! While I haven’t yet completely given up overly-processed foods, I have reduced them severely in the past few years, and will continue to improve in this area. Food has never tasted so good!

  6. I always walk the farmers market once to look at what everybody has and compare prices, then loop through a second time to actually make my purchases. That way I don’t buy asparagus or spinach only to find a vendor two stalls away selling for half the price!

  7. Hello,I am new at this. I haven’t. Started but would love to try it. I realy need to change my way of eating. I am not able to find a farmer’s market were i live. Any suggestions. I live in Addison,IL. Thanks

    1. Nora-

      I don’t think you are too terribly far from Downer’s Grove, but that one is supposed to be excellent, and pretty good sized. They start early May on saturday Mornings. I was just on there website today, and all vendors have to be growers, no third-party.