12 Tips to Make the Most of Your Farmers' Market Visit
Some practical advice for the novice market shopper
Now is the time of year for seasonal farmers' markets to start opening and if you've been curious about going but have never tried it, here a few pointers to make your experience a good one. I hope you do take the time and go to a market. It's a wonderful experience and the quality of the produce is so much better than anything you can get in a grocery store.
- Start Now: There isn't a lot on offer this early in spring, especially in the northern climes, but it will give you the opportunity to chat with farmers and get to know them a bit before the really busy season begins. Sure, the farmers see hundreds of people at market each week, but if you become a regular early on, they'll remember you, and it actually matters. Sometimes vendors will pull something special aside for you that they don't have enough to put on the table, sometimes they will give you a price break, sometimes they will weigh something and then top it up for you after you've paid.
- Take Cash: Some vendors may be selling clothing or jewelery, or more expensive preserves and have the capacity to take credit or debit cards, but most farmers take cash only. Small bills are appreciated, especially if you go early before they have made many sales.
- Take Your Own Bags: This may seem like a no-brainer these days, but I'm always amazed at the people who ask for plastic bags at the market.
- Take Your Kids: We used to take our kids to the year round farmers' market in St. Lawrence in Toronto starting when they were tiny. They were early risers, as I believe many children are, going by the number of bleary eyed parents and toddlers we saw each week. We would go to the market at about 6:00 am. and it was always a fantastic experience. First we would stop and get the best back bacon sandwich in the city, then we would go to the juice bar for one of the thirty some-odd kinds of juice you could get, then we would shop and listen to the buskers perform. The St. Lawrence Market is in the oldest part of Toronto and it also houses a wonderful heritage art gallery which has fantastic archival photos and wonderful art work of the city and we visited quite often.
- Check Everything Out First: Don't buy the first thing you see. Take a few minutes to walk through the entire market (they aren't usually too big to do that). There might be slight price variations, but there might also be some variations in quality, and quite frankly, in personalities. As a veteran of the market scene, I now know who I want to shop with, so I go right to their booths, but it took some time for me to decide who I wanted to give my money to.
- Be Wary: Just because a vendor is at a farmers' market doesn't mean they actually grew the produce. If a vendor has an unusual number of different vegetables for sale, they may be purchasing them from other countries and passing them off as their own. You can usually tell, farmers have family (often their children) and friends working the booths, the others feel like businesses. Also, if it is labeled organic, ask some questions, it may be organic from other countries, and you may want local food.
- Talk to Farmers: They are justly proud of what they do. Ask them about their produce. Ask them how they grow it, whether they use pesticides or herbicides. Ask them what vegetables they recommend. Ask them how to cook it, especially if you've never seen it before. Take their advice. One farmer I buy from all the time is ready with all kinds of information for her customers. There is one farmer that sees me coming and knows that I want whatever unusual herb or green he has that week. He has introduced me to stinging nettles, mizuna, peacock kale and all manner of odd greens. When I ask him what to do with something he deadpans, "make tea".
- Time Your Visit: If you can, go early, or go late, according to your desires. Personally, I like to go early, especially when those hard to get items such as fiddleheads, ramps, wild mushrooms and raspberries are coming into what is their very short season. The fear for me is getting there after they are sold out because they are often in short supply. They are also the items that are harder to find in my local market or grocery store. Some people love to go at the end because they feel they can get a great buy from farmers who don't want to haul the vegetables back to their farms. I think this is a case by case basis, and if you want to negotiate with someone, then go for it. If you arrive during the peak middle hours you'll have to deal with larger crowds.
- Be Spontaneous: You can write out a shopping list if you like, but that doesn't mean you'll find what you are looking for. Go at it the other way. Buy what is ready this week, and then plan your meal around that. If you really want to plan ahead, ask when a particular vegetable will be ready for harvest. A farmer can usually tell you when something will be ready for picking.
- Buy What You Can Eat: This is the tough one for me. Everything looks so fabulous and I think, I'll get a little of this and a little of that and the next thing you know I can barely carry home my purchases. Then I put everything out on my kitchen counter and wonder how we are going to eat it all. You really want to buy the amount that you can manage until your next trip to the market, because you really don't want all that beautiful produce to go to waste.
- Go Despite the Weather: The photo above is of the gorgeous new Wychwood Barns, a renovated historic transit barn, which happily is a short walk from my house. It is indoors in the winter and will be moving outside next month. Most seasonal markets are outdoor, which means variations in the weather. It may be rainy, but those vendors will still be there, although some do decline to make the trip into the city in inclement weather. Chances are, you'll have the place to yourself, and you might be able to strike a deal or two with farmers' who want to make a sale.
- Queue Nicely and Be Patient: Vendors mostly sell from large tables and there is often no clear line-up and it can be a bit of a free-for-all. This is my least favourite aspect to the farmers' market. Yes, we all want that beautiful cauliflower, but there are lots of them. Yes, time is important to all of us, not just to you, so don't be be pushy and aggressive. One farmer I go to each week occasionally refuses to serve people who have been pushy and rude to other patrons on the way to his table. If you treat your fellow patrons as members of a like-minded community, the market is a much better place to shop.