I strongly dislike shopping. After spending an afternoon wandering a too brightly lit mall with nothing other than a lukewarm cup of overpriced tea from a kiosk, the hours feel wasted, and I feel frustrated. There’s no better way to feel like a conscienceless consumer.
But when I’m filling a tote bag with crisp fall apples, their unwaxed speckled skins rolling around, I get excited at the colorful, edible array of possibilities that stretch beyond the line of farmers market stands. Your gaze ping-pongs to the tempting red of the nearby pomegranates, to the bright orange of the (surprise) oranges, to the subtle yellow of the quinces piled beside the fragrant bundles of cilantro, and your mouth opens slightly in surprised awe. Your hand, holding the produce list for the week, drops to your side. Could you really be enjoying your grocery shopping errand?
However, you might also feel a bit overwhelmed. Depending on when you make your pilgrimage to this promised land of healthful eating, the market might seem more packed with people than produce. Edging around the man waving his Brussels sprout tree like a trophy, your basket is empty, but the scavenger hunt has just begun, and you’re up against some stiff competition. Rather than wandering the perimeter slightly bewildered and more than a little frustrated, here are a few pointers on making the most of your farmers’ market experience.
1. The Proper Prep Work
a. Find a farmers market near you.
Not sure where the closest farmers market is? Visit a source like LocalHarvest’s to find out. Click the bubble beside “Farmers’ Markets” in the “What are you looking for?” box, then type in your location in the box below “Where?” to view farmers markets in your area.
b. Bring an ice chest and possibly ice in hot weather.
If you plan to leave your produce in the car for more than half an hour in warm weather, storing items in a cooler location helps prevent premature bruising or wilting. This is especially important for soft or fragile produce, like strawberries or cilantro.
c. Carry plenty of small bills and change.
Most farmers markets only accept cash, so you’ll want enough of it. Note that some markets also accept food stamps. Change can also come in handy when you have to pay to park your car.
d. Know how much you want to spend—but be flexible.
Set a budget for your shopping, but if an exceptional deal on, say, apples, which will keep for many weeks, comes up, consider spending now to save later. Specialty items, like locally baked bread or pastries, may be more expensive—but also a special treat you should make room for, at least once in a while.
e. Check what’s in your fridge already.
Unless you’re doing a taste test of store-bought tomatoes and local heirloom tomatoes, try not to double up on the same items; look at the produce you currently have.
f. Plan your menu for the week.
…or at least think about what you’ll cook or eat throughout the week. This helps ensure that you and your family will be able to enjoy the produce at its peak, rather than having to throw it away because you couldn’t use it soon enough.
g. Plan when to go.
Go close to opening or closing time, but don’t go in the middle of the market schedule. It’s likely to be busy without any other advantages. If you go early, the market will probably be less crowded, with a better selection of produce. The cons are that you’ll be paying full price for your purchases (and you might have to wake up fairly early). If you visit the market close to closing time, the location will probably be more crowded, and selection might be limited (more people have pawed through the produce), but you may get a better deal on remaining items, as farmers want to avoid taking extra produce back home at their own expense.
2. In the Thick of It
a. Park in the shade if the weather is warm (see 1.b for related advice).
b. Before seriously shopping, walk around the market once.
Pay attention to 1) what’s available out of the items on your list, 2) approximate prices for the items you want. For example, you don’t want to pay extra for fresh strawberries, just because they’re at the stand closest to the entrance.
c. Consider when you’re going to buy what (no winter squash on top of fresh herbs).
Your first priority might be purchasing blueberries (this is mine!), but they shouldn’t be the first item in your bag. They’ll be the last thing you want to eat when you recover their crushed remains later, buried beneath a heavy load of butternut squash, Asian pears and perhaps a few rutabagas. Plan to buy more fragile produce, like herbs and berries, last, and layer them carefully in your bag—or even better, separate bags. You don’t want to invent a fruit-and-vegetable lasagna in your tote.
d. Talk to the farmers.
These people know their produce. And, if the line of customers behind you isn’t too long, they’re happy to tell you about their merchandise. If you come regularly to their stand, you might get to know the vendors a bit better, and have an “in” on the latest agricultural news. You never know when this could come in handy.
Best questions to ask?
- Do you spray your produce (do they use chemical pesticides, herbicides or insecticides)? This is a better question to ask than “Are you organic?” Some farmers may not be certified as organic—it’s a long, sometimes expensive process—but may use organic methods of cultivation. While organic certification guarantees that crops can’t be sprayed (except with more “natural” options), it’s also good to support farmers who use organic practices (do see the footnote) .
- What do you recommend/What’s in season now?
- How do I know when [insert name of fruit or vegetable] is ripe?
- What can I do with this [insert name of fruit or vegetable]? This is an especially good question when trying a new item, something you should do anyway (see next tip).
e. Try at least one new item a week.
Step outside your cooking comfort zone. Whether this means trying fresh beets for the first time, or making sweet and spicy kabocha squash, open your horizon to new foods, and ways to eat them. If kids can learn to like Brussels sprouts, you might learn to as well—when they’re freshly harvested, then roasted to slightly browned perfection with garlic and lemon. If you need ideas about cooking methods, consider learning from Deborah Madison, chef and author of one of the best fundamental guides to cooking with fresh produce, “Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone .”
f. Be polite to those around you; wait your turn in line without complaining.
You’re not at Starbucks, after all. It never hurts to be nice.
3. You’re Home. Your Produce is Home. Now What?
a. Put any unripe fruits like plums or peaches in a single layer on a kitchen towel on the counter to let them ripen to perfection.
Just make sure you check them every day or so to avoid adding mold to their flavor profile!
b. Put ripe produce in your refrigerator if you’re not going to use it within a few days.
Place paper towels in their plastic bags to absorb any moisture.
c. Look up specific items, such as herbs, if you’re not sure about the best way to store them.
Farmers markets make shopping for groceries more than simply checking items off a list. Think of it as a foray into the farmers’ fields, a hands-on way of trying new foods, and of course, a great way to meet your five-a-day (or more) quota. Even if you completely disregard this field guide to farmers markets, just go to one. Then write your own advice manual.
For more information, be sure to check out: Farmers Markets: A Field Guide, Part I Mayo Clinic staff, “Organic foods: Are they safer? More nutritious?” Mayo Clinic, accessed Nov. 11, 2012.  Deborah Madison, “Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone.”  “Spoiled Rotten – How to Store Fruits and Vegetables,” Vegetarian Times, accessed Nov. 11, 2012.