Best Sources for Summer Produce

The summer harvest season has finally begun here in Boston. Near my house, Farmers' markets are popping up, brimming with fresh greens, ripe strawberries, and luscious radishes. Our first CSA share delivery of the season arrived last week. And my garden has started to cough up a few plump berries and herbs.

Make friends with the farmers
My family loves vegetables. The kids love kale chips and fresh strawberries. We all eat sugar snap peas by the fistful. Later in the summer, my husband and I will haul in the tomatoes that are just starting to grow in our yard and make as much salsa as we can.

Since we love vegetables so much, every summer I look for ways to economize on our fresh vegetables. There are two main aspects to this project: getting a good deal on the veggies, and making good use of them.

To get your veggies, you have several options:

Grow Your Own
J.D. has written extensively about the benefits, financial and otherwise, of growing a vegetable garden. Growing your own veggies is awesome. The more DIY you can be about it, the better deal you'll get. For example, I paid about twenty-five cents for a packet of tomato seeds this spring that I grew half a dozen tomato plants from. When a few of them failed to thrive, I bought seedlings from my local garden shop. They cost $4 for a flat of six. Still a lot cheaper than buying fresh tomatoes, but much, much more expensive than starting from seed.

I find that growing your own vegetables is the most economical way to enjoy fresh summer produce, once you have a garden in place. Setting up your garden beds, buying tools and learning the ropes can be pricey the first year. After that, you're looking at relatively small expenses for a lot of very high-quality produce.

If you have the time to invest in gardening. As one of my gardening guru friends likes to say, you can't do half the work and get half the benefit. I'm a bit of a slacker gardener, and I still grow great veggies. But I don't get nearly the haul my friend gets from the same amount of space, because I don't put as much work into it as she does. I just plant some stuff and let it grow.

Not everyone can maintain a vegetable garden. Some people don't have the space. Some don't have the time. Some just really don't enjoy gardening. If you're not going to grow your own garden, you may want to get creative about how you buy your veggies.

Sign Up For A CSA
A CSA, or community-supported agriculture, is a program where a local farm sells shares of its summer produce directly to consumers. You buy a share for the season, paying up front. Then you get a weekly delivery of vegetables straight from the farm. You're participating in the fortunes of the farm. If they have a great harvest, you get an abundance of produce at a great price. If it's a lean growing season, you'll get less.

It's a great way to get fresh, local produce, but there are a few caveats.

For one thing, you need to be adventurous in your love of vegetables. You'll get not only fresh heads of lettuce and juicy tomatoes, but a little of everything your farm grows. Kohlrabi. Brussels sprouts. Garlic. Sometimes we get vegetables in our share that I can't even identify. This works for me because no one in my house is a particularly picky eater. We like trying new foods, and find a wide variety of vegetables exciting. But if you'd prefer to stick with your two or three favorites, a farm share might not be for you.

In addition to the adventuresome nature of a CSA, you want to be sure a farm share is a good value for you. I've experimented with several CSAs over the years. I found that they vary widely in value. They all cost different amounts, and you get different quantities of vegetables. Find out what the rough size of your share will be each week and do some math to compare those prices to your local farmer's market or grocery store. Are you really getting the better deal?

The answer seems to be “usually”. Organic CSAs tend to be more expensive than conventional ones, but also a better bargain: you pay less for your organic produce getting it from a CSA than you would buying it at Whole Foods. At least in my neighborhood. Again, each farm share varies. The important thing is to do the math. Don't assume it's a good deal just because you're getting it in bulk.

For a farm share to be a really good deal, you have to be sure you'll use your full share of veggies each week. It's like buying anything in bulk: it's only a bargain if you use it. Seriously consider how many vegetables your family will eat, and how much time you're willing to spend preparing and preserving your goodies. A farm share is a big commitment. If you let the produce go to waste, you're wasting your grocery money as well.

Shop Farmers' Markets
Farmers' markets aren't exactly a cheap source of summer produce, but they're still often a great value. You may pay a little more for your food at a farmers' market than you would at the local supermarket, but you're getting much fresher, higher-quality produce. Often you'll get things you just can't find in the store.

To get the best deals at your farmers' market, get to know the farmers who sell there each week. Ask about buying seconds quality produce, like bruised peaches or tomatoes. They're not as pretty as the premium stuff, but they make great jams and sauces.

However you decide to get your summer produce, you'll want to take care with how you use it. Getting a good deal on fruit and vegetables is just the first part of the equation. Next week I'll talk about money-saving strategies for using and preserving your summer bounty so you can enjoy it all year long.

More about...Food, Frugality

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No Debt MBA
No Debt MBA
9 years ago

We’ve done both a CSA and shopped at farmers markets. The CSA definitely forces you to try all sorts of new produce and get creative with your cooking. The farmers market gives you more flexibility but the price per pound probably isn’t as good as the CSA.

sarah
sarah
9 years ago

I’ve written a couple of posts lately about how to make best use of your CSA box – I guess it’s that time of year! For me, blanching and freezing a lot of the greens is a big help. My husband and I get a full share, and even eating sauteed greens a few times a week, there’s still something left over. In the winter it’s nice to have little bags of frozen organic kale, chard, etc to throw in soups or thaw and put into a lasagna. One thing you didn’t mention is the pick your own places and… Read more »

indio
indio
9 years ago

It started as a hobby but now I grow our own food as a way to save money, since we eat everything organic. We rarely dine out because most of the veggies and fruits we love to eat are on the “dirty dozen” list, ie spinach, strawberries, broccoli. When they are grown at home from seed, I know definitively that they are organic. Even at a farmers market most of the produce isn’t organic, unless it is clearly marked. Some farmers will say they practice “low spray” methods but it’s still pesticides, just now 30 different pesticides. I visit two… Read more »

Diane
Diane
9 years ago

I love it when people say you pay “a bit more” for farmer’s market produce. It’s often 2 or 3 times as much, especially for meat. That’s usually fine with me, for the reasons we all know, and fortunately the markets in my area accept WIC and food stamps. But when my husband was unemployed for a year, we had to stop shopping at the farmer’s market, except for eggs, which we refused to compromise on because we want our food animals to be happy (we ate a lot more vegetarian that year). Shopping at the farmer’s market is one… Read more »

Elle
Elle
9 years ago

We signed up for our a CSA delivery service this year and so far, it’s been great. Like you’ve mentioned, you can get some different produce options, but it’s a great way for us to try different things.

My favorite part of the program is that we order weekly, so if it gets to be too much food for us, we can skip a week or two.

Justin @ MoneyIsTheRoot
Justin @ MoneyIsTheRoot
9 years ago

Farmers markets are becoming increasingly popular…you can save a lot of money on fresh produce if you dont mind going out of your way to shop here in addition to your grocery store…i know most people prefer convenience, but they are certainly something to consider. My city has been pushing a farmers market the past couple summers, they continue to change locations in order to get it moving, hopefully it does.

Dotty dot dot
Dotty dot dot
9 years ago

For those who want to garden but don’t have the space, seeking out a plot in a community garden (if available) can be a great option. I did that this year. I’ve rented a 400sq.ft. plot for $40CDN and am growing zucchini, eggplants, cabbage, cucumbers, peppers, tomatoes, and herbs galore. What I wasn’t anticipating but have found the most enjoyable is actually the “community” aspect of community gardens. Everyone is unbelievably nice, shares their tools and tips (significantly cutting down on start-up costs), and even their produce. We’ve also been unbelievably lucky in that our city has installed hoses on… Read more »

Crystal
Crystal
9 years ago

We are growing our own tomatoes right now and I just saw the first one turning pink this morning! Woot!

Lyn
Lyn
9 years ago

“As one of my gardening guru friends likes to say, you can’t do half the work and get half the benefit.” Actually, you can. In fact, over time you can do 1/10 of the work and get half or more of the benefit. The secret? (She asks, sounding a bit like that scene in The Graduate . . . ) Perennials, my friend. Over time, perennials like herbs, fruit trees and some veggies (asparagus, artichokes, red runner beans and sea kale, for example) will continue putting out a yearly bounty with little to no additional effort. Plant these in the… Read more »

Kate
Kate
9 years ago

We are moving in a couple months so I didn’t bother to try to plant anything. Our soil is so crummy that I’d have to seriously enhance it or just go with containers anyway. I’m looking forward to starting a beginning garden next year in our new place.

Sadly, we don’t have a farmer’s market CSAs or anything similar where we currently live. That’s another thing I’m looking forward to when we move.

Frugal Mama
Frugal Mama
9 years ago

Hi Sierra,

We often hear this advice, but it’s nice to hear it boiled down into a simple list — and from someone who has personal experience with all of it.

I wish I could take a bite of one of those home-grown tomatoes!

Amy

Tyler Karaszewski
Tyler Karaszewski
9 years ago

This post is more about “how to be like Sierra” than how to save money, or anything financial. I’m not criticizing her lifestyle — I’m just saying that this isn’t a finance post, or even really a post about food (it doesn’t even mention a grocery store even in terms of a base to compare against). The “best choices” presented have the following three minor caveats: 1) Takes months before you get your vegetables. 2) You don’t even get to pick what food you’re getting. 3) Way more expensive. The only list that these three choices would come out at… Read more »

Charlotte
Charlotte
9 years ago

If we are talking about the BEST VALUE then she forgot to mention the produce stand. A stand alone (or permanent) small market that pops up in the summer in empty parking lots. These I found are the best value – in quality and price. JD even found this to be true: https://www.getrichslowly.org/grocery-store-vs-farmers-market-which-has-the-cheapest-produce/ So yes, this articles seems more like where to find the best quality or how to support the local farms. That said, I LOVE farmers markets, CSA, and growing my own vegetables. I do a little of everything but mostly because of quality, regardless of financial implications.… Read more »

Karen
Karen
9 years ago

Totally agree. I’d be really surprised if buying whatever’s on sale at the supermarket is not the cheapest, fastest, and easiest way to get produce.

Hunter
Hunter
9 years ago

Farmers Markets are great. But I find that just being outdoors, without climate control, can spoil a lot of the produce if it has been on display for a while.

cathleen
cathleen
9 years ago

I bought (2) 4×8 raised beds this year from minifarmbox.com and I love them! I’m in the Bay Area and we’ve had an unusually cold spring (50 degrees and rain) but the veggies are doing great in the beds, with lots of compost. They look so neat and hold so much. I do a variation on square foot gardening and French intensive planting. My husband brought home a stainless steel storage rack he found, we set it up with grow lights and heating mats (<$100 total) and now I'm starting seeds every week or two, which I transplant out into… Read more »

DJ W.
DJ W.
9 years ago

We utilize our downtown Farmer’s Market. My wife is fortunate enough to have a college roomate who’s parents own a large farm near us. We are never at a loss for strawberries, peaches, and other fresh fruit and veggies when they come in season. Makes me happy just thinking about it!

El Nerdo
El Nerdo
9 years ago

In my area, farmers markets are boutique affairs that do not necessarily offer better value– they often have scrawny produce that costs even more than my local hippie Co-OP, which is already very expensive. 4 skinny carrots for $3? No thanks. So I get my produce at Costco– they have pesticide-free tomatos, organic carrots, pesticide-free hydroponic lettuce, and some stuff that doesn’t terribly really need to be organic or wouldn’t grow here anyway (mangos, pineapples, watermelons). Also, frozen spinach and berries at Trader Joe’s, organic or pesticide-free. It’s all good an cheap though certainly not foo-foo. Yes, it’s not as… Read more »

Eric
Eric
9 years ago
Reply to  El Nerdo

My sentiments below are about the same as what you’re seeing for the hippie stuff. Farmer’s markets in some areas are cheaper, but in others are aimed at foodies who are willing to pay more.

The bakery may have solar panels or something to supplement electricity. Or they’re actually saving enough on growing their own (and charging a premium for gourmet ingredients) that they can support this.

That, or the whole thing is a front for a marijuana growing operation, and they’re making bank on selling it (and then selling sandwiches to the same clients who are hungry). LOL.

El Nerdo
El Nerdo
9 years ago
Reply to  Eric

Ha ha yes that’s what I though– the real “profit center” is behind closed doors 😀

Jane
Jane
9 years ago
Reply to  El Nerdo

I just went to our local farmer’s market yesterday, and while I enjoy the environment and the experience, the frugalista in me is appalled at the prices. We were a member of a CSA nearby for two summers but quit when they raised the prices by over 50%. I guess because local is becoming so hip and they had a waiting list they felt like they wanted to maximize their profits. I guess I can’t blame them since there is a demand, but we just couldn’t justify the cost anymore since we have all kinds of things we are saving… Read more »

jlg3rd
jlg3rd
9 years ago
Reply to  Jane

Jane I hear you on the price difference! For my partner and I it’s a no brainer, we shop at the local farmers market and have no problem paying the price difference. We support local growers and we know that the produce we are getting is far superior to any produce at a super market. I think people tend to forget they need to keep their inside just a beautiful as the outside….some food for thought!

ali
ali
9 years ago
Reply to  Jane

I like buying at the farmer’s market because I get to know the people.

Plus a lot of kids are there helping their parents. And I bought onions from a boy who explained that the veggies were fresh picked that morning. “I got up at 5 am and picked those and prepped them!” He was really proud of it and I was glad to pay a little extra for onions (which honestly I can’t get young ones like that at the grocery store) from such a great kid.

Jane
Jane
9 years ago
Reply to  ali

Oh, I agree that it’s heart warming to see families doing the work together. We toured our CSA a few years back, and it was a young couple who had kids. The honey I just bought was from a mother/daughter booth. But it’s not usually paying just a “little more” as you put it. It is significantly more, and if I have to choose between staying within my grocery budget and getting the warm fuzzies from buying from a little kid, I think I’ll take the former! @jlg3rd As far as quality, on some things I definitely notice a difference.… Read more »

Eric
Eric
9 years ago

Honestly, where are people living that farmer’s markets are the cheap option? They’re very plentiful where I live (Washington DC area), but since they’re trendy, everything is way more expensive than the store. Many of our grocery stores tend to get their produce locally if possible[0], it’s the same thing cheaper at the store. And I see an option missing that is VERY useful in my area, and increasingly other parts of the U.S. “Ethnic” markets. If you have any sizable immigrant population in your area, there’s often a local market catering to specific food needs a national grocery chain… Read more »

El Nerdo
El Nerdo
9 years ago
Reply to  Eric

Oh, I used to live in DC just across the street from the Mount Pleasant Farmer’s Market, I’m still on their mailing list for nostalgia value, haa haa haa. There was some nice stuff, I’m sure it’s grown over the years, but it’s not a place to get your staples.

PS- beware of bell peppers, they are one of the most heavily sprayed crops along with celery. Peppers might be worth growing at home.

Eric
Eric
9 years ago
Reply to  El Nerdo

Didn’t know that about peppers. Ugh, this is why I need to buy a house with a yard instead of living in a high rise apt. (Oh wait, can’t afford that in DC either!)

Most of the celery I get is hydroponic due to sheer availability (thank you Costco and Trader Joe’s!). Oddly, the organic celery at Whole Foods often is the same price or only a tiny bit more than regular stuff at Giant or Safeway.

mary w
mary w
9 years ago

If your looking for the cheapest produce Costco and ethnic markets are your best bet. I shopped at a local Mexican market yesterday. Purchased kiwi 10 for $1, tomatillos 50 cents a lb and jalapenos 69 cents a lb. Soon I’ll be harvesting my own tomatillos and chilies but this will do until then.

I do enjoy my farmer’s market but buy much less than I did before I started gardening.

Amanda
Amanda
9 years ago

This article is boring to me. Not looking forward to next week. =)

ali
ali
9 years ago

Seirra actually says (in bold) “Farmer’s markets aren’t exactly a cheap source for summer produce” so people who are griping that she’s saying it’s a cheap source need to re-read. Farmer’s markets and CSAs are a lot like most things – it depends on where you live and what’s available. Obviously what’s true for one person living in one area is not going to be true for others. So, just because this information doesn’t work for someone in particular doesn’t mean that it’s invaild or the writer is wrong. For example, I recently moved and where I live there’s a… Read more »

ali
ali
9 years ago
Reply to  Sierra Black

There’s also options like U Pick. There’s a local strawberry farm that sells strawberries $4/quart pre picked or $2.50/quart U pick. Obviously you have to decide if you want to pick your own. Also there’s the size of the strawberries. At the farmer’s market last Saturday everyone had them priced $4/quart. Picked from a friend of the seller (who was explaining it wasn’t from the U Pick place). Strawberries at the grocery store were $2.99 for a lb. The grocery store strawberries were much bigger than the home grown farmer’s market strawberries. I didn’t buy any at the farmer’s market… Read more »

Karen
Karen
9 years ago
Reply to  Sierra Black

I think it would be more useful than this to do an article just about CSAs– how much they cost, how much you get– maybe do one for a whole season. I got one for $400 this year and the amount of produce is kind of overwhelming, so I would have preferred a half share for $200, but they don’t offer that.

Stefanie
Stefanie
9 years ago

Farmers Markets’ prices depend on where they are, where the farmers are located in relation, etc. Sometimes they are costlier than grocery stores, and sometimes they are way cheaper. It depends on the specific kind of produce for our local markets – and the make-up of the markets themselves (I live in Portland, OR). For example, fava beans at $2/ lb. are amazing and I can’t even find them anywhere else. 75 cents per zucchini, on the other hand, is pricey for me. I am on food stamps and am very good about stretching our food dollars, so I know… Read more »

ali
ali
9 years ago
Reply to  Stefanie

The farmer’s market here accepts EBT. Actually what they have is a mobile device where you slide your card and get tokens in exchange – either EBT or Debit.

I think where I lived before some of the markets did something similar.

PawPrint
PawPrint
9 years ago
Reply to  Stefanie

We have the food stamp matching program in our town, too, although it’s up to $10. The program isn’t advertised well, though, plus many people on food stamps don’t have access to transportation downtown where our farmer’s market is located. One of the farmer’s accepts EBT card for CSA shares (no matching funds). It’s too bad when people who want to buy fresh, organic food and support small, local farms can’t because they’re on food stamps.

Bareheadedwoman
Bareheadedwoman
9 years ago
Reply to  Stefanie

I live in a middle income immigrant neighborhood in a big city, and there’s huge yuppie/hippie/eco farmers’ market in various city parks in affluent neighborhoods, that can be cheaper than city grocery but is pretty much on par price-wise, although the quality–especially of local/org not typically avail in the stores, is much better (better value for money rather than less money). But these are well known and the crowds of tourists can ruin a morning. We also have great cheap produce in the immigrant stores but like mentioned, a lot of these are from overseas and the more I read… Read more »

Harmony
Harmony
9 years ago

I have always found Farmers Markets to be more expensive than the grocery store. When people rave about the “better tasting” produce it seams like the food version of buying brand name drugs instead of generic. People are conviced that brand name work better, despite evidence that they are the same.

jlg3rd
jlg3rd
9 years ago
Reply to  Harmony

You must live where the farmer markets aren’t good. There is a huge difference in taste from my local farmer market and the grocery store! Nothing brand name about the produce I consume, the stuff from a grocery store is pure garbage. The price difference isn’t that big either.

20 and Engaged
20 and Engaged
9 years ago

My father-in-law started us off with a vegetable garden and it’s getting huge! Who needs big flowers when you have zucchini the size of chihuahuas growing in your garden?! I’m excited to pick the produce.

Pamela
Pamela
9 years ago

I second Ali’s comment about trying pick-your-own places. The savings are excellent if you want a large quantity to preserve at home. Also, some CSAs allow you to buy a discounted share if you work some hours at the farm. Frugalistas with a little time on their hands might want to see if that’s an option with their local CSAs. Finally, I’ve gotten really good prices at the Farmer’s Market by buying bulk items. I order storage potatoes in the fall for about half the usual price just by paying up front. And fruit, which is so highly perishable, can… Read more »

Anne Cross
Anne Cross
9 years ago

The farmers markets in my area are really expensive and filled with hostile uptight boutique farmers (who are probably all ivy leaguers) and shoppers. The cheapest option for good fruit and veg in my neck of the woods (western mass/northwest ct) are the fruit and vegetable stores run by immigrants. They sell local produce with some dings and dents, but perfectly acceptable and way less expensive than grocery stores or farmers markets. We have places run by Russians, Italians, and Turks — and they also have lots of interesting non-fruit and veg stuff from their countries. They keep the places… Read more »

El Nerdo
El Nerdo
9 years ago
Reply to  Anne Cross

I loved this post.

Brigitte
Brigitte
9 years ago

The Growing Washington CSA lets you pick what goes in your box. No chance of getting things to which we are allergic, or just don’t care for! I’ve heard of a number of CSAs around the country going this route. The upside is, I get to choose what we get each week! The downside is, I have to choose what we get Each Week–some people may find this tedious, or simply No Fun. (Since Box Pick day is also Food Bank day, it actually works out–if we scored big on lettuce, I know not to get any in the box… Read more »

ali
ali
9 years ago

Also for people who want to support small farmers, you can do that by buying some national brands. It might not be local farmers, but still small farmers.

For example Cabot Diary is a co-op and dairies of all sizes supply them milk for their milk and cheese.

Organic Valley is also supplied by small dairies.

I’m sure there are others but those are the top of my mind.

Bella
Bella
9 years ago

I am consistently amazed at how people who live in places like Boston or Portland go on about how to save money on fresh produce. Can someone who lives where produce is actually EXPENSIVE give me some hints? I realize that living in the desert southwest means that I’m already not doing the most environmentally sound thing to do but spending an outrageous amount of time, money (and precious water resources) to grow my own food is NOT A WIN! We also LOVE veggies in our house – so I buy A LOT of frozen. Having grown up in Jersey… Read more »

Miss T @ Prairie Eco-Thrifter
Miss T @ Prairie Eco-Thrifter
9 years ago

For the past two years we have grown a garden and participated in a CSA. We love it and would never go back. Not only does the stuff taste amazing but knowing where it comes from and what’s on it is huge too. We have been quite successful; last year we had over 400 tomatoes alone.

We also shop at the farmers markets but not often since our produce supply is usually pretty stocked up.

Cissa
Cissa
9 years ago

Re: CSAs: Be aware that if the same farm is both doing a CSA AND selling at a farmer’s market, they have a serious temptation to scant the CSA shares- which are already paid for- in favor of selling at the market- for which they get additional money. In one CSA, our share size dropped to HALF what it was as soon as the farm got a farmers’ market booth. Why give us 4 zucchinis when they could give us 2 and sell the others? after all, we’d already paid!

Alana
Alana
8 years ago

I’m a little surprised to see a website like GetRichSlowly recommending farmers’ markets. Every time I’ve gone to one, I end up spending about 5 times as much on groceries! Sure, the food is tasty, but I can’t afford to do that all the time.

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