The savvy shopper’s guide to the farmers’ market

The savvy shopper’s guide to the farmers’ market

Shopping at a farmers' market is a great way to eat healthier and support local agriculture, but if you've ever been to one, you know that the food isn't cheap.

When you're used to fairly inexpensive tomatoes from the supermarket, the price of locally-grown, heirloom tomatoes can be a bit of a shock, leading some consumers to wonder what makes the market tomatoes so much pricier.

J.D.'s note: Three years ago, I did a survey of my local area to find out where to buy the cheapest produce. Farmers' markets and grocery stores were roughly equivalent here in Portland, Oregon. The real cheap stuff was to be found at roadside produce stands.

The thing is, the farmers' market prices are the true cost of food. In Getting Real About the High Price of Cheap Food, author Bryan Walsh writes:

The U.S. agricultural industry can now produce unlimited quantities of meat and grains at remarkably cheap prices. But it does so at a high cost to the environment, animals, and humans…our food is increasingly bad for us, even dangerous. A series of recalls involving contaminated foods [in 2009] — including an outbreak of salmonella from tainted peanuts that killed at least eight people and sickened 600 — has consumers rightly worried about the safety of their meals. A food system — from seed to 7‑Eleven — that generates cheap, filling food at the literal expense of healthier produce is also a principal cause of America's obesity epidemic.

Cheap food is often unhealthy food, but most of us have a bottom line, a household budget of some sort that we have to keep in mind. There are ways to make farmers' market food work within your budget, though. Use the following tips to make the most of your market purchases.

Go Early for the Best Selection, Arrive Late for the Best Deals

Farmers don't want to pack up leftover goods and drive them back to the farm, especially perishables like fruit and produce. You're likely to find farmers discounting their goods if you arrive closer to closing. Because farmers work long, labor-intensive hours, my preference is to not haggle, but many vendors don't mind at all.

Stop by the Information Booth First

If it's your first time at a market, go to the information booth. The volunteers will alert you to deals, coupons, and other specials. Some markets have frequent buyer programs that give discounts to regulars. My city has a “Go Local” card that can be purchased for $10 and offers discounts at the market and at most local businesses around town.

The information booth is a good place to ask about a tasting booth, as well. Usually vendors are not permitted to offer samples at their booth, but can provide samples at a designated sampling table. Finally, the information booth at some markets functions as an ATM if you don't have cash and some even accept food stamp cards.

Make Friends with the Farmers

If you want to get the inside track at the market, befriend the vendors. Take a few minutes to say hello and chat about the produce. Also, make their lives easier by keeping in mind the following:

  • Bring reusable bags to carry your groceries. This keeps expenses down for the farmers.
  • Pay in cash, preferably with small bills for less expensive items. Farmers run out of one-dollar bills quickly, and they're always happy when they get exact change.

One time a vendor lowered my bill just because he was happy to receive so many one-dollar bills!

Prioritize Your Purchases

If you can't afford to buy all of your groceries at the market, decide how much you can spend and stick to that. It doesn't have to be all or nothing. Start with fruits and vegetables, which are inexpensive in comparison to specialty items like bread, seasoned meat, jam, honey, and olive oil.

Properly Pack Your Groceries as You Shop

Local isn't cheap, so make sure your groceries make it home. As you shop, pack your bags carefully, taking obvious precautions, such as packing the heavier items at the bottom of the bag. Plan ahead if you're going to buy anything that comes in a glass bottle or jar, such as olive oil, vinegar, and jam, to prevent breakage. Finally, if you need to run other errands after going to the market, bring a cooler and ice to keep items frozen and/or refrigerated.

Don't Let Food Go to Waste

It's easier said than done, but a good way to make your market dollars stretch is to actually eat what you've bought. I still struggle with this sometimes, but a few pointers that reduce the amount of food lost to spoilage include the following:

  • Keep in mind how much your family will actually eat in a given week. There's no need to dip into your savings account unnecessarily, so try not to overbuy.
  • Plan ahead. On the weekend, wash and cut lettuce to make it easier to take a salad to lunch. Slice up carrots and other veggies. Make it convenient to eat what you've bought.
  • Foods like meat, cheeses, and certain breads can be frozen if you know you won't eat them anytime soon.
  • Shop cooperatively. Go in on food with friends, neighbors, or family members. For example, I love buying a loaf of pecan raisin bread each week, but sometimes my husband and I don't finish the whole thing. Rather than let it go bad, we split a loaf with my parents.
  • Use as much as you can of what you buy. Buying chicken?

Finally, know what to do with persimmons. Okay, not persimmons specifically, but make sure you know what you can do with the food that you buy, or it's likely to sit in the pantry until it has to be thrown out. Buy cookbooks ordered by seasons. Two of my favorites are Local Flavors: Cooking and Eating from America's Farmers' Markets and Jamie at Home: Cook Your Way to the Good Life, but there are a lot of good ones out there.

J.D.'s note: This is a great place for me to plug Simply in Season, a cookbook written by one of my high-school friends. I'm proud of what Cathy has done with this book, and I keep meaning to interview her for GRS but haven't gotten around to it.

Another great resource is Epicurious: Just type in the ingredient (like persimmons) and pick a recipe that appeals to you. The best resource of all, however, is the farmers themselves. Some have recipe cards at their booth, but even if they don't, ask them for advice, and you're sure to get an earful.

The poultry vendor at my market was a chef in the south of France. You can bet I get great advice from him, and I'm not about to let food spoil after he's given me so many mouth-watering ideas. Just be willing to come back the next week to share how it went with them!

What about you? Do you shop at a farmers' market? Do you have any tips to save money and stretch your dollars at the market? Also see How to Eat Healthy While Keeping it Cheap for additional tips on how to eat healthy on a budget.

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Lise
Lise
10 years ago

I ***LOVE*** the “Simply in Season” cookbook! I got it for Christmas and have made many recipes from it so far.

You must have had quite a high-school class…

Elizabeth
Elizabeth
10 years ago

Great ideas 🙂 I second the point about talking to the farmers. I’ve found they can be very accommodating — especially for me who is often shopping for one. Our market often carries mixed fruit or vegetable baskets, for example. If I don’t see them, the farmers can make one up. Savings for me, and less wasteful! One tip I’d like to share is to do a “once over” when you get there. Find out what the prices are like at each vendor, and who is carrying local food versus imported. Yes, it pays to comparison shop at the market… Read more »

Anna
Anna
10 years ago

Of course I agree that it’s better to buy local, etc, etc, but I wish people would stop talking about “the obesity epidemic”. There are people of all sizes who eat poorly, and all that does is demonize fat people.

Lily (capital L)
Lily (capital L)
10 years ago

In Italy, at least where I live, the farmer’s market is dirty cheap! Cheaper than the supermarket.

Deborah Johnson
Deborah Johnson
10 years ago

I agree with Elizabeth about doing a “once over” when you first arrive at the market. In addition to looking for cheaper prices, I also check out the freshness and look of the produce.

I bought a CSA (community supported agriculture) share last year and loved it. I got a lot of food for my money.

David
David
10 years ago

Don’t forget the meat! Grass-fed beed taste so much better than the stuff you usually get from the store. I also had some farmer’s market pork chorizo this morning that is out of this world! (and I’ve had plenty of chorizo in Mexico)

Chickybeth
Chickybeth
10 years ago

I love the Farmer’s Market near my town (http://www.howell.org/19.html). Most produce is actually a lot cheaper (and tastier) than in the grocery store. The exception to cheaper would probably be potatoes. However, they seem to last a month or more without going bad, unlike the grocery store potatoes which probably already sat for a month before you buy them. The tip above about going in bad weather is great too because the vendors that have traveled a long way won’t just pack up so they are happy for the business. I can’t wait for next Sunday because I am going… Read more »

LauraE
LauraE
10 years ago

Here is a link to find farmer’s markets in the US. I don’t know if the information provided inlcudes Alaska and HI.

www dot localharvest dot org

Nikki
Nikki
10 years ago

We live in NC and our farmers market is way cheaper than the grocery store. I just purchased pepper starters cheap and all my produce. It definitely helps to purchase the items in season. Sometimes our farmers have fruits and veggies done in greenhouses not in season and those are not as cheap as when it is season. So researching what grows when heps to know what items are fresh and what items might be greenhouse.

Allison
Allison
10 years ago

I love farmer’s markets! I will second the suggestion to shop at the end of the day for some great deals. It’s good to keep in mind that even if one vendor has lower prices, another vendor might throw in free extras. One of the stands at my local market gives away a ton of fruit toward the end of the morning. My big recommendation is to make a morning of it. Turn a visit into the day’s entertainment. The vendors at the market I visit have tons of free samples. I usually go and eat breakfast or lunch, have… Read more »

Michele
Michele
10 years ago

I love going to roadside stands but you really do have to watch the prices. Many price the same as the grocery store so its not a savings. My favorite place to shop is the Westside Market in Cleveland, Ohio. They are a large indoor market. They are only open Mon, Wed, Fri and Sat. The best deals are near closing on Satudays, when they are trying to clear out their stands.

Elizabeth
Elizabeth
10 years ago

@ Michele — I’ve found the same thing about watching the prices. I often check grocery store flyers before I head out on my market trip, just in case.

Sometimes you can save more if you go to the farm itself. Last year, I went strawberry picking and saved more than going to the market or buying at the store. Our area has a map of farms where you can visit and buy produce on site. It might make a fun outing for a Saturday, but it’s probably not as practical if you’re grocery shopping.

Alex
Alex
10 years ago

We bought ramps this past weekend – and asked the owner what to do with them. He stopped closing his stand to give us a 10 minute lecture on the different options of what to do with them.

They were delicious! (And we intend to go back next weekend to tell him so!)

questioner
questioner
10 years ago

the price at a farmers market often reflects the clientele they are catering to. For example, in Washington, DC, the most expensive markets are in the most expensive neighborhoods. Often the same farmers sell to less-well off neighborhoods but they bring their less perfect-looking produce. Still tasty and healthy! And if you shop at roadside stands in the rural counties outside of DC, it’s much, much cheaper (but then you’re paying for gas.) I suspect the grocery store produce in rural areas is about the same as roadside stand produce b/c the cost of living is lower and rent for… Read more »

Rosa
Rosa
10 years ago

I love the farmer’s market. Ours actually opened for the year this weekend.

We have had some great CSAs, but they are really geared to be one week of meals for a family, so as I get more and more into cooking double batches and making storable food, I lean on the farmer’s market more because it’s more efficient to get a large amount of a few things instead of a small amount of many things.

Chickybeth
Chickybeth
10 years ago

One quick thing about the roadside stands: many of the ones around where I live are actually produce re-sellers. They get the produce from the same large suppliers that the grocery store does and then sell them at these stands to make you think they are from a local farm. Always ask where the food came from if you are concerned about buying locally.

Rachel
Rachel
10 years ago

Hi, I have worked on farms & at farmer’s markets for a couple of years now, and I can offer some suggestions. 1) I hate haggling. We work really really hard, and deserve to earn a living. If someone is aggressive about it, I get more firm about our prices. 2) Go on rainy days. We are happy to offer discounts so our foods get eaten by people (not just our pigs). Sometimes it means a lower price, sometimes bunch of freebies. 3) If you are friendly with the farmers, bartering is a great option. Feel it out slowly (bring… Read more »

Donald
Donald
10 years ago

Don’t forget that most (probably all) farmers will guarantee their produce against a number of standards: freshness, flavor, and durability. For example, I bought a 10 lb bag of navel oranges last Sunday and by Tuesday more than 5 lbs had molded. I went back yesterday and showed the farmer and he gladly hand-selected 10 lbs of loose oranges and apologized several times. He cared about building a relationship and he’ll have me as orange customer for a long time!

Jenzer
Jenzer
10 years ago

April wrote: “Pay in cash, preferably with small bills for less expensive items. Farmers run out of one-dollar bills quickly, and they’re always happy when they get exact change.”

I once had a roadside produce vendor gush with thank you’s when I paid her in rolls of quarters. 🙂

@JD: Give my thanks to Cathy for carrying on the More-With-Less Cookbook tradition. MWL is the most battered cookbook I own, and Simply in Season will probably catch up to it.

TosaJen
TosaJen
10 years ago

I love farmer’s markets, but in Wisconsin, they don’t open till Memorial Day, and don’t have much produce for weeks later. (sob!) I keep Simply in Season close at hand all year-round, and my other favorite cookbooks for dealing with what we call the “mystery vegetable/fruit of the week” from the CSA or farmer’s market are: — A Year in the Vegetarian Kitchen by Jack Bishop (editor of Cook’s Illustrated, America’s Test Kitchen, etc.); recipes are organized by what is seasonal. — Mark Bittman’s “How to Cook Everything” and “How to Cook Everything Vegetarian”. There’s at least one good recipe… Read more »

Budgeting in the Fun Stuff
Budgeting in the Fun Stuff
10 years ago

I should look into farmer’s markets in our area. It was nice to see the point to make sure to eat what you buy since we have wasted a bunch of money over time on that.

Thanks for the Simply in Season suggestion as well.

For anybody else that lives more than half an hour away from a farmer’s market, is the drive worth it in the end?

Nick
Nick
10 years ago

I made my first trip to the farmers market down at Portland State University here in Oregon a few weeks ago and what a great time it was. I’m a major advocate of clean eating and there is nothing better than being surrounded by “straight from the farm” food.

One thing I recommend is buying as much from one stand as possible. The farmers will typically give you a discount on the overall purchase.

Stephanie
Stephanie
10 years ago

I LOVE the farmer’s market. The quality is far better, I am happy to support local growers, and recently I have found that the prices are lower than my local Safeway. That hasn’t always been the case, but right now I am doing all of my grocery shopping at the market. I end up shopping at least twice a week, which can get cumbersome, but it is worth it for the freshness factor. Agreed with April on making friends and late deals – on weekdays I can only get there about 20 minutes before closing, at my favorite stall I… Read more »

Allison
Allison
10 years ago

@Budgeting in the Fun Stuff – the farmer’s market I go to is about an hour away. I usually go 1-2 times a month. Usually a friend or neighbor will come with me, which helps with gas and company. For me it’s worth it because I make it a fun half-day excursion. I get breakfast or lunch, wander the stalls, try lots of samples, chat with the farmers, etc. Usually I’ll get enough free-range meat/chicken/eggs for several weeks and freeze half, plus enough veggies/fruits/cheese for a week. I’d say check it out at least once or twice and decide for… Read more »

Charles
Charles
10 years ago

As a farmer selling at a couple of markets this year, the two suggestions for shoppers I can give is to ask the farmer what they have an abundance of and ask for a discount when buying in bulk. For example, right now we have way too many radishes, but very little parsley. We also offer a discount for multiple products purchased from us.

Jenn Fowler
Jenn Fowler
10 years ago

Ok, I just garden myself 🙂 I know that isn’t an option for everyone though. One of my friends who lives in Portland and belongs to a CSA told me the best thing to do is to preserve anything you aren’t going to use as soon as possible-so if your eyes are bigger than your stomach, and you get home and realize you can’t eat all of those peppers before they go bad, take some time right then to wash, clean, chop and flash freeze them to use later. A great book I love to use is “A Busy Person’s… Read more »

Manfred Georg
Manfred Georg
10 years ago

Don’t assume that farmer’s markets are more expensive. Here in St. Louis they are much cheaper. Go take a look, you may be pleasantly surprised.

chacha1
chacha1
10 years ago

I love our local farmer’s market. For years I didn’t go because I attended a regular class during the same hours as the market. Then the class was cancelled and now I can go shop in the sun. We go early when we want the organic, free-range eggs and grass-fed beef (one of our vendors makes THE BEST hot italian sausage I have ever eaten). We go late when we just want to see what they have, get a snack at the creperie, and maybe pick up some produce. I nearly always over-buy as I simply cannot resist red, yellow,… Read more »

The Wise Buck
The Wise Buck
10 years ago

Nice to see something a little different. We have a lot of Farmer’s Markets in the Central Florida area. I’ve never really gone too much. I think I just figured they would be more expensive. I think I will test that and go and visit. I think it’s also “neat” to meet and get to know the people working the markets.

Take Care,

Mike

sarah
sarah
10 years ago

Love the farmer’s market. And you can’t accidentally stock up on Snickers and Dr Pepper if you do your shopping there.

In Chicago we have tons in the summer and one that’s year round – it mostly has onions, potatoes, root veggies, sprouts, and frozen berries, which is good enough for me.

Budgeting in the Fun Stuff
Budgeting in the Fun Stuff
10 years ago

Thanks Allison! I’m going to see if my nearby friend would like to make the drive…that’s a great idea!

Amanda L. Grossman
Amanda L. Grossman
10 years ago

I think one of the easiest ways to save money on produce is to buy it in season. It is so tempting for me to want strawberries in the middle of winter, or avocados all year round (yum guacamole!), but I tell myself that I will be paying a premium, causing more emissions/transportation costs, and not getting the produce at its best. Ahhhh the wait:).

honeybee
honeybee
10 years ago

How rude to post this a clear two months before I’ll see any Farmers Market action. Harrumph. I guess that’s the price of living further north. My boyfriend and I have already started plotting our summer vegetable strategy. In the high season, I can access a farmers market three days a week. This also helps to keep costs of this lifestyle lower. For example, I can buy that puzzling persimmon and figure out what to do with it when I get home to my cookbooks and internet, and get back to the market to get the other items I need… Read more »

Stefanie
Stefanie
10 years ago

Thank you Anna #3! You are completely and absolutely correct!

Kristina
Kristina
10 years ago

I ask the vendors about preparation techniques all the time. It’s fun to find new veggies or new recipes, and make new friends in the process. Last year, my kids discovered that they love blackberries wrapped in dandelion greens. I am a farmer myself, and I’d just like to point out that modern ag practices did not invent food borne illness. It just manages to be spread faster/farther than it used to. An organic farm is as likely to have contamination problems as a conventional one, and sloppy sanitation techniques can result in problems at the manufacturers of the most… Read more »

Sunny
Sunny
10 years ago

Nice article.

david/yourfinances101
david/yourfinances101
10 years ago

The overbuying/underbuying is a key.

You can save all you want when you go, but if you waste money by throwing it away five days later because nobody ate it, or you have to waste gas going back for a second trip, it was all pointless.

Buying the right amount is an art…

Pat
Pat
10 years ago

I’ve been shopping at our downtown farmers’ market on Saturday mornings for several years and have gotten to know several of the regular vendors. One usually has “seconds” of heirloom tomatoes available at a significantly lower price than the first-quality tomatoes. Before purchasing I always ask if any seconds are available. Last time, however, I waited too long to arrive. One of the top restaurants in the city had already purchased all of the seconds! Seconds of heirloom varieties trump commercially produced tomatoes any day for flavor! This year we’ve signed up for a CSA with another of the vendors… Read more »

Joless
Joless
10 years ago

We go to the Farmer’s Market in Bath (UK) every Saturday morning that we’re in town. It’s much cheaper than the supermarkets and much better and nicer to attend than a busy stressful supermarket. The stallholders can always advise on what to do with the food (our veg guy is always giving away different things he wants us to try!) Any week we’re out of town, and can’t make it, we have to shop at the supermarket and it’s really not as nice. I wish it was there more often. I have had to educate my GF to plan what… Read more »

Justin@weeklymealideas
10 years ago

One way to make sure that you eat what you have bought is to make a plan for your meals and a grocery list and stick to it!

Jason
Jason
10 years ago

I enjoy farmers markets but around here the organizations that control the vender space for the farmers market sites have been squeezing out the local farmers or not renewing their permits to sell at the farmers market. I see more and more commercial and wholesellers instead of actual farmers. It is disappointing… I don’t go to the farmers market to buy household items or bath supplies… I want produce that I don’t have in my garden. I have to go some of the smaller towns that the farmers market’s are less heavily regulated to find the true farmers selling items.… Read more »

LG
LG
10 years ago

I love Farmers’ Markets, but in the Washington DC area (specifically Northern Virginia) they are far overpriced. It is very discouraging. I know they need to recap costs, but I think they are gouging the prices given a lot of the well to do clientele…which sadly results in me going to the grocery store.

Jiang
Jiang
10 years ago

It’s OK to buy from the big grocery stores as long as you cook everything thoroughly. If you want to get rich slowly, every penny counts. Try to change your cooking habits instead of buying more expensive vegs from the farmer’s market. You never know if their way of producing is safer than the mass production. In my view, mass production is better regulated.

Sarah
Sarah
10 years ago

The biggest help to me in using fresh produce — especially from my CSA or farmers market — is to give up the idea of a main dish. I find it much easier to use a new veggie in a simple dish than to try to come up with the perfect way to combine the five things I have available to make one main course. Coming around to having two veggie sides plus protein as a meal made this much more workable!

David
David
10 years ago

I haven’t read all of the comments but all I can say is be careful. Not all farmer’s markets are the same. You’re not always buying directly from the producer. Just because it’s not in a grocery store wrapper don’t assume that it’s from the farmer down the street. Some big cities have farmers markets where they’re nothing but the same middle men who sell to the grocery store and their produce traveled from a thousand miles to be there too.

Wayfaring Wanderer
Wayfaring Wanderer
10 years ago

I’m glad to know that I’m not the only one who struggles to use everything I purchase at the Farmers Market!

This year, though, I went to a full share with our CSA, and I hope to not have to go to the grocery store, but instead get what I need to fill in the blanks at the weekend markets.

We’ll see how it goes 😀

Brad
Brad
10 years ago

Yes, we also really like farmer’s markets. The foods (most of the time) are fresher and in season. Of course, there is that group that bring bananas which i know are not grown in NC. This whole post reminds me of a great book I read last year. Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life (by Barbara Kingsolover) is about she and her family only purchasing food that is in season. the synopsis includes the following: Inspired by the flavors and culinary arts of a local food culture, they explore farmers’ markets and diversified organic farms at home and… Read more »

vivzilla
vivzilla
10 years ago

Awww the persimmon paragraph made me smile. Last week, my friends and I were discussing that we did not know what persimmons were during a shopping break at the farmers markets. When I was buying some vegetables I saw persimmons there and had a chat to the stallholder about what to do with. One of the customers got really involved as well and I got a nice tutorial about eating persimmons and how to pick good ones. I don’t know if they were really to our taste (we sort of ate it straight up) but the gift of knowledge is… Read more »

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