The Local Beet’s 2012 Guide to Getting the Most From Your Farmer’s Market

May 7, 2012 at 11:39 am


Hopefully, you are the kind of market shopper who’s been hitting all the winter markets, the kind who treks to Madison in February for a dose of celery root or Green City in March for that first asparagus.  You probably don’t need any tips to making the most of your farmer’s market trip.   Still, there are others just getting around to market shopping as more area markets get going for 2012.  You may need to brush up on maximizing your visit.  We’ve made our biggest list yet of ways to get the most our of your farmer’s market experience. Of course, if anyone has a good trick we’ve left out, let us know in the comments.

  • There are many ways to pay – The general rule for farmer’s markets used to be, bring cash, but you can get by without the green.  Many vendors now take credit cards.  Nearly all farmers will take a check, especially if you make a substantial purchase.  Ask.  Now, the Logan Square Market has made it possible to charge all your purchases.  I am sure other markets will be doing the same.
  • Survey the scene – Some of us buy from every farmer they see.  Most of us want a bit less.  Don’t buy at the first place you see.  Look around.  See who has what.  Why are prices different.  What varieties can you find.  Take a lap before buying.  Farmers love to chat.  Give yourself as much time as possible to work your market.
  • Know what’s in season – Menu plan for what you know will be around that week.  Don’t look for peaches in June and asparagus in August.  Know also the adage, what grows together goes together.  When you go shopping, think complimentary flavors and dishes.  You can stretch that expensive box of heirloom tomatoes by baking them with local plentiful summer squash.   Know also what local food looks like.  A good Michigan peach is much smaller than a supermarket peach.  Also, great local produce is not always as pristine as the grocery store versions.  Remember very much, what’s in season this year is not the same as what was in season last year.  Produce is like the Jewish holidays.  They’re either early or late.  Review the Local Beet for our regularly posted updates on What’s in Season Now for the most current and complete information on what you can find.

  • Wheel and Deal – There is no more important piece of advice than this.  Farmer’s rarely want to bring anything home.  He or she that can make that offer for the rest of this, the remaining that, will get the best deal.  In almost all cases, the more you buy, the more you save.  It’s not the Casablanca souk.  You do not bargain down a bag of lettuce from 100 dollars to 50 cents, but as soon as you start buying more than a few of anything you can start wheelin’ and dealin’.
  • Bring your things – They’ll tell you to bring your own reusable market bags.  What about your reusable market containers.  Farmers will love you if you can dump their berries or whatnot in your own container.  They’ll love you almost as much if you bring their containers back the next week so they can re-use them.
  • Take the yucky stuffAnother way to get a bargain, take it off their hands.  If you plan on baking or something, do you need pristine fruit.  Many farmers already label “seconds”.  If you don’t see such, ask.
  • Will it Store – Something else really important to ask, keepability.  Some apples will last you all year.  Some are soft by next Tuesday.  Ask.  Same goes for onions or potatoes.  Farmers will also give you good tips on how to store your purchases.
  • Wait – Another way to save money.  Did you rush in and buy the first tomatoes.  Grown indoors just for you.  And north of $4/lb too.  Or did you wait a bit for normal tomato season.  Bet you did not spend as much.  OK, that’s easy.  The other thing to think about is not something several weeks (if not months) away, but something maybe just a week a way.  In other words, the first time something hits the market, it is often a lot more expensive than it will be the following weeks.  Buy the end of the season, it may be even cheaper.
  • A complete eat local diet – Remember, farmer’s markets are not just for fruits and vegetables.  Around the Chicago area you can find pastured pork, grass-fed beef.  How ’bout spicy elk sticks, that too.  Butter, cheese, yogurt and more from the dairy aisles can be had.  Nuts for nuts, you can find ‘em local at the right time of year.  Robin Schirmer sez that the first vendors who sign up for any new market are bakers.  Expect them at your market.
  • Peak around - Looking for local eggs?  Many farmers bring eggs to the market without the necessary licenses.  They just might be willing to lend you a dozen or sell you the cartons.  Who knows what else you may find when you look deeper.
  • Find the bargain – Beet reporter Melisa Owens has noted that she found local tomatoes for a mere 40 cents/lb.  Now, the obvious tip here is to look for the farmer selling his or her produce at 40 cents/lb, but what this also says, do you need the fanciest.  Need potatoes.  Do you need heirloom fingerlings.  Same goes for tomatoes.  Granted, those heirlooms are always worth the money, but sometimes something not quite as good is still pretty darn good.  Most of the slicers you find at half the price will still hit the spot when they are farm fresh.  Remember that variety is good but you don’t always have to get the most expensive fruit or vegetable.  Save with the ordinary.
  • Use LINK – Do you know that over 25 Chicago farmer’s markets accept LINK.  In addition, LINK is accepted at suburban markets too, including Oak Park and Evanston.  There’s a chance that LINK will be accepted at your market, so ask.
  • Time your market – There are a few things to think about when it comes to market timing.  First, what time does your market actually get going?  We know a few markets that start selling before their official start time.  When do you need to get there to get what you need.  Second, when do your farmers run out of food.  Just because your market closes at noon means you can go shopping at 1145.  On the other hand, want to bargain as noted above, getting there late usually gives you the best chance.
  • A cooler couldn’t hurt – A few vegetables purchased, asparagus, sweet peas, can benefit from staying cool right away.  What if you want to buy meat, cheese, milk.  As we noted above, your market may offer more than fruit and veg.  Do you have a way to carry it home.
  • Make a friend – Like we say, you probably won’t buy from everyone.  And there’s a lot of good reasons to buy from one or two people.  Cultivate a relationship with a vendor you like by favoring them with your purchases.  In turn, you may get better deals and access to limited availability items.  They may even decide to grow something just because you asked.
  • Pay what it’s worth – We’ve given you several ideas for saving money, but know, at times, you have to pay what it’s worth.  Do you want organic?  Many markets give you choices between growing practices.  You have to expect to pay more for organic.  Want an early season tomato. Pay.  Interested in Illinois artichokes.  Pay.
  • Find the right market for you - The Local Beet’s Market Locator contains at least 150 markets.  There’re all different.  Who sells what you want. Who grows the way you want.
  • Use your senses – Who has the best cherries at your market.  Figure it out. No one’s gonna call the cops if you pinch one cherry.  Moreover, most farmer’s will offer you samples when asked.  Also, taste with all your senses.  Does it smell like you want to buy it.  Feel ripe (within reason!).  This is one of the reasons we’re not shopping at Trader Joe’s with all the stuff guarded by plastic.
  • Know you need it – Write your market shopping list in pencil so you can erase and adjust.  No basil for your pesto recipe.  Maybe arugula (rocket) will do.
  • Know you don’t need it – One of the greatest joys of market shopping is returning home with all you did not need.  Why not to wreck up a cardoon.  Maybe this is the year to make damson plum jam.  Won’t know if you love lovage until you try it.

Share your own market tips with us.