Revised and Updated! – Local Beet Guide to Getting the Most Out of Your Farmer’s Market Trip

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April 30, 2015 at 9:23 am

Farmer’s Market Shopping Guide

We created this guide a few years ago to help you maximize your farmer’s market shopping experience. We think it holds up pretty well, but we did go through and tidy things up, add a few new things, and otherwise parlay our experiences into your guidance.

Is there anything easier than visiting a farmer’s markets.  Everything looks good.  The sellers are passionate.  So passionate they may talk too much.  Samples abound.  Just bring money, right?

Maybe, but we still think we have several ways to make the most out of your market experience.

  • 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.  In addition many vendors also take charge cards.  Some markets process the card payments, so even when a vendor can’t swipe with Square, your e-wallet can work.  Forgetting to go to the ATM is no longer a good excuse.
  • 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 if you can dump their berries or whatnot into 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.
  • 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.
  • 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 produce not something like 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 when it has been around for a few weeks.  Get your peas next week.  Moreover, by the end of the season, an item may be even cheaper.  If you make strawberry jam, try to wait as long as possible to get the best price.
  • 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.  Each year, we’re seeing more stuff at markets, from great sauces to Chicago made tofu; markets are not just for produce.
  • 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 – Do you need the fanciest tomato.  Need potatoes, heirloom fingerlings?   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 many Chicago 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. Better, several markets like Green City and Logan Square have programs to match LINK payments. In other words, LINK users can get much more when using their card. If you are a LINK user, find out from your market, the matching programs.
  • 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 - A lot of people think we have too many markets in the Chicago area.  That may be true, but it surely means you have options. There’re all different.  Who sells what you want. Who grows the way you want.  What time works for you.  In addition, there are all sorts of great markets within a short drive of Chicago.  All it takes is a little roamin’ to find all sorts of new things. Still looking? Know that there are all sorts of virtual farmer’s markets in and around Chicago. Use our sponsor’s Fresh Picks to zero in on your needs or visit any of these stores for local stuff. And in the summer, local is everywhere. Scan the ads, you will be surprised how much local produce shows up in area grocery stores from Aldi to Whole Foods.
  • 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.
  • Use social media – Friend of Beet, KennyZ finds virtue in early rising. He’ll probably give his Twitter opinion on the markets while you’re still in your pajamas. See what he and other people have to say on social media before heading out.
  • 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.

Please share your own market tips with us.

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