CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) shares are all the rage these days. Those who sign up pay an upfront fee to purchase a stake in a local farm’s seasonal crops. Each week, a box contains whatever happens to be ready to harvest, be it large or small. CSAs are a great way to support local growers and it’s a lot of fun to open that box each week to see what you’ll be eating. For many though, keeping up with the steady flow of fruits and vegetables can be challenging and, too often, great produce ends up making a journey from farm to home to compost pile. Much as I love the CSA model, I’ve abandoned that weekly box and returned to the original method for supporting local farms. Time to hit the farmers market.
Here in Raleigh, North Carolina, we have a spectacular state-sponsored farmers market where dozens of local vendors convene seven days a week all year long to sell fruits, vegetables, plants, baked goods, arts and crafts. Not all farmers markets are quite so large and many are seasonal, operating only during peak growing seasons. Large or small, farmers markets are on the rise as smart shoppers boost local economy and help the environment by supporting local growers. If investing in a CSA isn’t practical for your situation, a trip to the farmers market is the best way to find the freshest local produce, often at prices well below those found at the grocery store.
A trip to the farmers market can be daunting for those unused to the crowds, fast-paced transactions and an organizational paradigm based on vendor rather than product. If you’re new to the farmers market scene, planning ahead can make all the difference and shopping locally isn’t just a great way to support the community and score some great produce — it’s downright fun!
Ready to explore the joys of shopping local? Consult this handy USDA Farmers Market Directory to track down a market it your area and round up the kids. These handy tips for making the most of your farmers market experience will help you get started.
1. Know When to Go
Farmers markets are usually hopping between 10 and 12 on any given Saturday, but early risers can often get the best produce by arriving as the booths begin to open. Conversely, holding out until late in the day can spell great deals as vendors are anxious to sell off remainders rather than loading them back on the truck.
2. Make a List
Part of the fun of farmers market shopping is exploring the available crops, but it pays off to make a shopping list beforehand. Many farmers markets have more than produce, offering farm-fresh eggs or locally sourced dairy or meat. Knowing what you’re looking for helps to make a farmers market excursion part of your grocery routine. You won’t always find what you’re looking for, but the odds are increased when your radar is up.
3. Get the Lay of the Land
Before buying, take a lap around the market. The first booth may well have exactly what you’re looking for, but someone else may be offering prettier produce or better prices.
4. Carry Small Bills
With the advent of smart phone card swipers, you may occasionally find tech-savvy farmers ready to accept credit cards, but don’t count on it. Cash is king at the farmers market and small bills will be appreciated by vendors dealing with dozens or transactions on the fly.
5. Bring Your Own Bags
Although most vendors will provide bags (flimsy as they may be), bringing your own is environmentally responsible and the canvas tote you brought from home is also more likely to hold up when lugging heavy produce. A cooler in the trunk can also be helpful for transporting your bounty home.
6. Know Your Growing Seasons
Canning peaches? Knowing that cling peaches generally appear a week or so ahead of the easier to process freestone peaches can make it easy to make good choices when shopping. Early watermelons are often less flavorful than those found at the height of the season. Selecting in-season crops will yield the best produce and is generally less expensive.
7. Buy Bulk
Vendors often offer volume discounts and many fruits and vegetables can be canned or frozen for future use.
8. Don’t Overbuy
Then again, canning isn’t for everyone. Like the CSA subscriber dealing with a bountiful share, if you aren’t likely to deal with a large haul before it spoils, don’t buy it (no matter how good it looks).
9. Ask a Farmer
Don’t see what you’re looking for or you’ve stumbled upon a vegetable you’ve never seen before? There is a good chance the person manning the booth grew it. You may learn that your favorite fruits will be available next week or that weird, lumpy squash is the best thing you’ll ever eat. Talking with local growers is a great way to expand your horizons and connect with the local farming community depending on your support.