How To Shop a Farmers Market

— or what I wish people would ask about shopping at the market !

by Julia McKeon, manager New Bern Farmers Market

All Farmers Markets are different but here are a few tips that apply to most all markets to make your visit a comfortable and rewarding experience.
1)  Dress for Comfort
Wear walking shoes and dress in layers to accommodate cool mornings and rising temperatures. Take along a sun hat and umbrella, just in case.
2)  Include the Kids
Use it as a “teaching time.”  Show them what potatoes and tomatoes look like before becoming french fries and ketchup.  It’s never too early or too late to reinforce the importance of eating healthy food.  Teach them not to touch everything they see.
3)  Carry Cash
Be sure to have cash, including small bills.  Vendors often run out of change for those ATM $20’s. Credit cards and checks usually are not accepted.  Although, a few vendors now have credit card attachment for smart phones.
4)  Bring Bags
Bring your own reusable shopping bags or tuck a few plastic/paper bags into your pocket.  You’ll be helping the merchants and the environment. Food Safety experts now advise you to wash reusable shopping bags after each use.
5)  Pack a Cooler
Going to be at the market awhile, not going directly home, got a ways to drive?  Carry a cooler in the car so you can keep your purchases fresh, cool, and safe.
6)  Take Your Time
Enjoy browsing.  Make a loop around the market.  See what everyone has.  Take note of items of interest and return to make your purchases.
7)  Try Something New
Many vendors offer free samples.  It’s a cheap way to experiment with a fruit or vegetable you’ve never tasted before.  Besides it’s educational and fun!
8)  Connect
Introduce yourself and get to know your farmers. Some offer CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) options and can tell you how to get their product when the market is closed.  They might even invite you to the farm!
9)  Do Your Homework
Every area has its own climate and growing seasons. Obtain a seasonal produce calendar for your area showing when each fruit or vegetable might be available.  Don’t look for May peas in August and watermelons in April.
10)  Ask Questions
Most vendors are happy to discuss their products and how they raised them.  Be wary of vendors, like politicians, who run down others.
* ask about growing practices, including soil care and chemical use.
* ask when an item was picked, how to tell if it is ripe, and how it’s properly stored.
* ask about ways to use an item in cooking.  Some farmers will share recipes.
* ask when a favorite fruit or vegetable might be ready to bring to market.
* ask about how the weather has affected a certain crop.
* ask about lower priced items in bulk if you’re interested in freezing/canning.
* ask if they have an email to post availability of veggies
11)  Don’t Plan Ahead
Don’t go to the market looking for one specialty item to finish out a recipe.  More than likely you’ll be disappointed.  Plan your menu after you see what is available fresh on that day. Take your purchase home and use it in the next few days.  If you keep it in the fridge for two weeks you may as well buy it at the grocery store. Wash all produce thoroughly before consumption.
12)  Don’t Make Assumptions
*  Don’t assume you have to get there at o’dark thirty to get the best.  Many farmers restock their table all through the day.
*  Don’t assume you’ll get lower prices if you go at closing.  Many farmers go to more than one market.
*  Don’t assume items that are not the perfect size, perfect shape, and perfect color are no good. In commercial crops the less than perfect are made into canned soup.  The market farmer brings them to market.  The slightly less than perfect are good eats!
13)  Do Expect the Freshest
Be aware that you won’t find everything all the time like at supermarkets.
What you will find is local produce that has been picked off the plant just a few hours before, which makes it fresher and more nutritious than any other unless you grew it yourself.  The beauty of local is that it hasn’t traveled hundreds of miles to get to you.
14) Show Appreciation
Let the farmer know that you appreciate the hard work of bringing you the freshest produce possible.  Everyone needs a little pat on the back now and then!
15) Bring a friend
Bring someone with you who has never been to a farmers market and introduce them to the joys of shopping local for food.
16) One More Thing
The USDA has asked that people not handle produce they are not purchasing.  This is especially true with children.  Not touching,  if you can do that, more power to you.  Me, I will have to duck tape my hands to my sides!