Sure, all of those tents lining the downtown street can be a little overwhelming. Bins of fruits and vegetables — all looking quite different from the shiny, perfect fruits and veggies at the supermarket — and things you’ve never seen before (and have no idea how to prepare) could have you walking away from the farmer’s market with a puzzled expression and nothing to show for you trip but a handful of carrots. Don’t head back to your apartment defeated! Here are some tips that will have you enjoying the farmer’s market in no time:
First, decide what you are most interested in — a great selection or great deals. This will tell you what time of day to go to the market — first thing in the morning, the farmers will have more variety. Some hot-ticket items sell out rather quickly, so those who arrive when the farmer’s market opens will have first dibs on those gorgeous (but limited!) blueberries/banana peppers/heirloom tomatoes. Late in the day, just before the market closes, many farmers will offer discounts on whatever is left, so you can pick up items fairly cheaply (just be aware that you won’t have much to choose from).
Next, get prepared. Most farmer’s markets are outdoors, and many are quite large. Dress for the weather, wear comfortable shoes, and don’t forget to wear sunscreen! Take a bottle of water with you, and since many farmer’s markets are pet-friendly (be sure to check the website first), consider bringing your dog (and water for him, as well) along. Another thing you'll have to take with you -- cash! These are local farmers with small operations -- not a credit-card-friendly supermarket. You'll need to bring money (small bills and change) with you.
Find a canvas shopping bag or two. Yes, it is more environmentally-friendly -- but that's not the only reason. Most of the farmers do provide plastic or paper bags but remember: you will be carrying around heavy produce and those flimsy plastic-or-paper bags might not hold up under the strain -- especially if you plan on walking around for a while. You could end up holding a broken bag with your tomatoes and peaches and squash rolling down the street.
Now that you are wearing comfortable shoes, are dressed for the weather, have on your sunscreen, have cash in your pocket and canvas tote bags in your hands, you're ready! But wait -- don't start buying as soon as you arrive! There's a trick to getting the best produce and best deals at the market.
Take a walk through the entire market -- but don't buy anything! Just make note of what you see and the prices. The bigger, more commercial farms get the prime real estate, right in front so you see them first. The little, local farms and backyard growers will be toward the end or somewhere in the middle. So don't buy on your first go-around -- you may find better deals (and better produce) if you wait. Walk the entire market, see what everyone is offering, compare prices, and then buy on your second walk-through.
Ask questions! Those bigger, more commercial farms may have huge signs proclaiming "Certified Organic!" produce, but that doesn't mean the small farmers douse their produce in pesticide. Often, the small farmers are even more careful with what they grow, but they can't afford to be certified as organic -- so ask them how they care for their crops. Also, if you come across a fruit or vegetable you've never seen before don't be afraid to ask about it! The farmers are usually eager to share tips and cooking suggestions, so learn from them -- this is an opportunity you can't get at the supermarket so take advantage of having the grower there to answer your questions.
Looks aren't everything! Tomatoes aren't supposed to be flawless orbs of shiny, high-gloss red. Small, local farmers are providing the freshest and best-tasting produce -- not necessarily the prettiest. These are not the pre-washed, pre-polished supermarket veggies you're used to -- you may see a little dirt on the carrots or some odd-looking tomatoes. Go ahead and get them -- you'll be amazed at how much better they taste.
Finally, you may find all of those gorgeous fruits and vegetables difficult to resist. If you get back to your apartment and realize that you'll never be able to eat the four pounds of blueberries you just purchased, go ahead and freeze some! Fall and winter are just around the corner, and many farmer's markets are seasonal. Think about how those beautiful blueberries and strawberries will taste in February, when the ground is covered with snow.