Farmer's Market Tips

Farmer's market season is underway here in Chicago (with many more locations opening in early June), and summer is such a great time to stop by one near you. I love getting produce at the farmer's market because it's so much fresher than what I can get at the grocery store, it's much more conducive to shopping zero waste, and I can usually find what I'm looking for at a price better than the chain grocery store.

I hope you'll be visiting one soon, so I have a couple of quick tips to share to make your trip a success.

Bring cash.  Not all vendors are going to take cards in the first place, though some might.  It's easier to just carry cash.  You might even get a discount for using cash, since the vendor has to pay a fee for you to use a card.  It also helps with the budgeting aspect, because you can't go over your budget if you only brought a set amount of cash with you.  Make sure you bring smaller bills in case they can't make change.

Bring reusable bags.  But, you know this already, right?  Also bring a cooler if you're not getting your stuff home soon (because there's more than produce for sale, there's usually eggs, cheese, chocolate and meat too.)

Pick the right market.  At least here in Chicago and the surrounding suburbs, there's a variety of farmer's markets on different days of the week.  A lot of the vendors go to a couple of different ones and their prices at each one can vary.  The ones downtown, like outside the Daley Center, are more expensive because it costs the farmer more to participate.  Venture out to the ones in smaller neighborhoods for the best prices.

Go at the right time.  I can't say what time that is for you, because it depends on your priorities. If you go early in the morning, you get your pick of all the fresh produce. These vendors are not like a grocery store, they only have a limited stock with them. Once they're sold out, they're out!  But the benefit to going towards the end is the possibility of discounts.  They don't want to take anything home with them so they may be willing to negotiate their prices.  Just ask politely if it's a possibility.

Check every stand before you buy.  When a certain item is in season, you'll find it at multiple stands and you'll want to pick the best one before buying, based on a variety of factors like price and the seller (I talk about 'real farmers' below.)  You'll also be able to make a priority list if you're on a budget, as well as see what looks the best and the freshest and base a meal plan around those items.

Look for slightly damaged produce.  If it's not visually perfect, it might be off in it's own section on their table with a sign that it's discounted.  It's not defective, it will taste the same, it just might have bruising or other imperfections.

Real farmers have a big truck, a suntan, and dirt under the nails.  That's a tip from my mom.  She doesn't like to buy from stands that look really perfect - professional small trucks, no dirt, no tan.  It's more likely that they're selling produce they got elsewhere, perhaps even from a large corporate farm or transported from far locations, not that they grew themselves locally.  She likes to support the actual farmers, who can answer questions about their crops and take care and pride in the work they do.  Their produce is just better.  Plus, if you buy a bunch of different items from one stand rather than just finding the lowest prices all around the market, the farmer will be more inclined to give you a bulk discount.  This strategy works especially well when you find one you love and keep returning to them each week.

Ask tons of questions.  This is why I direct you to real farmers, because they can answer all sorts of questions for you.  Not just about how they grow their crops (which can be and usually are organic!  They just don't have the money to pay for the very expensive certification that says so), but also about how to help you in the kitchen.  They can tell you how to cook something, how to store it, how long it will stay good for before you need to eat it.  It's the best way to try new things. 

Are you a big farmer's market fan?  What's your favorite item to buy there?

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