How to Navigate Local Farmers’ Markets

Experience your community's foods

Santa Monica Farmers Market

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One of the best ways to experience your region is to taste the local foods grown there. Summer and early fall are the prime times to head out to farmers’ markets and take advantage of all the locally grown and produced goodies in your community.

What Is a Farmers Market?

A farmers’ market is a regularly occurring gathering of farmers and food producers where they sell their products directly to consumers. This not only cuts out the middlemen—it reduces the time it takes for food to get from the farm to you. This shortened food chain allows for the unique opportunity to literally shake the hand that feeds you and rub elbows with your local farmers.

Markets can be held indoors or outdoors, any time of year and in any climate. Depending on the state, you may find many more markets up and running in the warmer months. Most markets are well organized, registered with the United State Department of Agriculture (USDA), and must follow state regulations for food safety.

It’s not uncommon to see health inspectors visiting markets to make sure all the foods are being handled properly. According to the USDA National Farmers Market Directory, over 8700 farmers’ markets are registered in the United States to date, and this is still an incomplete list of what you might find in your area.

A survey of market managers published in 2015 revealed that market interest and market patrons continue to grow. While it comes as no surprise that 99 percent of markets sell fresh fruit and vegetables, two-thirds have at least one certified organic vendor. Eighty-four percent of farmers utilize web and mobile-based technology such as websites, apps, blogs, and newsletters to connect with their customers.

Markets continue to grow their efforts to offer financial assistance by accepting WIC, SNAP, and senior programs that offer discounts and increased access to fruits and vegetables for lower-income populations. The report also identified Increased efforts to educate the public on nutrition and healthy eating. According to the same survey, 81 percent of markets feature programs, recipes, and other materials to get people eating more fresh fruits and vegetables.

How to Buy and Eat Organic

What to Bring

Ready to head out to the market? You’ll want to take a few things along to optimize your shopping experience. 

Shoes

Leave the heels at home; wear comfy and sensible shoes instead. Markets can be found everywhere from asphalt parking lots to grassy fields or a dirt (muddy) clearing. Wear comfy shoes and beware of squashed tomatoes.

Gear

In addition to shoes, there are other ways to gear up for a trip to the market. Depending on the time of year, consider the weather. Slather on some sunscreen and pop on a hat in the summer months to beat the heat. Many markets take place during peak sunshine hours and the mercury can rise, so bring water or something else cold to drink. For winter markets, wear cozy winter gear to tolerate the chill and don't forget the umbrella and rain boots for wet weather.

Reuseable Shopping Bags

Just like the grocery store, it helps to bring your own shopping bags. Vendors will have paper or plastic available but they appreciate if you BYOB (bring your own bag). As a bonus, bring extra smaller bags or containers to tote loose items in like berries, beans, and sprouts.

What to Spend

It’s very easy to get carried away and overbuy when at the market. Not only does this become a waste of money, it might also end up being a waste of food. For best results, set a budget and stick to it! Offset the temptation to buy a million things by taking a lap around the market before you buy anything. Then decide what you must scoop up and save the rest for another day.

Try giving the kids a weekly stipend to spend at the market; it's a great way to teach them about where food comes from and get them excited about eating what they select.

When possible, bring smaller bills to help prevent the farmers from running out of change. More and more vendors are taking credit cards but many still only except cash. Items may be sold by the piece (1 pint of blueberries) or by weight ($2.00 per pound). Check the farm's signage for pricing.

What You’ll Find

Every day at the farmers' market is like Christmas morning. You never know for sure what will be there, but there are some seasonal themes to give you a hint of what to expect. Since most produce is harvested within 24 hours of arrival at the market, things will change on a daily basis.

You can find both organic and conventionally grown produce at most markets. Organic farms must be certified with the USDA to verify they are producing food without the use of chemical pesticide and herbicides.

Organic certification also comes with a price tag. More expensive farming practices, lower crop yields, and certification expenses mean costs are passed along the consumer, which is why organic produce is more expensive no matter where you buy it.

Despite using organic practices, many small local farms cannot afford to be certified organic and therefore cannot promote their products as such. So, decide for yourself if local trumps organic. Ask your farmers about their pest control methods. Smaller farms often don’t use the same virulent chemicals found on large industrial farms.

What’s in Season

What specific foods will be at the market will vary based on time of year and where you live. Warmer climates like southern California and Florida have robust markets year around, but you can find plenty of things at your local markets no matter where you live.

To get the specifics of what's grown in your state, look for an online crop availability calendar, like this one from Connecticut. Check your state agriculture board website for something similar in your home state.

In general, you will find several types and varieties of produce. Often times they will be more unique than the types found in the grocery store. Baked goods, seasonal jams and jellies, honey, eggs, meat, fish, and dairy in all sorts of shapes and sizes can be found throughout the year. Here is a general produce list organized by season.

Winter

Believe it or not, there’s plenty to find at markets (even in northern states) in the winter months. Hearty greens and squash will last through the first frosts of the season, plus there are goodies left over from the fall. Farmers know how to store produce over the winter, making it possible to hold on to foods like apples, potatoes, carrots, and garlic. Warm climates will be harvesting plenty of citrus during this time of year.

Spring

As the climate changes, fresh herbs and lettuces will grow beautifully. As the spring progresses, look for radishes, asparagus, and garlic scapes at your local market. Greens like kale and bok choy will also be on the way come May and early June. This is a wonderful time of year to make guacamole with avocados from California if you are lucky enough to live nearby.

Summer

As you might suspect, markets are bursting in the summer months. It’s prime time for berries, tomatoes, summer squash, cherries, and other stone fruit like peaches, plums, and nectarines. Leafy greens like Swiss chard are in full effect and late summer gives way to beets. As the summer drives on, look for juicy melons like watermelon, honeydew, and cantaloupe. 

Fall

Fall might be one of the most beautiful times of year at the market. The weather begins to cool off, making for optimal growing conditions for winter squash like pumpkin and butternut squash, potatoes, sweet potatoes, apples, and root veggies like parsnips and carrots. Save the feathery green carrot tops for salads and pesto.

How to Find Out When Fruits Are in Season

CSA vs. Farmers’ Market

If you are new to the local food movement, you may be wondering about the differences between farmers' markets and CSAs. CSA stands for “community supported agriculture.” By joining a CSA, members buy a share of a local farm’s harvest for the season. You pay a lump sum fee in exchange for a weekly box of fresh and seasonal items. Some CSA programs also offer members the chance to work off their share by helping out on the farm (a great activity for the kiddos).

Weekly boxes can be picked up at local markets and farm stands. Some larger operations offer home delivery for an extra fee. What you get in your share will vary depending on the specific farm, but offerings typically include fruit and vegetables as well as baked goods, milk, yogurt, eggs, and honey. Flowers may also be available.

Putting up a large amount of money in the beginning of the seasons allow farmers to prepare for next year's harvest and will save money in the long run. Prices will vary, but a typical 12-week CSA with enough produce to feed a family of six for the week may cost about $250 to $400 for the season.

A potential source of excitement or anxiety for a CSA box is that you don’t have control over what you’ll get. Farmers decide what they have enough of to go around. A large, weekly box of foods can get overwhelming and give you more than you know what to do with, which can lead to waste. Joining a CSA is a wonderful way to support local agriculture but it’s a big commitment. If you’re new to buying local foods, you may want to start by shopping at the market where you can still support your local farms but have a bit more leeway.

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View Article Sources
  • 2014 Farmers Market Managers Survey Summary Report, July 24 2015.