I noticed you got the age-old “farmers markets are too expensive” and I’ve been meaning to write something like this up, so I thought I’d toss it this way and hopefully it helps someone! Farmer’s Markets absolutely can blow your whole food budget, but they don’t have to, with some careful browsing. So here’s some tips.
1. Buy in season/region. If you’re in the Midwest looking for grapes and oranges, yeah, they’re going to be ridiculously expensive. But if you familiarize yourself with what’s in season and available, you can really maximize your dollar. I’ve seen deals like bell peppers 5/$1.00, or $.50 per (huge) zuchinni. Farmers will get overrun by some plants and practically give them away, just to clear them out of their inventory. Plus, in-season fruits and veggies tend to be way bigger than what you find in supermarkets. This applies to herbs, too — if you live in a climate where Cilantro is a pain in the butt to grow, but mint grows like a weed, fresh mint will be super cheap but you’re better off going with dried cilantro.
2. Concentrate on veggies. Unfortunately, for most of the US, the climate is just better equipped to grow vegetables. The more difficult and resource-consuming a plant is to farm, the more it’s going to cost at the market. So peaches may be $5 for a small bushel, but corn and eggplant are super cheap. (A lot of this goes back to region, so ymmv. If you’re in Florida or SoCal fruits are gonna be more reasonable than they are in MN, and I don’t know enough to even guess at international farmers markets.)
3. Buy individually. As cute as those little baskets are, anything pre-portioned is likely to be costlier. Plus, by buying individually you get to choose exactly which veggies you want. Not only will they be fresher (farmers might put bruised/less attractive veggies in with the stellar ones, to get rid of them) but you can get more for the same amount of money. If potatoes are 3/$1, get the biggest darn potatoes you can find. Also, you can minimize waste by buying exactly as much as you need. If you’re only going to use one tomato, don’t buy a whole bushel and save some $$$.
4. Don’t be afraid of the bruised vegetables. A lot of times farmers will have bushels of bruised or marked fruits and veggies for less than the pristine ones. A big basket of bruised tomatoes? Perfect for salsa. Over-ripe peaches? Peach sauce. (It’s like applesauce but better, I promise.) They may not be as pretty, but they’re cheaper and just as nutritious.
5. Talk to your farmers and pay attention to their produce/where they’re from. Unfortunately at most farmers markets that I’ve been to, there are some farmers trying to pass off non-local produce with what they’ve actually grown. Again, know your region and what’s viable to grow near you. I’ve come across mangos, papaya, and avocados in Chicago, and when I asked it turned out they were shipped from a sister farm in California. Farmers who are either transporting exotic fruits or growing them in greenhouses might be upping the prices of their other produce to subsidize their costly fruits. So even if you shop local and avoid the exotics, you might still be paying too much. Similarly, a farm from 50 miles away may be charging less than the farm from 100 miles away, because they shelled out less gas to be there. TL;DR if something seems fishy don’t be afraid to ask.
6. Build a relationship. This goes back to talking to farmers, but after a few weeks and a few extra minutes of conversation, you might find some tomatillos or extra ears of corn making their way into your bags. Unlike the supermarkets, farmers control their prices directly, and a lot of them appreciate it when you take the time to talk to them. They’ll also give you bonus tips — maybe it was a great week for nectarines and they’re cheap, or maybe you’re better off waiting till next week.
7. Shop around. This one is just common sense wherever you go, but it really pays off when three stalls in a row are all selling sweet corn. You can buy tomatos at one stand and walk two feet over to the next for your corn — it all depends on who’s got the better prices!
8. Look for EBT/Snap credits. This has been mentioned before, but some markets will offer 2-for-1 deals or extra discounts if you’re on food stamps. On the other hand, some markets are cash only. YMMV.
9. Buy whole veggies . This is another one I’ve seen mentioned before on the site but bears repeating. Vegetable greens can make a whole second meal, and they come along for free with your carrots/beets/whatever.
That’s just a few from my experience, amd I’m sure others have more. But the upshot is that Farmer’s Markets don’t have to be prohibitively expensive. Don’t be afraid of them! GO EAT GOOD VEGGIES.
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