Nutrition Articles

A Beginner's Guide to the Farmers Market

The How and Why of Buying from Local Growers

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From hot summer days through those cool early fall months, farmers markets are in full swing, yielding a bounty of beautiful, fresh, local produce. Visiting a farmers market is a lovely weekend outing, but there are many other reasons to bypass the market for your weekly fresh fruits and vegetables. 

While grocery stores boast convenience, the absence of seasons (strawberries and tomatoes are available in the heart of winter and imported bananas sit on shelves year round) and rock bottom prices, why would anyone shop at a farmers market? Here are a few reasons.

1. Enjoy Better Tasting Food. First and foremost, the produce is unbeatably fresh. Forget buying veggies that sat in a refrigerated truck for three days to make their way across the country. No longer will you bring home fruit that traveled across an ocean to reach your kitchen. Typically, produce at the farmers market was harvested at the last possible moment, at peak ripeness. The flavors, textures and colors are noticeably better compared with most supermarket produce.

2. Get More Nutrition for Your Money. Generally speaking, produce that is fresh and local is nutritionally superior to the fruits and veggies in many grocery stores. Many factors affect the nutrient quality of these foods, such as when the crop was harvested, how it was grown, how it was handled and processed, and how long it's been sitting on the supermarket shelf. All of these factors can decrease nutrient quality. Farm-fresh food goes through fewer nutrient-diminishing steps and gets from the earth to your table sooner. This means it is probably richer in antioxidants, vitamins and minerals (thanks to less transport, processing and storage time).

3. Meet Your Farmer. When you’re at the market, you can pick up some produce—and pick the farmers’ brains, too! The same people who grow the food are usually present to sell their crops at the market, and they have a wealth of knowledge to share. They can tell you how it was grown, how much longer it will be available this season, how to grow the same fruits or vegetables in your garden, and how to store and prepare the food that you buy. All you have to do is ask. You can’t afford not to take advantage of one-on-one contact with local farmers.

4. Support local business. When you shop at the farmers market, you're keeping money in your own community, which helps create (and preserve) jobs and makes your hometown more economically stable. Your money goes directly to the farmer—not a middleman—so he can earn a better living. When buying at a grocery store, produce comes from commercial growers all over the country (and overseas). These growers earn about 25 cents of each dollar you spend. Put more of your money into your local farmers’ pockets (and in turn, into your local economy) by purchasing fruits and veggies from the market, where farmers keep 95% of what you spend after paying "rent" for their market booth.

5. Eat more vegetables (and fruits). The best reason to visit farmers markets is to continue to raise your awareness of the health of eating fresh fruits and vegetables each day. Studies show that people need about nine daily servings of fruits and vegetables for cancer prevention--far more than the five-a-day often promoted. The more fruit and vegetables are available and accessible, the more everyone in the neighborhood will eat them. Farmers markets and local food are growing trends, and thankfully so! It's hard to think of a healthier craze, and this is one that’s likely here to stay.

6. Explore artisan, homemade and handmade products. You might not know that farmers markets usually sell a variety of items in addition to produce. At large and small markets alike, you just may find vendors who sell fresh-cut flowers, seedlings and plants, herbs, handmade soaps, jams and jellies, honey, eggs, meat, cheese and milk, baked goods (muffins, cookies, bread and more), canned salsa and tomato sauces, and much more! Farmers markets sometimes offer unusual or less common varieties of fruits and vegetables, too. It's fun to experiment with produce you’ve never tasted.

When you're used to supermarket steals, you might be surprised at the cost of food at a farmers market. Some items are priced comparably—or lower—than supermarket foods. In some cases, local produce is cheaper because it skipped all the shipping costs and the mark-up added by grocery stores. But that's not always the case. Supermarkets deal in big volumes and with big commercial farms, which means they can depend on high volume to keep costs low. Your local farmers likely operate on a much smaller scale, running independent small businesses. While some items might cost more than at the store, many shoppers agree that what they're paying for is worth the added cost.

Now that you're clear on the many reasons to shop at a farmers market, how do you begin?

First things first: Find a farmers market by visiting www.localharvest.org or this USDA website, which lists all USDA-registered markets, and searching by state or zip code. Most markets are listed on one or both of these sites, but other "markets" that aren't listed online may take place regularly in church parking lots, neighborhood parks and even hospital lobbies. A great way to find a market is to ask around! Try calling your county health department for a list of local markets.

Each market has its own feel depending on the vendors participating, the neighbors it's serving and the area of the country it's in, but some rules will apply to most. Once you've decided where to go, gather these items to navigate the market effectively:
  • Cash (preferably smaller bills). Markets in smaller towns might take checks, and some in cities accept food stamps.  
  • Reusable bags or containers (optional)
    Depending on what you plan to buy, it's a good idea to bring an extra plastic bag, hard container or baggie to put any wet items in (especially berries, which are fragile and easily squished). Most farmers do provide paper and/or plastic bags for customers, but when you bring your own, you're saving resources and keeping the farmers' costs down.
  • A notepad (in case you want to write down any tips you pick up while at the market)
  • Food containers (optional)
    If you bought eggs, berry pints or quarts, or another item that came in a container from your last visit to the farmers market (or grocery store), bring it back to the vendor. Many farmers who sell eggs, for example, will happily reuse egg cartons from any farm or store brand. This reduces waste and helps them keep their costs down. This is not an expected practice, but it is a nice gesture!
When heading to the market, timing is everything. Arriving early will give you first dibs on the best crops and help you avoid the crowds. Special seasonal items, such as fruit, go fast; if you arrive too late, you might miss out. Arriving later in the day may help you get some good deals from farmers who would rather sell what's left rather than pack it up and haul it home. If you're hoping to negotiate a deal, the end of the day is the best time to score a bargain.

Most farmers will price their fares competitively with the other vendors. You'll likely see similar prices on tomatoes from every farmer, but organic produce might cost more, as will special varieties of foods. When you arrive, scope out the prices and variety at each stand before you buy to ensure that you get the best deal for your money. If several items, such as beans, tomatoes or apples are grouped together at one price, don't be afraid to ask for a smaller amount than is bundled together; most farmers will be happy to accommodate you.

Finally, take your time! Enjoy your experience at the farmers market. Walk slowly, take in the sights and the people, enjoy the free samples, and look carefully and with gratitude at the beautiful foods produced by the farmers in your community.

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Member Comments

  • I normally find the farmers markets here in the city much more expensive. I have a cousin whose family runs 7 farms. I find myself it less expensive (for the produce, clearly not the gas) to drive for an hour and go to the country markets and itís nice to visit family
  • I do not always find them to be cheaper.
  • We have Amish farmers around here. They go to the market to price goods and sell them from a couple cents to a dime /lb. lower than the store. I consider this unfair business practice as they have none of the added expenses which stores do like everything which is considered "overhead" Eg:payroll, transportation costs, cold storage, employee wages and benefits and wastage. Everyone making a profit from the farmer to the retail store. I was raised as a farmer (dairy, small truck farm, & potatoes).!800 acres of farm. 100 milking Holstein and 30-35 jerseys along with hogs (350) so I know farming and costs associated with produce. Farm fresh is always better in taste and keeping quality. As an ex-farmer I will also say look to the commercial producers many have and will sell "seconds" usually mi9shapened or small at a greatly reduced rate, others do the picking and allow people to go thru and get leftovers free or very reduced rates.
  • I love going to our local produce stand / farm market. Now that it is the end of October they are all closed until next year. Stocked up on as much as I could and will just have to go back to buying my fresh fruits and veggies at the grocery store until next year.
  • Love the farmer's market
  • One of the best times of the year is when we are having farmers markets. There are 5 great ones in my area and I get all of my food I can there. Good prices but the quality is so much better. Plus, I want to support them so they keep coming back.
  • Actually, local farmer's market prices are not that much lower, depending on the fruits and vegetables, the cost is much higher. That also includes the artisan breads and specialties, for example, I paid $7 for a homemade olive bread whereas at a Trader's Joe $2 which was smaller, whilst another $5 a commercial Local Market.

    Of course the sizes were different as were the prices, however, the homemade and Local Market were almost similar in size.

    I truly believe in supporting my local markets, for I'm a crafter myself designing wire beaded jewelry and such.
  • Could you please post the scientific studies that you used to verify reason 2?

    Many spark people articles have a list of consulted sources. I'd be interested in seeing the study that supports any of the claims made. Most are opinions, but "All of these factors can decrease nutrient quality." is a verifiable claim. The article softens it by saying generally speaking, and probably. I know this is just a blog, but if you did research this and have an easy link to the study I'd appreciate the link.
  • MOMMAKAT12
    I love to go to our Farmer's Market. Now I buy large quantities of vegetables then go home and cook them all that day. I put some in the fridge for the week and I freeze some in baggies that I can later microwave. I may spend a couple of hours on a Saturday but I now have 2-3 vegetables per weeknight ready to go in minutes. No more highly processed frozen vegetables for us during the summer months.
  • In Wichita we have a "Kansas-Grown Farmers' Market" that I live for from the first of April through the end of October. I love it, and I LOVE the people! Not everyone is accepted as a vendor. The product must be Kansas-Grown or "value added" (think hand knits, artisan jewelry, chocolate chip cookies, etc.). If your community has a choice of Saturday outdoor markets--go to the one that doesn't truck its produce in from far away. If I am in town on Saturday during market months, I am there. I can hardly wait until tomorrow!
  • I started going to the farmer's market last month, I go once per week to stock up. I love it, the produce is so much tastier. The organic stuff is about the same price as the regular store-bought stuff, but way better quality.
  • When I go into the Produce section at a farmer's market, I have to discipline myself (It was easier to quite smoking) because I want a kilo of everything. And I can't do that. Even if I could afford it most would spoil before I got around to cooking it. The top teeth are not mine so I can't eat raw vegetables like I used to love doing, even if the bloody teeth are glued in place.

    Good fruit is better than an orgasim. Says the 81 year old lady.
  • Often you can ask if the farmer has any deals on imperfect produce also called seconds. They are slightly bruised or strangely shaped fruits and vegetables that ordinarily get passed over. If they have them they will happily give you a good deal on these just as healthy veggies. I don't mind if my tomato started life as a conjoined twin or a squirrel nibbled on my corn.
  • Ask questions! I once purchased plums at our local farmer's market and they had a #4040 sticker on them. I later went to the grocery store and found those same plums with the same sticker for half the price! Do not assume the produce is local! The plums weren't. Yes, I felt taken advantage of and I do not think something is worth twice as much because it was purchased at a trendy location.
  • BAUMAN147
    Something similar to a Farmer's Market (and available year-round) is Bountiful Baskets Food Co-op. Go to http://www.bounti
    fulbaskets.org/ to see if there is a site near you. They are in about 25 states and counting, available in both rural areas and big cities. You go to the site on Monday or Tuesday and contribute for a basket (regular or organic), plus you can choose from that week's selection of add-ons like cases of fruit and veggies, bread, tortillas, oils (olive and coconut are the most common) and juice packs( fruits and veggies for juicing). Then you just need to make sure you know when and where to pick up your stuff (a specific time and place on Friday or Saturday). It doesn't support the local community like a farmer's market does, but it's a great way to get cheap fresh fruits and vegetables- particularly when you live in a very rural area like I do.

About The Author

Sarah Haan Sarah Haan
Sarah is a registered dietitian with a bachelor's degree in dietetics. She helps individuals adopt healthy lifestyles and manage their weight. An avid exerciser and cook, Sarah likes to run, lift weights and eat good food. See all of Sarah's articles.