1. Find out if all vendors are grower/producers.
Some markets have stalls with peddlers who purchase fruits and vegetables from wholesalers and resell them at the farmers market. While you can get good deals from these sellers, they are not a source for fresh local produce. Most Kansas farmers are proud of what they do and will often have a sign in their stall listing the address of their farm. Some will even have photos. Never hesitate to ask a vendor questions.
2. Shop early in the day for selection.
When the first-of-season blueberries or peaches or honeycrisp apples arrive, they often disappear from market tables faster than you can say “I’ve been waiting a year!” Even less time-sensitive foods like pickling cucumbers might be gone if you wait until late in the day. The early shopper gets the best choice.
3. Savor the season and let what's available guide your meal planning.
Since farmers market selections come from just 100 or 200 miles away, the local climate dictates what you’ll find on any given day. That means you’ll get leafy greens, herbs and sprouts early in the season, and you’ll have to wait for items like corn, berries and tomatoes. Build your menus around produce availability to take full advantage of the season’s bounty.
4. Buy for value, but don’t balk at prices.
Foods like corn, green beans, herbs, squashes, cucumbers and fresh lettuce may be less expensive than storebought. Tomatoes are also a good value. Many other items may be pricier than grocery store because small farmers lack economies of scale and care for their crops by hand rather than machine. The reward: you’ll get peak-of-season taste that is hard to find at your neighborhood grocer.
5. Understand the difference between heirloom and mass-produced varieties.
Local farmers often use heirloom seed stock passed down through generations without human engineering. Often, fruits and vegetables grown from these seed varieties have more flavor than grocery store produce bred from seeds developed for their high yield, ability to withstand long-distance travel, and/or tolerance to drought and frost. Even when produce is a hybrid variety, it will have been recently harvested at the optimal time for flavor.
6. Go for the items you can’t get in the store.
When they’re available, grab regional varieties like an Arkansas Black or Calville Blanc d’Hiver apple or those sweet, juicy strawberries your grandmother remembers from her childhood. In many cases, you’re not going to find them outside farmers markets unless you know the farmer. This applies to ripe peaches as well. Peaches that are picked hard, like those you get in the grocery store, get softer but not sweeter as they ripen. Farmers market peaches are typically picked ripe and therefore sweeter than any alternative source.
7. Know what growing practices are important to you.
The Farmers Market Glossary will prove helpful in understanding the different labels and claims made at farmers markets. Don’t expect all growers to be “certified organic”. Many smaller producers are not big enough to justify the expense of getting inspected and certified under the National Organic Program.
8. Ask when it was picked.
The sugars in foods like peas and corn turn to starch quickly after picking, so be sure you know when they came out of the fields. Some vendors pick fresh in the morning, while others pick the night before because they have to drive two or three hours to set up for a 7 or 8 am market. Beware of anything older.
9. Take cash and a reusable shopping bag or shopping cart.
Some larger farmers markets accept debit or credit cards or even EBT (food stamps) cards, but most neighborhood markets are cash-only affairs. A shopping bag or cart gives you a place to stow your purchases so that you’re not juggling multiple plastic bags, and in some cases eliminates the need for extra bags altogether for a more eco-friendly experience.
10. Befriend the farmers.
Remember, the people you’re buying from are most likely the people who grow the food. They can steer you to the best buys of the day, teach you about foods you might not be familiar with (how often do you buy fennel or celeriac?), and perhaps reserve something special for you the following week. Besides, part of the enjoyment of farmers market shopping is that it’s personal. Take advantage of it.