Farmer's Market Methodology

How to Balance Flavor & Finances While Being Farmer-Friendly  

If you’ve been following my blog for any length of time now, you’ve probably realized that I love farmers markets. I don’t mean like “OMG, this is so cute, I love it!”, more like “what fresh heaven on earth is this and can I live here?” Admittedly, this is partly because they appeal to my fascination with simpler ways of life, centuries past - when people strolled casually through cobblestone streets to get the early pick of a merchant’s newest offerings of baked goods and produce, planning their meals for the days ahead as a little bird lights gently on their shoulder to serenade them (and then made cakes with lots of brandy in them). Ok, maybe I’m over-romanticizing. I mean, those cobblestone streets were filled with who-knows-what; and when was the last time a little bird flew up to you with any other intention than to leave you with...Anyways, it’s safe to say that I’m pretty happy with modern comforts and conveniences, but I also love my weekly strolls down the closed city blocks, market bag in tow, to pick out my food for the week. However, it’s less about my romanticizing of simpler times and more about my love for really good tasting food.

 Farmers Market Baskets

The way I see it, there are three main perks of shopping at a farmer’s market; you get to support your local economy, the food tastes better, and it’s fun!

A recent study by UC Davis found that every dollar spent at a local farmer’s market, or at market-direct farms, is twice as effective at influencing the strength of a local economy over buying from a supermarket. Something I find odd about our current culture is how we seek out our favorite local coffee shop, dine at that new farm-to-table restaurant and shop makers fairs for local artisan goods but still purchase our groceries from a standard grocery store. I'm not here to browbeat anyone about how  ‘shopping ‘big-box’ style stores is evil’ (more on that later), but it’s a habit worth examining, and our food growers are a facet of our small business community we shouldn’t forget about. So, if you’re interested in keeping your community economically sound, buying direct from the farms is a great choice.

Then, as if all the socially responsible perks weren’t enough, the food you’ll find at a market is likely to taste better than what you can find in your average grocery store. Over the last several decades, shoppers have pushed the agricultural industry into favoring shelf life, ship-ability, and appearance (of all things..) over flavor. However, your local market-direct farmers don’t have to worry much about long shelf life or major transportation issues. This means you can often find the more unique or heirloom (unmodified) varieties of fruits and vegetables, often produced with more organic and sustainable growing methods.

Starting with already-delicious produce is the biggest head-start you can give yourself to making recipes and final dishes taste incredible. Plus, the more we support our local farms, the more we help to shift the food system back in a healthy direction.

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Ok, I’ll be stepping off my soap box now..mostly..

Aside from the "do good" stuff, like I said, most farmer’s markets are fun! In addition to lots of really beautiful produce, they often have live music, ready-made food vendors, cut flowers, and (probably lots of) cute dogs(!). When people come to visit us in San Diego, I try to take them to a market just for the fact that it gives them a taste of our city’s culture and offerings. If you’ve recently moved to a new city or you’re just looking for something different to do on a weekend, definitely go to a market and get to know your town or neighborhood better and discover new facets of the community.

I know, I know; I can already hear your interjections that it's no secret farmer's markets have a reputation for being wallet drainers. They don’t get that reputation for nothing, but it’s not what your experience has to be every time, or ever, really.

It's not hard for the bargain hunters looking for sale items to find the best deals at the market, but I've learned a few little tricks for how to make my market dollars more effective, balancing flavor, intended use and price, when there are specific items on my shopping list. By learning what and how to buy at a market and what items can be picked up elsewhere, you can enjoy good food and support local farms even when you don't have Lady Grantham’s household budget.

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Know what you want and set a budget: Start by deciding what’s most valuable to you that week and then leave yourself some room to try something new. I prioritize the items that are best when they’re fresh from my local farms. I look for seasonal fruit, tomatoes, fresh cut herbs, pastured eggs, and leafy greens by the pound (<— this one is so much cheaper from the market than the grocery store!). If it’s helpful, make a list of what you’d ideally like to buy before you go and reference back to it as you shop (I know, duh.). For example, I’ve learned the strawberries from the farm in Carlsbad would totally smash the taste of the strawberry-esque fruits from the grocery store in a Tuesday Night Smackdown, so those little berries will definitely end up as a market purchase.

There can be a lot of different farms selling the same produce at one market. You can make the shopping process easier by weighing your intended use into your decisions. When I’m looking for strawberries to make preserves, I know that I’ll be cooking them down and adding some sugar. In this case, I usually ask a farmer if they have any smashed fruit to buy at a discount or find the less expensive (and potentially less Smackdown-worthy) berries. If I’m looking for strawberries to eat fresh, I usually buy the best tasting ones. The same goes for buying produce at the market versus the grocery store. When I’m wanting tomatoes to slice for a sandwich, I’m definitely buying them from a local farmer (because flavor wins here, again). If I’m cooking some romas into a pasta sauce, you may let your budget decide if market or grocer is best. The more often you shop at a market, the more you’ll get to know the farms and their seasonal offerings. You’ll find that JR Organics has great strawberries, Good Taste grows the best citrus ever, and Luchia produces some of the finest greens around. It won’t be long before you’ll be thinking of a certain farm or booth as you make your list and you’ll know what you want and right where to get it without much thought - you might even make some new farmer friends!

Once I know what I’m looking to buy, I decide how much I can spend and run by an ATM on my way to the market. As a freelancer, my budget constantly varies and some weeks it’s virtually non-existent, so even though several farms take cards these days, by using cash, I know I’ll stay on budget - when it’s gone, I’m done. Another great (mostly unknown) feature is that lots of markets accept EBT cards and some give extra rewards for buying produce at a farmer's market. California has a great market finder for EBT, WIC, etc. accepting markets. If you are a part of one of these programs, be sure to check if your state has a directory.

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Walk the market: I like to start at one end and walk the entire length of the market, “window shopping” each booth, tasting and smelling my way through (most farms have samples or will provide one if you ask). This way I get a good overall idea of what’s being offered this week and I can compare that to my priority list. Sometimes I’ll take photos on my phone to remember the farm and the price because my memory is terrible and after 4 tables of tomatoes, it can easily run together. If you aren’t sure what’s best that week or if you see something you’re unfamiliar with, ask! Remember, most of the people working are out there because they love what they’re doing and if they’re not helping five people at once, they’re often all too happy to tell you about their produce and why it’s special. They might even be able to suggest different ways prepare it or what else might go with it. It’s a great way to introduce yourself to something new and interact with the people who grew your food.

When you’ve made it to the other end, circle back around and break out that cash.

Supplement from a store as needed: I shop at a farmers market almost every week, and I still swing by Sprout’s to pick up additional items. I know that when you’re on a budget, you can’t necessarily afford all of your weekly groceries at market prices. So, buy what you can from a farmer, then get the rest at your usual places. (See, I told you grocery stores aren’t evil!)

Kris - Farmer at Good Taste Farm (photo by Van Chaplin)

Kris - Farmer at Good Taste Farm (photo by Van Chaplin)

Bulk Purchases and Fair Pricing: When you’re looking to make a large batch of peach preserves, canning tomatoes, or you just realllly love blueberries, don’t be afraid to ask a farm if they’ll do a bulk discount. Most farmers will gladly sell you large amounts at a discount. Just be fair in your pricing. I strongly believe people deserve to be paid for the value of what they produce. Our farmers are some the hardest working professionals in our country and what they produce is our life-blood. Many of the farmers selling at your local markets aren’t harvesting with large machines; they’re literally on hands and knees, digging your carrots out of the ground, and in some cases the day or morning before selling it to you. Some of these farmers are continuing family businesses, some are immigrants and refugees, and some are new farmers simply because they love providing people with food. I say this to illustrate the work that goes into those tables full of zucchini and watermelons, and the prices should reflect that. So, when you’re looking for a deal or to buy something at a bulk discount, be respectful in your expectations.  

One final thought; show your appreciation for the farmer's’ labor of love by wasting as little as possible and sharing it with others. And when you like something, let the farmer know! It may encourage them to continue growing that crop next season or expand their current plantings, but it’s also a really nice way to interact and build relationships with them. Personally, I think farmers deserve a thousand times more praise than they get. Here’s a little advice from one of my favorite local farmers, Sarah, of Good Taste Farm:

“The main reason to go to a farmers market is because it is FUN. You get to see beautiful produce displays, smell delicious foods, and then YOU GET TO EAT THINGS! The farmers market puts a face to the abstract concept of “food."

My market tips: Chill out and enjoy the sights! There isn't a right or wrong way to do things. It's okay to peruse without buying, but when something catches your eye, don't be afraid to buy it and try it.

Support farmers by buying from the farm stalls, not just prepared foods. We farmers work very hard to bring our farm products every week. Ask prepared food vendors if they buy from any of the farms and give your business to the ones that do.

The best compliment you can give a farmer is to tell people you know about the farm and share the food you make with others!”

I hope this helps demystify the farmer’s market shopping experience and provides you with ways to support your local farmers without breaking your bank. Just remember, you don’t need to be Lady Grantham to eat good food from talented farmers, though I know we all wish we had her style...

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I’d love to see your market adventures and what you’re filling your market baskets with, so take share your photos on Instagram! (Tag #ofthedirt and #whatsinyourbasket)