Do you love to shop the local farmers market, but sometimes wonder if you are really getting the best out of your shopping experience? What do the pros, like chefs, prepared food makers or institutional buyers know that you don't? 

Q: What are the ingredients that make up a farmers market?

A public space (rented or owned), vendors (farmers, artisan food makers, sometimes crafts), manager (usually paid for by the farmers market management), volunteers and community organizations and, most importantly, YOU! 

Q: Who "owns" a farmers market?

It depends. Sometimes the owners are farmers, sometimes a real estate association or a nonprofit, or the city. The ownership structure matters, because how the market is run will predict how happy the vendors are, as well as the quality and provenance of the food. Do your homework and find out who owns or manages your local market. At most markets you can go to the annual meeting. It’s very interesting and often fun to do so.

Q:  Are all the farms using organic growing methods?

Absolutely not. Every farmer's growing methods will differ. A reputable market will ensure that growers abide by the Department of Agriculture requirements in their state, but that doesn't mean all the vendors are organic or biodynamic certified. Don’t be fooled by “no spray” signs (there are a lot of ways to deliver herbicides and pesticides that aren't "sprayed"), but consider your tolerance for “sustainable" (an unregulated term). Ask the farmer directly. Sometimes farmers don't want to have to pay the extra fees related to organic certification, but their growing methods are in line with, or even stronger than USDA organic certification. The ideal is to visit the farm. Good growers take care of their soil and their plants look healthy. People can get very worried about growing methods. Growing practices do matter, particularly for the larger environmental health issues and pesticide loads in people.  But I always remember that every farm wants repeat customers, so they aren't going to deliberately put anything on or in their crops that will hurt their customers! Check out the Environmental Working Group's "Dirty Dozen" if you want to know more. Nonprofit groups, like Carolina Farm Stewardship Association in the Carolinas, hosts seasonal farm tours where you can go out and visit the farms without interrupting the farm work. 

Q: How recently have the farmers harvested their food?

Usually within 12 - 72 hours, depending on what it is and how far they have to travel, plus the cold storage on their farm. Sometimes, they will keep their food, like potatoes or melons, and re-sell it at their next market. If you want to know, ask. 

 Q: Is food at a farmers market more expensive than the grocery store?

No. Not for comparative food quality and not if you know how to shop a market. Know your prices. Sometimes a market in an expensive town or neighborhood will have higher prices than one in a different neighborhood. Check around. Understand that prices will fluctuate throughout the season, too. The first pint of strawberries may be more expensive than the 3,000th at the market. 

Q: How do you tell the difference between five people with the same product?

It really depends on your preferences. 

Basics: Visible differences of the food, growing practices, knowledge level of the staffs (Ask them about the products and see if they know their stuff.)

Advanced: Terroir (what does it taste like?), Relationship with you/shoppers

I once met a farmer who claimed he feeds his collards molasses because he believes it makes them sweeter. Kale harvested once the mornings get cold will be sweeter. If lettuce doesn't get watered regularly, it will be bitter. Learn your farms, the taste of the food that comes from their soil and their skill as growers and harvesters. You can even ask a farmer or a market manager which farm grows the best of a certain item and they might tell you the inside scoop. 

Q: Can you bargain at a farmers’ market? Usually not — unless it’s the end of the day and even then, they don’t like it. If you are regular shopper, or shopping in volume for something they are trying to unload in the high season, you can sometimes get a 10% discount. Wholesale buyers will get a deeper discount, but they have a different kind of buying relationship with a farm. 

Q: Do farmers grow everything they sell at their market?

It depends on the market. Check the rules. Some markets require that everything sold at the market is grown by the person selling it. Some markets are not so strict. Know your rules. Sometimes people are selling things they haven't grown and incorrectly representing the source of the product. If you have questions, ask the market manager.

Extra Credit:  Q: What is up with the apostrophe?  Farmers’ Market vs. Farmers Market vs. Farmer’s Market?

This comes back to the ownership structure. Farmers' Markets are often owned/managed by the farmers. Farmers Market can mean anything. And a Farmer's Market, well, that's probably just a typo. 

Have fun! Shop your market early and often! 

- margaret gifford

© 2015 Watervine Impact LLC