1. Strategic planning
Before your trip, have your week’s menu planned out. Focus on seasonal ingredients that grow well where you live as much as possible — that’s what your local farmers are likely to have.
If you’ve never been there before, don’t be afraid to scout the place out before you shop. If they don’t have listings available online, just drop by and walk around for an hour or so. Ask the people running the booth any questions you have, including what they expect to have in the coming weeks. This is just a recon mission, so if you buy, great, but if not, you know better for after you’ve fully planned.
2. Set that alarm
When it comes to the farmers market, the early bird gets the watermelon… at least the best watermelon. You’ll find the best goods early, before they’ve been picked over, and will have a shot at getting stuff that tends to sell out quickly. That said, if you’re looking for savings and willing to be flexible, going later in the day is when you’ll find the best deals.
3. Bring the proper supplies
Come with plenty of cash in small bills. Not all farmers markets take credit or debit cards, and sometimes you get a better price when you pay cash (because they don’t pay processing fees). Additionally, many farmers markets also have people selling nonfood items, like handmade furniture, that are likely to cost a pretty penny if you find something you like.
Also come with sturdy canvas or other eco-friendly shopping bags and even a couple of sturdy boxes to help you get everything inside in fewer trips when you get home. You should also bring a cooler packed with frozen ice packs. Farmers markets are increasingly carrying fresh or frozen meats and seafood.
4. Be a master tactician
Sometimes you get to the market only to find out someone had a better-than-expected growing season. Don’t be afraid to make last-minute changes to your plan. Find a lot of beautiful eggplant? Maybe that chicken Parm will have to become a vegetarian dish.
Also, if you see any freezer- or canning-friendly foods in plentiful supply, especially at the end of the growing season, buy a load of it, set aside what you can eat immediately, and preserve the rest.
But probably the most important tactic you could know is this: Negotiate, negotiate, negotiate. Don’t be afraid to ask for a better deal, especially if you’re buying a lot or if it’s late in the day. Worst they can say is “no.”
5. Find an inside man (or three)
Get to know the farmers. They give great advice and are more likely to look out for and give good deals to people they know. They can also offer great recommendations as they start to learn your tastes. Don’t be afraid to tell them what’s on the menu. They probably have the inside scoop on what’s available at other stands too.
6. Don’t get too caught up on organic certifications
If organic is important to you, ask the farmer about their processes. The reality is, not only is the official FDA certification iffy as is, but smaller farmers may not be able to afford the fees associated with getting their smaller crops certified. That doesn’t mean it’s not organic.
7. Take your kids (sometimes)
If you’re in a hurry or if you really need to get some business done, leaving little ones at home may be a better idea. But bringing them with you at least sometimes can help instill a love of fresh fruits and veggies to last a lifetime.
Getting to meet the people who actually grow the food, learning about how it’s grown and when and why it’s good (and maybe even taste how much better it is) and being directly involved in the process at such a “homegrown” (if you’ll pardon the pun) level will increase their appreciation for the food they’re eating. Additionally, older kids can help with various tasks, depending on their age. At the very least, they can carry some of your booty on those big shopping days.