Why―and How―to Shop at a Farmers’ Market

Four reasons to buy regional food. Plus, tips and hints for shopping a farmers’ market.

  • Candy Gianetti
1. You know what you’re getting. When you buy produce from the supermarket, it’s hard to tell where the produce came from, what chemicals or pesticides may have been used in growing it, or what labor practices the growers employ, says Erin Barnett, director of LocalHarvest.org, a website that connects consumers with organic, sustainable, and local farms. Buying directly from the farmer allows you to ask questions. Exactly how old is the produce? Did it ripen on a vine or in a truck? And if you’re the show-me type, the farms are close enough to visit.

2. The food is fresher. Many fruits and vegetables at the supermarket are picked before they’re fully ripe so they can survive the journey from the farm to your table―which can take as long as two weeks. Local farmers, on the other hand, can wait to pick produce at its peak, so you get the maximum taste, nutritional value, and freshness.

3. You help the environment. Buying at the farmers’ market reduces grocery-store-packaging waste and the energy used for lengthy refrigerated storage.

4. You support local farmers. Only about 25 to 30 cents of every dollar that you pay for fresh produce at a market goes to the grower. By buying direct, you help farmers get a fair price, which in turn, helps them stay in business. What’s more, you’re keeping your food dollars in your local economy.
 

What to Know Before You Go to a Farmers’ Market

  • "There are many fantastic things at the market, so don't stick to your shopping list or you're going to miss out on all the best stuff," says Christine Farren, communications manager of the Center for Urban Education About Sustainable Agriculture, which runs the Ferry Plaza Farmers' Market, in San Francisco. Instead, talk to the farmers to find out what's freshest right now.
  • Take a taste of any available samples, including the misshapen tomatoes. "Unlike in the supermarket, diversity and flavor are paramount, not cosmetic perfection," says Farren.
  • Bring a tote bag, because you'll cut your trip short if a plastic bag full of potatoes is digging into your hand.
  • For the best selection, go as soon as the market opens. On the other hand, if you're making pies, sauces, or other recipes that don't call for blemish-free produce, go at the end of the day to scoop up damaged goods, which are usually marked down, says Amy Nicholson, a farmer from Geneva, New York, who sells fruit at several farmers' markets in her area.
 

Can’t Get to the Farmers’ Market? Try a CSA

Join a CSA (community-supported agriculture) and you will have access to a steady flow of fresh food and get satisfaction from supporting local growers.

How CSAs Work

CSAs are subscription programs. Members make an agreement with a farm (usually small and often organic) to pay a set amount in advance for a regular supply of the farm’s produce, eggs, and other products, like flowers and cheese. In effect, you cover a portion of the farm’s operating expenses (seeds, labor, and so on) in return for a share of the harvest. Since CSAs started in the United States in the 1980s, the concept has taken off. Today there are more than 2,000. Although each one has its own rules, here are the main options.

  • You pay either up front for the whole growing season or a monthly or weekly charge.
  • Each week you pick up your food at the farm or a distribution point in your neighborhood. (Some farms will provide a weekly delivery service to your door, though the cost may be more.) Along with your produce shipment, most CSAs provide recipes and cooking suggestions in case you need ideas about what to do with the kohlrabi or the parsnips in your basket that week.
  • You receive a set basket of items depending on what is being harvested at a particular time, but you may be able to pick and choose at the distribution point.
  • You may be asked or given an option (sometimes for a discounted share) to put in a few hours of work on the farm or at the distribution point.

The Cost

CSA shares can cost from $300 to $1,000, depending on the length of a region’s growing season and the range of products that a farm cultivates (which may include meat, flowers, and cheeses), among other factors. In addition to offering possible savings over what you would pay for organic produce at a supermarket, belonging to a CSA gives you the convenience of a regular delivery of extremely fresh fruits and vegetables, the pleasure of helping the people who grow your food, and a sense of community. If a full share would probably yield more produce than your family can use, many CSAs also offer half shares, or you can split a share with a friend (which also means you can swap beets for kale one week and melon for plums another).

To find a CSA near you, go to localharvest.org/csa, where you’ll find a locator, as well as grower profiles, prices, and contact information.