Shopping at a farmers’ market is a great way to enjoy a wide variety of fresh delicious food. Yet, even as new markets continue to open across the state, there’s a persistent myth that produce at farmers’ markets costs more than at supermarkets.
The reality turns out to be quite the opposite. Barry Estabrook’s 2011 Atlantic article “The Farmers’ Market Myth” cited a Vermont study that found mixed results: some items cost less at the supermarket, others cost less at the farmers’ markets. For organic produce, the farmers’ markets beat the supermarkets on every item but potatoes.
My own informal produce price survey found a similar pattern. In a July 2011 survey of produce prices at the Belmont Farmers’ Market and two area supermarkets, the farmers’ market had the lowest prices on the most items.
Many farmers’ markets also double SNAP benefits up to a certain amount, allowing SNAP recipients to stretch their budgets even farther.
Even so, successfully navigating a farmers’ market takes some getting used to. Most of us are savvy supermarket shoppers. But most of us didn’t grow up shopping at farmers’ markets, and it helps to take a different approach.
Here are ten tips to help you get your money’s worth at the farmers’ market.
- Make a budget and take that much cash with you. You can’t be tempted to spend what you don’t have. If you are a SNAP recipient, check with the market manager to see if the market accepts – or doubles – SNAP benefits.
- Tour the market. Before you start buying, take a walk through the market to see what’s available this week. This will give you a chance to check prices and quality at the different vendors. Keep your eyes open for sales.
- Try new foods. There’s often a wider variety of produce available at a farmers’ market, and you can stretch your budget by trying something new. I’ve discovered some terrific new foods at the farmers’ market, including garlic scapes, pea shoots (or tendrils), squash vines, and beet greens.
- Ask for advice. See something new? Ask the vendor about it. They can give you recipes and tell you what to expect. Ask vendors what they recommend. You can also ask about growing practices. Don’t be shy: Most farmers say that talking to customers is a big reason for attending farmers’ markets.
- Buy in season. While the first tomatoes and peppers of summer can be expensive, the prices tend to come down once they are abundant. Get an idea of what to expect with this availability chart.
- Go early for best selection. If you absolutely, positively have to have an item, go early to make sure it’s available. If you can plan ahead, ask a vendor if they are able to save a particular item for you the following week.
- Go late for best prices. If you’re flexible, you may be able to get a better price at the end of the day as the market it wrapping up.
- Budget for a splurge item. Set aside a few dollars for a treat: a fresh loaf of bread, the first summer tomato, or a cookie.
- Check in with the market. Look for the market manager’s tent and say hello. You find all kinds of information here, from recipes to upcoming events to vendor information. Ask if there’s a market newsletter, or if the market is active on Facebook or Twitter.
- Have fun! Farmers’ market shopping is a more social experience than supermarket shopping. Get to know the market vendors and enjoy spending some time outdoors.