5 Things You Should Be Doing Every Time You Shop at the Farmers Market

published Apr 15, 2023
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The first few days of spring bring chirping birds, welcome rays of sunshine, and the promise of a new crop of produce at the farmers market. As much as we love winter’s stacks of fanned-out carrots and all the potatoes we can fit in a canvas tote, there’s nothing like the excitement of spotting the first asparagus spears of the year. 

At the same time, even the smallest farmers markets can feel overwhelming. Which way should you go first? What should you avoid? And what should you be doing every time you visit? These are all great things to ask. With the first two covered, today we’re focusing on that all-important third question. 

To get the deets, we chatted with Alison Cayne, founder of Haven’s Kitchen and frequent shopper at the Union Square Greenmarket in New York City, and Liz Carollo, assistant director of food access at GrowNYC. They shared some expert tips about shopping efficiently and scoring the best items. If the artichokes, ramps, and baby greens are calling your name this spring, be sure to keep these dos in mind when you head to the greenmarket. 

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1. Bring cash.

Many producers have adopted wireless credit card readers to make transactions in the past few years. However, with each swipe, the farmer ends up paying a portion of the sale back to the credit card company, rather than pocketing the entire sum. 

“Cash is the best way to support the farmers,” says Cayne. Plus, you won’t be left without a way to pay for your goods if the signal fails on the card reader, which happens more than anyone would like.  

2. Remember your reusable bags and food containers.

Grab a stack of reusable bags before you head to the market to carry your produce. GrowNYC banned the use of plastic-handled bags at New York greenmarkets to reduce the environmental impact. (National retailers like Walmart and Target recently announced similar policies.) In addition to bags, bringing your own food containers or mesh produce bags is a great way to cut back on single-use plastic.  

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3. Come with an open mind and a flexible list.

We love to tick off a grocery list as much as the next person. But when you’re buying from local producers, remember that we’re all at the hands of Mother Nature. “Farmers and producers grow and sell seasonal and regionally grown food, so you might not always find exactly what’s on your shopping list,” says Carollo. 

So maybe you can’t find the eggplant you were planning to Parmesan for dinner, but if a gorgeous head of cauliflower strikes your fancy, why not pivot to spicy chicken-fried cauliflower sandwiches?

The good news is that seasonal, local produce tastes fresher, doesn’t have to travel long distances to you, and supports your regional food system. “Don’t be shy, try something new, and you can always ask your farmers or market staff how to cook it!” says Carollo.

4. As the saying goes, “Look with your eyes, not your hands.”

Hundreds, if not thousands, of people walk through a farmers market every day. If we all pick through the bins to find the best-looking fruit, that’s a lot of hands grabbing and squeezing the citrus and tomatoes before you get a chance to check them out. 

Instead of touching every apple in the peck, look for bright colors, firm flesh, and the absence of dings or bruises, then fill up your bag! “Many farmers markets require fresh produce to have been packed within two to three days of sale, so you don’t need to worry about freshness,” says Cayne. 

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5. Be respectful of producers’ time.

Most farmers markets, including all NYC Greenmarkets, are producer-only. “This means participants must sell what they grew, caught, raised, foraged, or baked themselves,” says Carollo. A lot of time, thought, sweat, and effort has gone into every item that’s so beautifully merchandised at the market. And Cayne reminds us that “family farms need these markets to pay for the year of tools, seeds, and equipment.”

When she gives market tours, Cayne encourages her group to be respectful of the farmers time: “Some farmers love to talk about recipes and growing practices, and by all means, chat away. But the ones that seem more reserved or focused on making sure sales go smoothly would probably prefer less conversation. Also, keep in mind that they’ve likely woken up at about 4 a.m. to pack up the trucks and drive to the market.” 

Have you ever worked at a farmers market? Do you have a tip to add to the list?