A farmers market guide

Top tips for shopping at farmers markets—plus how to turn it into more than just a grocery trip.

Farmers markets are a mainstay of local communities. They’re a perfect weekend destination: a place to pick up groceries, grab a coffee, buy some flowers and interact with your neighbors.

But farmers markets can also be a little…well, intimidating. It’s easy to get overwhelmed, particularly in larger markets. If you’re not mentally prepared for a bustling and sometimes chaotic experience, you may end up leaving empty-handed, dreaming of all the fresh fruit and veggies you could have brought home.

These days, farmers markets aren’t just a grocery stop on your weekend errands list. With live music, coffee carts and local vendors, they’re a shopping experience, a lunch outing and an all-around social occasion. Here’s how to make the most of your next trip.

Tips for your farmers market trip

There’s no need to do extensive planning ahead, but a few tips—like remembering to bring your own bags and knowing what’s in season—can make the trip more hassle-free. Here are some tips to prepare for your next market adventure.

1. Learn the layout

Farmers markets usually start early in the morning. And for many people, early mornings mean that one thing takes priority: coffee. Luckily, many farmers markets plan their vendor locations with this in mind. You may notice that local coffee carts are often given prime real estate near the market’s entrance. That’s no accident!

Like any big event or festival, a good farmers market is designed as a journey for attendees. “Farmers are strategic about their stalls at farmers markets, so pay attention!” says writer Luci Petlack, a lifestyle blogger who writes about food and other topics. “If you’re not super familiar with a certain market, you’ll want to do a lap to see what everyone has and who has the fairest prices.”

2. Bring cash, a shopping list and reusable bags

“Make sure to have your bases covered by bringing cash—not all markets or farmers take credit cards—and bring your own reusable bags,” says food blogger Jenna Coleman. “Know what’s in season, and meal plan around those items. When you get to the market, you can either go with your favorite stand or do a lap to get a feel for the prices and quality of the produce. Don’t be afraid to talk to the farmers about their farming practices.”

Not sure whether your local market takes credit cards? Do some research on their website, or give them a call beforehand to ask. Food trucks and vendors can usually process credit card payments, and this capability is becoming more common at farm stands, too.

3. Shop for what’s in season

Farmers markets are often the most direct interaction that produce growers have with shoppers. Here, “farm to table” is more than a restaurant buzzword. When you shop at a farmers market, your purchases will come straight from the farm around the corner to your family’s kitchen table.

Use this to your advantage to get the freshest fruits and vegetables. Research which fruits and veggies are in season near you. Here are a few of the most common in-season items:  

  • Spring: Strawberries, rhubarb, peas, mangos, fennel, butter lettuce, pineapples, oranges, white asparagus 
  • Summer: Corn, figs, garlic, cucumbers, nectarines, watermelons, cantaloupes, bell peppers, beets, tomatoes
  • Fall: Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, ginger, pumpkins, sweet potatoes, chard, turnips, chayote squash, broccoli
  • Winter: Passion fruit, collard greens, turnips, pears, dates, leeks, mandarin oranges

Armed with this information, you’ll have what you need to make the best seasonal meals: strawberry-rhubarb pie in the spring, a fresh tomato gazpacho in the summer and roasted Brussels sprouts in the fall. By cooking with the freshest ingredients, you’re bound to make something that’s delicious.

4. But don’t be afraid to try something new

Find an unfamiliar vegetable? Buy it! Farmers markets can be a great way to expand your culinary horizons. Challenge yourself to make something new.

Kristen Link, a health coach and recipe writer, tries to find something new on each visit. “The market is a great place to find new ingredients,” she says. “And while you don’t need to completely overhaul your cooking routine, committing to picking up one new fruit or vegetable every trip is a great way to explore new flavors.”

Beyond grocery shopping: The social scene

Sure, you might be there to buy your vegetables for the week. But farmers markets can also be an ideal spot for a family outing, catching up with friends or even a first date.

Karen Grisevich and her husband, Doug, founded GrowRVA, a string of established and pop-up farmers markets throughout central Virginia. GrowRVA connects local farms, food and arts with communities in and around Richmond, Virginia—as far north as Colonial Beach.

To Karen, farmers markets are social events—a place to slow down, relax and experience all the senses.

“In a time when everyone is busy, glued to their electronics and rushing everywhere, your local farmers market is the perfect place to reconnect with the community, family, friends and nature,” she says.

“Whether you are shopping for fresh foods and homemade products, out with your family for the morning, meeting a friend for coffee or just needing an outdoor fix, a farmers market is the perfect place to connect!” says Karen. “You can ask farmers about their growing practices. Talk to the bakers and artists about how they got started. Discuss recipes and taste samples. Learn to appreciate what is in season, and support local businesses.”

Photo credit: Mesa Farmer’s Market and Flea

Farmers markets can also play an important role in bringing communities together. Mesa Farmers Market and Flea is a newer market in Mesa, Arizona. Their goal is to increase access to fresh produce in the area and to create a fun market experience that supports small businesses in Arizona.

Part farmers market, part flea market, the market has vendors that provide food and drink offerings as well as shopping. “We have food artisans, [who] make local bread and pastries, as well as food trucks,” says Kelsey, a member of the Mesa Farmers Market and Flea team. “We operate out of a park, so there is plenty of room for guests to sit at picnic benches or on blankets on the grass to dine and listen to live music.”

A community effort

Your farmers market is more than just a place to shop for vegetables and fruits. It’s a gathering place for your community—and a culinary adventure, too.

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