What to buy (and not buy) at the farmers market this weekend

Headhouse Square Farmers Market, Philadelphia

Headhouse Square Farmers Market, Philadelphia. CC photo by mattohara.

by Emily Thorson

Yes, yes, ideally we would buy all of our produce from farmers markets, and it would be local and fresh, and then we’d strap our reusable canvas bag to our unicorn and ride home on the city streets via the dedicated unicorn lane.

In reality, though, no way can I afford to buy all my produce at the farmers market, especially when I live right next door to the Italian Market, aka the fell-off-the-back-of-a-truck market, which offers such deals as $4 boxes of suspect Mexican mangoes.

Given my monetary constraints, my farmers market purchasing strategy is as follows:

  • Buy only food I’m going to eat without cooking it first
  • Buy only food that is very very much in season (because I live in a city and am not particularly in tune with the seasons, I usually just go by the shortcut of “what’s available at every single stall”)
  • Buy one totally crazy thing that I’ve eaten rarely/never and have no idea what to do with (last week it was purslane. Delicious in a cucumber salad, it turns out!).

Applying this strategy means that I leave the farmers market with fruit, tomatoes, heads of lettuce, and sometimes carrots. I head elsewhere to purchase squash, peppers, beets, greens (kale/chard/etc), garlic, ginger, and potatoes.

The point of this post is to (a) provide one possible strategy for allocating your market budget (b) ask if I’m missing anything great. Does it turn out that zucchini is 100x more awesome when it’s not shipped from South America?

18 responses to “What to buy (and not buy) at the farmers market this weekend

  1. Always keep an eye out for the “seconds” or “bruised” bins. They are usually $.99/lb for tomatoes or peaches, and then you can throw the tomatoes in the crock pot for sauce, or the peaches into a pie or the crock pot for compote. Freeze whatever you don’t eat right away. Really cheap way to get fresh, local produce all year round.

  2. ooo, good idea. I haven’t noticed those, but that’s probably because crowded farmers markets stress me out a bit and I tend to rush through. I will keep my eye out in the future.

  3. The “keep an eye out for bruised” bins is key. Additionally, I really just try to go to the market, see what looks good and then plan out my meals for the week from there. Then I try to grab some fruit that will be a good snack if something looks good (nectarines are awesome right now, imo). Finally, I do like the grab one crazy thing if I think I will have time during the week to do the research to use it well.

  4. Great strategy!

    Still, I’d rather buy all that stuff at farmer’s markets if I can because after October I won’t be able to.

    Greens are plentiful (I have a neighbour who grows chard). Garlic is in season and can last for months if properly stored.

    Fruits such as berries and tomatoes should always be locally grown. They really don’t taste good when they’re imported. (That is, local is 100x better.)

  5. You didn’t mention herbs. You should definitely look for herbs at the markets because they are cheaper and better than what you can get in the store. Unless you’re growing it at home.

  6. Good point re: herbs. Usually my strategy is as follows: try to grow them at home, fail miserably, then feel so guilty about it that I refuse to buy them at all and instead just cook dishes that don’t require herbs.

    I would not recommend this strategy to others.

  7. This is an elliptical solution to your problem, but it’s a complete one: If you work or volunteer for the farmer’s market, you will have all the produce you want, for free or close to it. Obviously for some this is a more expensive solution than the cost of the produce, but depending on how much you value the social/volunteer-y aspects of that kind of work it might be worth it. You learn a ton about food working side by side farmers.

    I always get locally grown greens. Assuming you can find arugula and sorrel at the grocery store, it really won’t compare to the local stuff. I also look for market produce items that are much larger or much smaller than their grocery-store counterparts.

  8. Once I ordered arugula directly from the farmer because they’d run out before I got to the market. I order one [unit] of arugula: This turns out to be a whole lot of salad. So don’t go the bulk route unless you are quite serious about it.

  9. Hmm, Kriston, you really think greens (kale/chard/collards) are better from the market? I honestly can’t tell the difference. Maybe it’s because I rarely eat them raw.

    I think where buying local/fresh makes a HUGE difference is in lettuce-type stuff that you eat raw: bibb, arugula, etc.

    I will try market greens again, though, if you insist!

    Volunteering, while probably great for some, would be fairly impossible for me. I value my time pretty highly, especially on weekends.

  10. Do you actually find the produce at grocery stores to be cheaper than it is at farmer’s markets? That is not usually my experience, except when I’m actually buying fancy items (such as heirloom tomatoes) the regular grocery store doesn’t sell anyway, or for items I can buy in large bags at the grocery store, such as potatoes, onions, or citrus fruit.

  11. Yes, but (a) my grocery stores are really cheap and (b) the Italian Market is REALLY cheap.

  12. That’s what I mean, salad-type greens, though I like to get that other stuff from the market because it’s always fresh and lush. And because I buy everything except potatoes and garlic from the market.

  13. Y’all are seriously sleeping on farmer’s market garlic. Even leaving aside the shockingly low quality of (dried out/sprouted) garlic available in your average grocery store, farmer’s markets often have varieties of hardneck garlic that just aren’t available elsewhere. And if you love garlic, you *will* notice the difference. I never thought there could be so much juice in a clove of garlic.

  14. @chiasmus: that is EXACTLY the kind of advice I wanted. I will buy some farmers market garlic this weekend. thanks dude!

  15. (dried out/sprouted)

    shudder.

  16. Let’s not forget that when you buy at the farmer’s market your money is going straight to the farmer. When you buy at the grocery store the farmer gets little. One reason stores can charge less is that they buy in bulk and it’s often inferior. Buying at a market instead of buying imported produce means that you’re helping stimulate local economy and you’re getting quality produce. The comment about bruised produce is a good one. I’ve heard that sometimes you can negotiate with farmers the previous week: Ask if they’d bring blemished produce and charge you less. Often they won’t bring it.

    There’s also the environmental implications of food that hasn’t traveled as far.

    Stuff picked the day of or day before you buy it tastes better than fruit that has been traveling for days. It’s also not artificially ripened like imports. I realize that none of this has to do with Emily’s strategy (in season and stuff she’s eating raw makes the cut) but I’m just saying.

    In terms of financial priority I’d rather spend a little extra at a farmer’s market than spend money elsewhere but I realize that some people don’t have that little extra for anything.

  17. potatopatahto

    Sunday afternoon at Eastern Market. They cut deals like two for one just to move the produce that probably won’t keep ’til the next weekend.

    Down side? I’ve seen that old couple at the north end of the strip give away a full box of tomatoes for 20 bucks when I believe they could have gotten 5+ times more during the day. I’ll just stick to my two for one raspberries so my soul doesn’t burn in hell.

  18. Things to buy at the farmer’s market:

    Garlic, especially when it’s still immature; you never can get that in a grocery store.

    Cheese, not from cows milk.

    Herbs.

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