Saturday, May 26, 2012

How to Shop a Farmer's Market

Here on our farm, we like to grow as much of our own produce as we possibly can. But before we had land of our own, and to supplement what we harvest here, we love farmer's markets. They are a fantastic source of local, in-season food that you just can't get at the grocery store. Often times, the veggies are picked earlier that same day, so it can hardly get much fresher.

But if your local farmer's market is like Des Moines' (i.e. huge) and you've never shopped at one before, things can be a bit... intimidating.

Where do you begin with so many vendors and crowds of shoppers? Well, have no fear; as multiple-year veterans of farmer's market shopping, we're here to share some of our favorite tips.

Tip #1. Get there early. The downtown Des Moines Farmers Market runs from 7AM to noon, but you'll never catch us arriving much past 8. Sure, there is fun to be had strolling around and munching food from the prepared food vendors later in the day but your selection of fresh produce will have been diminished. The farmers bring a certain amount of their crops and when they're out, they're out. So for the freshest produce and meats available, plan to get there as early as possible. For us, 7 is pretty hard to do on the weekends, but we can typically manage 8AM or so.

Tip #2. Fuel up. The "experts" say you should never shop on an empty stomach or you'll end up buying too much. To us, that hardly seems like a bad thing at a farmers market, but the advice still holds since you'll be doing a lot of walking. Plus, most farmers markets have a nice selection of prepared foods as well as fresh produce, so you can buy yourself a treat to nibble as you do your shopping. Des Moines has everything from breakfast burritos and sandwiches to egg rolls, pupusas and samosas, but our favorites are the Austrian pastries from the Strudl Haus. Find something that looks tasty, and get that first to power you through your shopping.

Tip #3. Get to know some farmers. Most farmers markets are populated by the same vendors week-to-week. If you find a vendor who consistently has tasty, fresh produce or always takes the time to answer your questions about their farm and practices, it might be nice to "vote with your dollars" at that stand. As farmers market veterans, we've now got a pretty good routine of our favorite farmers that we always make a point to visit and see what they've got. In fact, this was also how we ended up getting a half hog a few months back; we'd previously purchased individual cuts of pork from Crooked Gap and knew it was delicious and sustainably raised. When we opted to buy a half hog share, we knew exactly where to look.

Tip #4. That said, don't get stuck in a rut. Most vendors are the same every week within the season, but there is some turnover of market spots at the start of each season. So even though we may have a mental list of farmers we want to visit in any given week, we don't limit ourselves to those. Just last week we discovered Yang Homegrown Vegetables, a farmer we'd never seen before, and who had some of the best looking organic rhubarb around. We bought a few bunches and now their stand has become part of our planned rotation for the rest of the season.

Tip #5. Figure out what's in season, and buy that. Compare the above photo of Yang's produce with the picture below of another vendor just a few stands over. Both have beautiful looking produce, but there is one pretty big difference.

When these photos were taken, in mid-May, some vegetables are in season, and others just aren't. Yang's radishes, onions, rhubarb and greens are common early-season crops. The other stand has bigger-than-expected broccoli and cauliflower, but even more questionably they already have bell peppers. In Iowa those shouldn't be ripe until the late summer so you wouldn't expect to see them just yet. This particular stand is especially brazen, leaving the grocery store stickers on the peppers, so there's really no question that these are not locally grown. Most vendors aren't out to trick you, but simply being aware of when different vegetables ripen in your area can be helpful. This website is a pretty good resource, but keep in mind these are estimates only. This year a lot of vegetables have ripened much sooner than they seem to think.

Tip #6. Feel free to ask questions. If you can't tell whether something is in season or not, or if you're wondering anything else about the food that you see, go ahead and ask. One plus to shopping at farmers markets is that the farmers themselves typically work the stands. This means that they know what they're selling, and can tell you all about it. Anything you want to know, from identifying a plant you've never seen before to knowing if the farm is organic, chemical-free, or conventional can be answered with a simple question. No one will make fun of you for not knowing, and most farmers enjoy talking about their food with someone who really wants to know.

Tip #7. Don't be afraid to try something new. You can go to a farmers market and buy locally grown versions of the same food that you can find at the store, but that's only part of the fun. Farmers love to experiment with different varieties, and many unusual items are typically on display at the market. If you see something eye-catching, ask what it is and how to prepare it, and then why not give it a try? In the past, we've gotten these interesting looking dragon tongue beans, plus a range of items as diverse as purple potatoes and actual Iowa-raised tilapia. Not every one will be a new favorite, but it's part of the fun to check out a new taste.

Tip #8. Have fun! A farmer's market is a great opportunity to try new things, support local farmers, and enjoy great food. These tips can make your trip more successful from a shopping perspective, but don't worry about following them to the detriment of the experience. Our collection of tips is built up from years of experience shopping at farmers markets, and we still don't always do things perfectly efficiently. But we do always have a great time, and we're sure you will too if you give it a try.

How about you? Any particular tips or habits you follow when you shop at the farmer's market? What's your favorite thing to buy at the market?

This post has been shared with Simple Lives Thursday.


  1. Does anyone now anything about the Altoona fm? Time, place?

    1. Lisa - It looks like it's in Olde Town on Fridays, from 4 pm to 7 pm.