The Farmers Market Dilemma

When my family moved this summer, one of the big perks of our new location is that it’s just around the corner from the farmer’s market. On my first visit, I was impressed with the setup and the variety of the booths. There were local crafters, meat vendors, a few other locally-made products, and plenty of fresh produce stands. One of the other markets I’d attended elsewhere had been about 75% crafts and 25% local food, so it was exciting to have a local market with lots of food options!

However, I made an unfortunate discovery. While the produce was local and sustainably grown, and fresher than what is available in the supermarket, it was also much more expensive.  The miser in me froze up.

There are good reasons for the additional cost. These are people working on small farms, not on a corporate scale. So we can’t expect to see the same kind of pricing because it’s likely less efficient, but far more natural. There are actual humans tending to these plants, not machines! Farmers market produce is also typically organically grown, so I should have been comparing these items to their supermarket organic prices, not the cost of the regular produce. Additionally, it’s fresher and should taste better, so hopefully knowing that makes the price worth it.

So take some time to learn more about why we should support our local growers! For myself, knowing that doing so helps safeguard the environment is at the forefront of my mind. I also love seeing the variety of produce that’s available. Seeing (and buying and eating) yellow and purple carrots last week reminded me that there are so many more options available than what we see on a typical grocery store shelf. Buying in-season produce is more nutritious too, and I’m also interested in doing more to shop locally to support my neighbor’s businesses (the big-name corporations have enough already).

However, I ended up not buying anything at the farmers market on my first visit. I had a certain budget in mind for my groceries, and I was pretty sure that buying a significant amount of any food there would push me over that limit. Purchasing organic produce still makes me squirm a little, because my limited budget pushes me toward quantity over quality. So what can I do?

With some thinking and some practice, I’ve found small ways to change my habits. I can’t change the prices at the farmers market, but I can find ways to shop locally while still staying in my budget.  Here are tweaks you can make to love your local farmers market a little more:

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  1. Set a small part of grocery budget aside for farmers market produce. Establishing this as a habit will, hopefully, support your local economy and help you make it a normal part of your life. The second Saturday I went to the market, I took five dollars. I decided that I could spare at least this to buy something a little fresher, a little better for my family, though in a smaller quantity than I would have elsewhere. That time I purchased some heirloom tomatoes and my favorite orange cherry tomatoes! More recently, we enjoyed some pickling cucumbers (they are great fresh too!) and heirloom tomatoes again. Freshly picked tomatoes are 500% tastier than grocery store tomatoes!
  2. Prioritize purchasing the Dirty Dozen. The Environmental Working Group (EWG) provides a list each year of the twelve conventionally-produced  fruits and vegetables that test for the highest presence of pesticides. So if you want to make your money spent at the farmers market to be as beneficial as possible, check out the Dirty Dozen list so you can seek out organic and local alternatives! (There’s a Clean Fifteen list as well, with the items with the lowest levels of pesticides on grocery store shelves.)
  3. Ask vendors if they have seconds available. “Seconds” are produce items with minor defects (bruises, bumps, perhaps small cuts) that are sold at a discount. They may not be quite as pretty, but they taste just as good and cost you less! I was thrilled to get peach seconds at a fruit stand in Pennsylvania – with the adjusted price, they cost just the same as grocery store peaches, but I enjoyed them a lot more. Fresh peaches may just edge out fresh tomatoes in spectacularness.
  4. Buy produce in bulk during its peak season, and preserve it. Do research or ask your regular vendors ahead of time if they’re open to this, but many will be happy to cut their price down a bit if you arrange to buy in large quantities. Then, get canning! There are detailed guidelines on how can produce safely. Plus you’ll be reducing waste by reusing your jars later instead of buying more cans at the store (and saving money while you do!). A friend that has done this says: “I buy local tomatoes in bulk in July from the local market and can them. When I buy at least a bushel, I get them for 50 cents a lb or less–far less money than grocery store tomatoes fresh or canned. I do the same with peaches, for about $1 a lb, and apples, for about 35 cents a lb.”
  5. In the place of a night out that month, set aside the money you would have used to buy something special from local vendors instead. Even on a tight budget, many of us still want to get out sometimes and shake up the routine. So whether you like to get the occasional meal out, meet up with friends for a drink (I love a good boba!), or take someone special out on a date, plan ahead. A couple weeks ago, instead of planning a dinner out with my husband, I used our “date money” to buy some goat cheese (with jalapeno!) and a delicious grass-fed beef sausage. We made some bread to go with them, and had a lovely date night at home with our hearty snack and a movie.
  6. When you visit the farmers market, keep an eye out for locally-made items you’d love to give as gifts. I don’t know about you, but by the time August rolls around, I’m already Christmas shopping. The craze and crowds of December drive me mad, so I tend to keep an eye out for several months before. So as holiday shopping is in full swing, set a target budget for each person on your shopping list, and take a stroll around the farmers market. You’ll find some unique treasures and support your local economy.

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With these tips in mind, check out the farmers markets near you! These are links to search for markets and other local food resources here, here, and here.

Since I’m such a newcomer to making the most of farmers market scene, I also want to recommend this post I found from Don’t Waste the Crumbs. There are lots of a great tips in there, especially for those very committed to frequenting their neighborhood market.

How accessible are farmers markets in your area?

What keeps you going to your own local market, or what holds you back from enjoying one regularly?

Do you have a “favorite find” story from a local vendor?

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