Outfitted with canvas bags and backpacks, a post-work crowd streams through the Fairmount Farmers’ Market on a Thursday afternoon. The shoppers maneuver through rows of local produce: ruby cherries, pungent garlic scapes, bowling-ball-size heads of cauliflower.
“We try to plan our meal every Thursday night around what we pick up here,” says Nick Sweeney, handing a blueberry to his 20-month-old son and breaking off a piece of baguette for himself. “You really can’t get any fresher than this.”
There are dozens of weekly markets in Philadelphia and its suburbs, all teeming with fresh fruits and vegetables, cheese, bread, and more. But sometimes the vast selection can overwhelm: Whose raspberries are better? Is it better to splurge on the local honey, sheep’s milk cheese, or grass-fed beef? Would you be just as well spending that $20 at Trader Joe’s?
For those looking to spend wisely, here’s a guide to shopping the farmers’ market.
Brush up on what’s in season and make a list beforehand.
Before you go to the market, write out a tentative shopping list by consulting a produce guide online so you know what’s in its prime. Keep in mind that first-harvested crops aren’t always as fully ripened as the ones in the weeks to come, and often they’ll have a higher price tag at this stage, too.
To make your list as complete as possible, consider reading recipes for the ingredients you want. It will keep you focused when you’re shopping, but keep in mind that you’ll need to stay flexible, as farmers’ markets are more variable than supermarkets.
Show up within the first hour of the market and you’ll have your pick of the best produce.
“Popular items — especially summer fruit like strawberries, plums, and peaches — often sell out fast,” says Meghan Filoromo, senior manager of the Food Trust’s Farmers Market Program, which operates 22 markets in Philadelphia and Chester.
Before pulling out your wallet, walk the entire perimeter of the market and form a game plan — what you want to purchase and who from. Surveying the market will also give you a chance to compare prices.
“There are probably two or three vendors selling strawberries, so you’ll want to see which ones look the ripest or what size interests you,” says Ralph Ciallella, market manager and cofounder of the Haddonfield Farmers Market.
If you’re on a budget, don’t bypass the greens.
Popular fruits, like strawberries or heirloom tomatoes, will often set you back at least $6. Meanwhile, bunches of greens — often large enough to feed four — sell for half that or less. Greens are versatile and easy to flavor. Think kale sautéed with garlic, arugula tossed into pasta, or collards turned into chips. And the farmers’ market is the absolute best place to buy them.
“They’ll have either been harvested that day or the day before,” Filoromo says. “So you’ll know that they’re at the peak of their freshness and will last for a while.”
Order meat in advance.
Many butcher vendors will take custom orders and fill them the next week. That also presents an opportunity to inquire about cuts not on display that are both more obscure and affordable but equally delicious, according to Jon Glyn, farmers’ market program manager for Farm to City.
“Shoppers looking for things like oxtail, tongue, cheeks, liver, or kidneys can order ahead so they’re right at market for them,” Glyn says.
Don’t be afraid to ask questions.
Don’t know how to pronounce “tomatillo,” let alone what to do with it? Just ask. Many vendors enjoy chatting with customers and will often share recipe ideas. And if you’re not sure where to start, market organizers are also happy to give suggestions.
“Often there’s a table with a market manager who you can ask to get feedback on what they’d pick out,” adds Ciallella.
Or to ask for a taste.
Sampling is (arguably the best) part of the farmers’ market experience, particularly at larger markets where many vendors put out cubes of cheese, slices of apple, and other treats to try by the toothpick.
“If you aren’t sure if you like arugula, ask for a leaf,” Ciallella says, adding that even if an item isn’t marked as a sample, you can often still take a taste. Just be sure to get permission first. “The worst they can do is say no.”
Many markets also feature cooking demonstrations that usually entail free samples. At a dozen of the Food Trust’s Philadelphia markets’ cooking demos, attendees can also score $4 in “Food Bucks” to use on fruits and vegetables. Demos take place every hour on the hour after opening. Find participating markets at thefoodtrust.org.
Keep haggling to a minimum.
Avoid walking into a farmers’ market with a flea market mind-set. Unless you’re buying in large quantities, negotiating is frowned upon.
“If you’re purchasing a whole flat of strawberries, for instance, then you can discuss the pricing with the vendors, but for the most part, I discourage it,” says Filoromo. “I don’t know too many rich farmers, and they’re generally selling items at as low of a price point as they can manage.”
And if you shop organic, keep in mind that the USDA accreditation process is often cumbersome and costly, which deters many smaller farmers. Ask vendors about their offerings before you pass over their goods for lacking a certification.