I grew up in West Michigan where the local farmer’s market was always a highlight of the summer. Early on Saturday mornings my sisters and I would head to the market with our mom to buy fresh, local, and delicious produce.
My mom was raised on a farm in Ohio, so she always taught us the value of fresh produce, whether we grew it ourselves in our garden, or we bought it at the farmer’s market. I grew up eating, and actually enjoying, fresh veggies like lima beans and beets, as well as the typical strawberries, peaches and sweet corn.
When I moved away from home I struggled to find places to buy fresh produce. And if I did find a market or local produce stand, I wasn’t sure the best way to go about finding the kind of food I was looking for.
A few years ago, we moved within walking distance to the farmer’s market in our city. I was so excited to be able to frequent the market and buy fresh and local produce, just like my mom did when I was growing up.
But, the farmer’s market here is much different than the one that I grew up going to. Ours is indoor, and open year round, and has everything from a restaurant, antiques, hand made items, fresh coffee, to meat counters, and more, as well as local produce and plants.
I was a little overwhelmed when I first started visiting the market. Which vendors are the best to buy from? Why is there a booth with cheap sunglasses? Why does that produce stand have bananas? How do I know where and how these tomatoes, or corn, or apples, are grown?
And then my mom came to visit one weekend and I took her to the market with me and watched and listened and learned, all over again. I learned how to ask questions, and what kinds of questions to ask, and since then, I have found the farmers and vendors that I buy from regularly, and have gotten to know some of them to the point that my kids know them by name, which I love.
Photo by ilovebutter
Questions to ask at the Farmer’s Market
One of the most important ways to get the most out of your local market, and all it has to offer, is to ask questions, lots of questions.
The first thing I learned is to ask open-ended questions. Instead of yes or no questions like – Do you use pesticides? Or, Is your beef grass-fed? How about – How do you grow your strawberries (or corn, or tomatoes)? Or, How do you raise your beef (or chicken, or lamb)? Let the farmer tell you about what he does, most of them are more than happy to tell you all about what they do. And if they seem reluctant, or don’t want to share their practices, you can take that as a clue to move on.
If you’re lucky, and ask the right questions, you may find that diamond in the rough – the produce booth that’s not certified organic, but uses all organic practices to grow their fruits and veggies, or the chicken that is supplemented with corn and grain, but is also free range and pastured, and raised without antibiotics, and is half the price of certified organic pastured chicken.
Also, if you are trying a fruit for vegetable for the first time, ask about the best ways to store, prepare, or even preserve it. Farmers have a wealth of knowledge about the products they sell. The day my mom and I were at the market she bought leeks for the first time and asked the women at the booth what to do with them. She probably learned more than she ever needed to know about leeks that day!
Photo by rhett maxwell
There are also specific questions that are really helpful to ask. Questions like, When was this fruit or vegetable picked? If it’s been more than a day, you might want to pass, you can probably find some that were actually picked that same morning.
You may also want to ask where the produce is grown and raised. Part of the idea of going to a farmer’s market is to buy locally, but when you see something that seems like it’s probably not locally in season, you can ask where it’s from. A tip that my mom taught me is that if the produce has grocery stickers on it, it was not grown by the vendor that is selling it.
Also, several of the vendors at our market bring in produce, like strawberries, peaches and tomatoes, from the south, before things are in season here. In these cases, I have to decide how much I want produce that’s been shipped across the country, or if I can just wait a few weeks until things are in season here. Usually the prices are higher on produce that’s not in season locally yet.
All of these questions will also help to tip you off if the seller buys the produce at an auction and brings it to the market to sell. We, unfortunately, have lots of booths at our market where the seller is not the actual farmer. I avoid those booths, even if they’re offering a lower price.
Finally, don’t be afraid to ask for a deal! I have, on several occasions, bought large quantities of produce at the market to preserve, and have either asked for a lower price, or because of my relationship with the farmer, they have given me a great deal.
Remember, if you have a question, just ask!
Most of all, don’t be intimidated to ask questions. Vendors are selling at the local farmer’s market because they want to sell directly to customers. They want to build relationships and share their expertise and knowledge with their customers.
Sometimes I feel like a vendor or farmer might be bothered by, or not have time for, my questions. But remember, you are the reason the farmers are there, they want you to buy their products, and be happy with them, and keep coming back. Take advantage of the opportunity the farmer’s market provides to learn all you can about where your food comes from, how it is grown and raised and processed.
And again, if the vendor seems reluctant, or gives you a round about answer, then you know that’s probably not someone you want to be buying from! Take your questions, and your dollars, to a farmer you can feel good about supporting and buying from!
What questions do you ask the farmers at your local market?