Shopping at a farmers' market offers a wealth of benefits, from face-to-face interaction to a more transparent supply chain. With new markets popping up around the country, buying local has never been easier or more fun. The following tips will help you maximize your farmers' market experience.
Summer is one of our favourite seasons: a time not only for fun in the sun, but also for fabulous fresh eating. And unless you grow all of your own food, no place provides fresher and better selection than a farmers’ market.
That hasn’t always been the case. Although farmers’ markets have been around since pre-industrial times, they fell out of favour in the mid-20th century when mega-farms, big buyers, and supermarkets overtook the production, distribution, and sale of most of our food.
That’s a lot of carrots
But change is afoot. The number of farmers’ markets in Canada has risen over the past decade, with a national study by Farmers Markets Canada indicating such markets were a $3 billion business in 2008. And a more recent BC Association of Farmers’ Markets (BCAFM) survey found that direct sales at the province’s farmers’ markets more than doubled between 2006 and 2012.
There are many reasons for this. Among the most important is a growing awareness on the part of the consumer that processed and packaged food may not always be best for them and that supporting local farmers has big economic and environmental benefits. A head of lettuce trucked in from California, for example, puts profit in another nation’s pocket and impacts the environment with transportation and other energy requirements. Then there’s the fact that the longer it takes for produce to hit our plate, the more nutritional quality may be lost.
Still loving local
The BCAFM survey asked shoppers what was most important to them when buying at the farmers’ market. Nutritional content of the food was topmost, with a desire to buy produce grown in the province and wanting to eat in season coming close behind.
“The trend to buy local is still going very strong,” says Georgia Stanley of the BCAFM. Consumers want to know where their food is coming from, she says. “They want to know what they’re eating; they want to understand what they’re eating. They don’t want a whole list of ingredients from the side of a box, and this comes naturally at a farmers’ market.”
Chris Bodnar of Close to Home Organics, a family farm business in Abbotsford, BC, says he grows about 45 different crops on his 50-acre farm—12 acres of it various leafy greens, tomatoes, corn, squash, and root vegetables. He sells the farm’s output at two farmers’ markets in BC’s Lower Mainland and through community-supported agriculture (CSA) boxes, to which customers subscribe annually.
Bodnar says the quality of his produce is what people seek out at the market. “I choose varieties that aren’t grown commercially,” he says. His carrots, for example, don’t have the long shelf life of supermarket carrots, but they are “crisp, juicy, and sweet: something you don’t find in carrots that have been sitting on the shelf for a long time.”
Yes, the tasty carrots, fragrant berries, and delicious tomatoes at markets across the country draw people. But there’s another factor, too.
“It’s the personal connection that’s most important for both consumers and farmers. You can go to the people directly involved in producing the food and talk to them about all kinds of things,” says Stanley, from how that turkey was raised and whether sprays were used to which apple is best for pies and which for juice.
Finally, there’s the feeling patrons have when they leave the market, laden with bags of fresh food. “When I buy locally, I feel I’m contributing to a better world,” says Stanley.
When you visit
- Don’t buy at the first brightly arranged booth. Check out several vendors as prices, variety, and quality vary.
- If you see something unfamiliar, ask the vendor what it is, how it might be used, and how long it will keep. Part of the fun of farmers’ markets is discovering new and wonderful things to eat.
- Bring your own reusable shopping bags. Most vendors provide smaller produce bags for individual purchases, but you’ll soon find yourself with more than you can comfortably carry.
- If you’re going to be out for more than an hour, bring a cooler lined with freezer packs for highly perishable items such as eggs, meat, and dairy.
- Bring cash. At larger markets, some big vendors accept credit, but most smaller ones don’t.
- Remember: the farmers are running businesses, and their prices reflect the cost of doing so. Don’t haggle.
- Most farmers’ market associations in Canada require vendors to have some role in producing what they’re selling. If you’re not sure, ask if the market permits reselling. Some do in the off-season, but usually only by vendors/farmers who bring their own produce to sell in season.
A farmer on how to buy bulk
Chris Bodnar of Close to Home Organics in BC offers these five tips:
- Bulk orders can work, depending on the grower and what crops they grow prolifically. “We sell a lot of bulk bags of carrots, onions, and beets at the end of the season at a wholesale price,” says Bodnar.
- Many growers do bulk prices on tomatoes, but also look for seconds (damaged or very ripe fruit), because if you’re saucing, these will provide the best value.
- It’s important to speak to growers in advance to plan bulk purchases. Don’t wait until September, as that may be too late. August is the prime month for stocking up.
- Bulk orders are based on a case lot; 25 pounds is usually the base unit, and a farmer may not be interested in smaller bulk deals.
- The best bulk items are berries for freezing, fruit for canning or freezing, tomatoes for canning, corn for freezing, and storage items for winter pantries (squash, carrots, beets, potatoes, and onions).
Shopping early in the day at a farmers’ market is best for the greatest selection, but that also usually means the biggest crowds. Try going an hour after the market has opened, when it’s calmed down a bit but selection is still good.