Written by Bob Benenson
There are so many reasons to go out with your shopping bags and celebrate the rapid rise in the number of farmers markets across the nation.
One of them may surprise you.
First, the non-surprises
The quality, freshness, nutritional value—and taste—of the products for sales at farmers markets are as good as it gets.
Most farmers markets source products from local and regional producers (a radius of roughly 300 miles has become a standard in our home area of Chicago, and most are much closer). And as more and more consumers make a priority of identifying where their food comes from and how it was produced, farmers markets are the embodiment of the “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food” mantra.
There is plenty of statistical evidence that these benefits are catching on big time with consumers, for whom farmers markets and other direct marketing venues such as CSAs are often the gateways to the Good Food movement.
There are now more than 8,400 farmers markets across the nation, a number that has more than doubled over the past ten years and more than quadrupled over the past two decades.
On July 31, 2015, USDA released its annual National Farmers Market Managers Survey that showed nearly two-thirds of markets reported increased traffic, and 85 percent of markets are looking to expand their offerings by bringing in additional vendors.
Yet if there is one biggest perception problem hindering even faster growth in the sector, it is the belief that shopping at farmers markets is prohibitively expensive.
So here’s the surprise: It’s not!
That does not mean that the prices for some items are not going to be higher than at your local big-box supermarket.
Organic produce is more labor-intensive to grow than most conventional fruits and vegetables, and can be more expensive than non-organic (though not always). Most vendors at farmers markets are small to medium-sized producers, so there aren’t the economies of scale that enable retailers buying from big growers to give rock-bottom discounts. And prices can be high for individual items that are not at the peak of their growing seasons (if they are available at all).
Yet there are many ways, just by being a savvy shopper, that you can save money shopping for food at farmers markets. Let’s do some myth-busting with these tips:
1. Comparison shopping
Most markets have multiple vendors selling similar varieties, and it may be just coincidence if the first stand you see when you walk into the market is the least expensive.
So take some time to stroll around and check out the prices at the different stands. You might find one that is the price leader across the board, or you might find that different stands have lower prices for different items.
Besides, part of the reason to go to farmers markets is the fun: The convivial, street fair atmosphere, the friendly vendors, the pleasure of shopping al fresco. What’s the hurry?
2. Buy in-season
Simple supply and demand: The more of a product a vendor has to sell, the more likely it is that it is going to be priced to move.
So practice seasonality and look for your favorite items at the peak of their growing season.
Our area must be having a bumper crop of green peppers based on the prices I saw Saturday at Chicago’s Green City Market. And even though an excessively wet planting season hindered grain growers in our region, I’ve seen sweet corn going for as little as $5 a dozen.
3. Buy bulk
Many farmers market vendors provide discounts for multiple purchases of the same or similar items. So, for instance, if summer squash is priced at $1 per piece but $2 for 3, it is the equivalent of “buy two, get one free.” You could get a pint of fresh-picked peaches for $4 but a quart (twice as much) for $6.
4. Buy bulky
Many items for sale at farmers markets are priced per piece. So you can make your dollars go farther if you buy the larger sizes of those items. In most cases, the quality and flavor is going to be the same regardless of size. So if a four-pound melon costs the same as a two-pound melon, why not get the bigger one?
5. The shelf-life advantage
The fresher fruits and vegetables are, the longer they will keep at home. Much of the produce that is sold in supermarkets is grown hundreds or even thousands of miles away, so its shelf-life clock often has been running for a week, sometimes more, by the time you bring it home.
Much of the produce you buy at a farmers market is picked within a day’s time, and can be picked at greater ripeness (and flavor) than products that have to travel far and thus are more susceptible to bruising and spoilage. Great taste + longer shelf life + less food waste = a win-win-win situation.