To Market, to Market

It’s a beautiful summer morning, the perfect time to pack up the kids and head to where farmers busily haul out their harvest. It’s a place where flaming red tomatoes tumble from crates, peppery basil perfumes the air and homemade jams and jellies beckon. Forget the two-hour trek to the country farm stand; we’re talking 10 minutes across town to your local farmers market.

At last count, there were approximately 4,700 markets bringing direct-from-the-farm produce, dairy, meats, preserves and baked goods made from scratch to cities and suburbs across the country -- more than double the number in 1994 when the USDA first started tracking the trend. “It’s great for consumers because they actually get to know the people who produce their food,” says Joan Shaffer, spokesperson for USDA Farmers Market Program. “And it’s great for small farms since it gives them another outlet for selling their goods and increasing their income.”

While fun, farmers markets aren’t always cheap. To make the most of your next trip, try these suggestions:

Make a flexible meal plan To minimize waste, have an idea of how many dinners you’ll be shopping for and what you may want to cook. But if you go in search of beets and find that the kale looks amazing, be willing to switch things up. “If your eyes are telling you something is good, they are probably right,” says John Adler, sous chef at Franny’s, a seasonal restaurant in Brooklyn that sources the majority of its produce from the Union Square Greenmarket in Manhattan.

Adler’s suggestion: Make a list of three or four specific items you’d like to buy, with room for one wild-card purchase. “That one surprise item you don’t know too much about is probably what will get you most excited and keep you coming back to the market.”

Bring the right stuff Take a strong hint form those flimsy plastic bags farmers offer: Most greenmarkets support sustainable farming practices, so you should follow suit by bringing your own sturdy, reusable bags. Keep in mind too that many farmers markets also sell fresh fish, poultry, meats and dairy products -- so stash a cooler in your car or bring along an insulated bag so you don’t have rush home.

Get there early and look around No need to wake at the crack of dawn, but the choicest stuff always goes first. By the end of a busy day, some vendors run out altogether. Do a walk-through before buying anything; it’ll give you an idea of what’s out there. As you walk around, don’t be shy about asking farmers for a sample of what they’re selling. Many stands may be selling great tomatoes, but you can only tell which are best for your needs by tasting them.

Learn to shop smart Farmers markets are about supporting small farms that, in general, embrace sustainable -- if not certified organic -- practices. That sometimes translates to steeper prices than at supermarkets. There are ways to save, however. Opt for foods in their least-processed form: whole heads of lettuce instead of prewashed, or unshelled peas and onions with their tops still on. You’ll pay less since there is less labor involved for the farmer. Produce at its seasonal peak, such as spring lettuce as opposed to early tomatoes, is also typically the best buy in the market.

Get to know the farmers If you don’t know what to do with kohlrabi, go ahead and ask. You’ll almost always walk away with a recipe. If you want to know if something is organic or not, start a conversation. “The beauty of a farmers market is that you can look across a table and ask a farmer how his crop was grown,” says Larry Johnson, market manager at the Dane County Farmers Market in Madison, Wis.

“It’s all about building a relationship with the farmers,” says Adler. “Getting to know them and showing a curiosity about what they’re selling -- it’s what makes them eager to help you and what will keep you coming back.”