Hitting up the local farmers market is one of summer's little pleasures—a place to pick up fresh fruits and veggies as well as eggs, cheese, baked goods and, depending on where you live, more exotic items like wine, honey, jerky, pickles and ice cream.
But as much fun as it can be poking around all the different tables and doing your part to support local organic producers, farmers markets have a rep as expensive alternatives to regular supermarkets. And while the fare can be pricey (at most markets, individual vendors set their price points), farmers market managers say it's definitely possible to score bargains and even lower your usual food bills.
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"You should be able to find at least grocery store prices at most markets,” says Barb Ristau, market manager for the Franklin County Farmers Market in Iowa. “Sometimes I have to tell my vendors to charge a little more for certain things because they often don’t charge enough.” Research also backs up the idea that your tab at the farmers market will be equal to or less than the bill for similar items at a regular food store.
Even when farmers market prices are on the high side, there are ways to score bargains—if you know a few insider secrets. Grab your reusable shopping bag: Here’s what greenmarket pros recommend doing to get the most bang for your buck.
Make a Shopping List and Budget Before You Go
True, part of the fun of shopping the farmers market is discovering new and unusual goodies. But because vendors will be actively trying to sell to you, you may be particularly susceptible to making impulse purchases. (Hmm, no wonder the fresh blueberry pie is always strategically placed right in front of your nose.)
Putting together a list of exactly what you want to buy and keeping in mind a dollar amount that you can't surpass will keep you from blowing your budget. Just like you go to the grocery store with a list, make one before you head out to the greenmarket and vow to stick to it, says Beverly Dunaway, director of the Arkansas Farmers' Market Association.
Do a Lap or Two First
Many farmers markets host several producers selling the same fruits, veggies and other goods with different price tags. So it pays to walk through the entire market a few times before you plunk down your cash, says Dunaway. Once you’ve scoped out who is selling what and for how much, then you can go back and start filling your shopping bag.
Shop What’s in Season
With advances in agricultural technology, farmers can extend the growing season of various types of produce—but you’ll often pay a premium for buying something when it’s not in season, says Dunaway. “You’re going to be able to buy things much cheaper when there’s a glut of them in the market,” she says. So, for example, if you’re waiting to buy Brussels sprouts in July when they're not in season in many parts of the country, it’s going to cost you more.
One way to know what's in season and what isn't is to use Locavore, a free app that tracks which fruits and veggies are ripe and plentiful by region and gives you directions to the nearest farmers market to you that sells them. Fresh Food Finder is another free app that pinpoints what's in season and tells you where to find it.
Ask for a Deal When You’re Buying in Bulk
If you know you’re going to fill your freezer with sweet corn this weekend for a family barbecue or make several mason jars’ worth of tomato sauce to store for the winter, ask growers if they offer a bulk discount. “Very likely they will do something like that if they know they’re going to make a pretty good-sized sale,” says Ristau. She says she once bought a bushel of tomatoes for just $30 after she asked for a bulk discount. “They were cheaper than I would have paid in the grocery store.”
Get to Know the Farmers
Make it a habit to chat up vendors and become a familiar face, and they’re more likely to see you as a regular customer and let you in on any deals. “If they have extra of something and they know you might be interested, they might let you in on a deal first by saying, ‘I have X number of pounds of asparagus left—would you give me this price for it?’ ” says Ristau.
Follow Your Local Market on Social Media
When markets are hosting special events or festivals, they may offer some goods at discounted prices, says Dunaway. To stay in the loop, you’ll want to make sure you’re following your local markets on Facebook, Twitter or other social media sites—and that you subscribe to their newsletters via email if they have them.
Your local newspaper is also a good place to check for promotions, particularly if your nearby market isn’t so technologically savvy. “We’ve done promotions through newspapers where we give away free coupons for people to spend at farmers markets,” says Ristau.
Consider Going Later in the Day
The idea here is well into the afternoon, some growers might be looking to unload any goods they still have left, so they don’t have to lug it back to the farm at closing time. Since different markets have varying rules, “I think folks should feel free to discuss [reduced pricing] with vendors while at market,” says Dunaway. “A vendor might very well tell someone how they might be able to give them produce at a reduced price.”
While the farmers market isn’t like a bazaar where haggling is the norm, it can’t hurt to politely ask if you can work out a deal, or if they have any "seconds," Dunaway says, that are a little bruised or otherwise didn't look perfect. Of course, the offerings will be more picked over the later in the day you go so remember that you'll be trading selection for potential savings.
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