Now that January is half over, I’m finally getting back in my normal “routine” of everyday life. I loved the break and the traveling of the holidays, but I definitely missed going through some of my weekly traditions. One of the things I was most excited about was getting back in the habit of going to our Old City Farmers’ Market. It’s such a great opportunity to interact with other people in our community, get inspired by all the local/seasonal food, and enjoy making new discoveries (from produce to plants).
Although I know some of you may be veteran farmers market shoppers, there are others who haven’t ventured out or found yours. It can also be a little overwhelming sometimes, with all the people hustling and bustling, so I want to share some tips to help you get the most out of your trip.
Find the Market That Works Best for You
While some towns may only have on farmers’ or produce market, many have multiple places that you can go, on different days of the week. Even in St. Augustine (which is a fairly small city), we have three, each on a different day of the week. Local Harvest has a great resource for locating your nearest farmers’ market. You’ll be surprised how many might be nearby that you had never known about. Be sure to check if there are seasonal dates–the further you get up north, the more likely that your markets are only open during certain months. Nonetheless, many markets are open well in to the fall and spring, even in the coldest climates.
Once you’ve located the nearest markets, try to visit each of them to get a feel for what the vendors are like. Pick the day that works best for you, and be aware of vendors that may only go to one market. If there’s someone you like who only sells at a market you can’t make it to, try and find a friend who visits that market who can help you stock up on what you need.
Each market is different, but even the smallest can offer some incredible deals and things that you’ll never find in a big-box store (or even local grocery).
Go Early and Get to Know Your Vendors
Every vendor is different–whether they’re selling raw honey, local produce, or fresh homemade bread, they all have a story and (hopefully) a passion for their products. Take the time and ask about the things you’re looking at. Generally, vendors love to help and answer questions. Whether you have no idea how to cook the heirloom eggplants they’re selling, or you’re curious how they tend to the bees that make their honey, just ask! Getting to know the vendors you buy from not only gives you confidence in what you’re buying (and who you’re buying it from), it also makes it more likely that they’ll hook you up with a good deal now and then.
Remember, not all farmers market vendors are created equal, especially when it comes to produce. Find out where their food is grown and how they grow it. If there are specific concerns that you have (organic, free-range, sustainable, etc.), just ask! Sometimes it’s worth paying a little more if you know you’re getting a quality product, but if they’re buying the same stuff as the grocery store, it’s silly to pay a premium price. Most market vendors have incredibly reasonable prices (I usually get much more produce at the market than I do at the store, for the same amount of money), but the ones who do charge more usually have solid reasons for doing so.
The best way to build a rapport with your vendors (and to make the best finds) is to go early. Try to hit the market within an hour or two of its opening time. It’s usually less crowded and you’re more able to chat and ask questions. Plus, the earlier you’re there, the better pick you’ll have of food/products!
You don’t have to bring anything special to the market, but there are a few things that will make it easier:
Cash — You can’t get very far with a debit card: most vendors only take cash. And don’t just grab a twenty! Vendors love small bills, and giving them ones or a five will almost always guarantee a smile.
Your Own Bag (Canvas or Reusable) — Most vendors will have plastic bags if you need them, but bringing a larger canvas or reusable bag makes it easier to carry what you buy. It also eliminates waste and gives you more room for all your stuff.
Your Camera (even if it’s just your phone) — You never know what you’ll find at the market, from crazy produce to music or entertainment. Our market has a group of folk music players who get together and play a wide variety of bluegrass and folk music, and the RAM in Jacksonville has incredible street performers and musical acts. Take a moment to capture what you see, even if the only camera you have is your phone (I forgot to bring my “good” camera to this week’s market, so all of the photos on this post are from my iPhone).
Make a Budget, But Don’t be Afraid to Treat Yourself!
It’s best to give yourself a budget when you go to the market. Decide on a set amount of cash that you’ll bring, and make a mental (or physical) list of the things you’re on the look out for. Sometimes you may not see the produce that you need and have more to spend on raw milk, local free-range meat or fresh caught seafood.
Finally, don’t be afraid to grab a treat! There’s always something tasty–we have a homemade sorbet vendor, fresh cut boardwalk fries, fish tacos, sweet potato burritos, custom juice blends, crab cakes and more. With the money you’ve saved and the investment you’ve made by buying local, you can spare a buck or two ever now and then for something to savor. Plus, sometimes it’s impossible to ignore the tantalizing smells that waft by as you walk through the market.
I hope these tips will help you venture out and enjoy your local market! It’s so much fun and such a great way to support your local economy and local farmers.
Do you regularly visit a farmers’ market? What’s your favorite market discovery?