Nine Ways to Finesse the Farmers Market

I recently taught a sold-out class on just this subject. I met a group of home cooks at the Tompkins Square Market on an unseasonably cold Sunday morning and the first hour of the class was a walking and shopping tour. We talked all about availing oneself of all the market has to offer without breaking the bank and getting home to realize that all I bought were some flowers and value-added products like scones and soap. So pack up your canvas bags and follow this list of ways you can make the most of your market trip and your dollar:

#1 Plan Your Meals Before You Leave The House
One of the discussions that emerged was whether or not I came to the market with a plan or a list. In short, no not usually and while I was saying it, I realized two things: That you should have a list and that I should too. Having a plan, and the list that grows from it, will help keep you on track budget-wise and also minimize the number of uneaten things that make their way into the garbage or compost bin.

For instance, if you know what meals you are going to make in the 5 days between market trips, you know exactly how many chickens, peppers, onions, eggplants, stalks of rhubarb, etc. you need to purchase and you can then plan for leftovers. I’m a huge fan of buying two chickens, breaking one down into its parts and turning the bones into stock. The second chicken, roast whole. Now, I’ve got raw, boneless cuts of chicken for the grill and roasted chicken that can be eaten as is, or shredded into tacos, mixed with mayo for salad or cut up and put into the stock I made for yummy, quick chicken soup.

#2 Get Cash and Stay On Budget
This ties in with #1. If I know what I am buying, I know about how much it will cost. Figure that the chickens are $4 a pound and I buy two 5-pound birds, that’s ten pounds of chicken for $40. Add into that the produce, figure that’s another $40 or so dollars. Perhaps a baguette to snack on and some fresh cheese, and a few bucks for the yellow raspberries I just can’t pass up, and I am prepared to spend about a hundred bucks on 5 meals. I’ll need to fill those in with some groceries like rice, pasta, etc. but I am ready with a plan and a wallet full of dough. And, most vendors don’t take plastic.

#3 Don’t Balk at the Price
Did I hear someone gasp “$40 FOR TWO CHICKENS?!” In case that was you, I want to tell you that there are some things that we Americans need to relearn. Like sewing and deep-frying, we also need to relearn that protein should be expensive. Can you get $0.99 a pound chicken at your supermarket? Absolutely. However, by contributing to that supply chain, you are voting with your fork to perpetuate the CAFO operations that pollute their neighborhoods, abuse their animals and force small, family-operated farms to shutter up and move on. (Read Animal Factory by David Kirby if you need more words than just mine.)

I’m guessing that few of you want to be that guy at the party, so I offer you an alternative line of thinking: Know that nearly ALL of the money that you spend on your food at the farmers market goes right into the pocket of the small, local, family farmer. I’m not making this stuff up. In the large scale production of food, the farmer sees pennies of the pennies you’ve spent on cheap meat and eventually goes broke or gets absorbed by a large corporation who will pay them even less. And all that is to say nothing of the nutritional quailty of happy animals over CAFO-raised ones.

So, which ever it is that motivates you, $4 a pound for meat is a small price to pay for an animal that gave its life so that you and the person who raised it could eat. Too pricey? Then eat less of it. No nutritional guide of 100 years ago advocates eating meat with every meal.

#4 Buy Your Proteins First (For Two Equally Important Reasons)
Ok, so if you’ve decided that you want to support the family farmer, get there early because lots of people are jumping on board and these lines tend to be the longest and sell out the quickest. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve slept in and when I finally make it the fish vendor, the white board is erased of everything but Fish Heads (great for stock, but that’s about it) and Mussels (of which I am deathly allergic.) That’s the first reason. The second is that proteins will be the most expensive. Buying them first insures that you’ve got them in your bag before you run out of money. If you are shopping in the heat, consider bringing an insulated bag and asking the fish folks for a bag of ice.

#5 If You Don’t Need Firsts, Buy Seconds
This is for produce only – I wouldn’t buy, nor have I ever seen “seconds” of protein.
If you want to make strawberry shortcakes, you want the most perfect, symmetrical, lovely berries you can find. But, if your goal is to make strawberry jam or syrup or you are going to freeze some whole for use in the doldrums of February, you don’t have to pay a premium price for the beauties. Most vendors, most times have “seconds,” the name for the produce that is banged up, getting on in age a bit or is otherwise the bridesmaid and not the bride. Snatch these babies up and its a good place to try to bargain a bit.

#6 Be Flexible
If you are headed to the market bent on buying a flat of strawberry seconds and there are none, don’t despair. And this is true of the want for asparagus, scallops, or whatever it is you had your heart just set on. It is antithetical to the nature of farming to set your heart on anything. Guaranteed disappointment. Instead, you get to buy and eat what’s there. Asparagus all gone? I bet there are still beets. No strawberry seconds? How about apples or other cellared fruits that are about to be replaced by Spring? A little flexibility goes a long way.

#7 Go Early or Go Late
For some of the reasons already mentioned but also, you’ll avoid the crowds making it less likely that you’ll have to wait in long lines and going late ups your chances for bargaining. No one wants to load all those acorn squash back on the truck so plan ahead, bring your wheeley cart and make a respectable offer. Then go home and make a weeks worth of curry vegetables.

#8 Talk to Farmer’s and Other Shoppers
I want to encourage this as much as possible. If you go early, its entirely possible that the person ogling the ramps is an incognito chef who is fantasizing about how to get them on tonight’s menu at their four-star restaurant. I happen to know that some restaurants, particularly the ones specializing in fancy farm-to-table food, employ a chef whose only job is to source ingredients at the markets. Sounds like a dream to me. Even if they aren’t actually chefs, most cooks love to talk about food, as do most farmers and most people with pulses. Eavesdrop on a conversation already taking place and then inject something intelligent like “I never knew you could do that with eggplant!” And you’re off into culinary brainstorming with like-minded folks who love it as much as you do. Just don’t plug up the line so that less chatty folks can pay and move on.

#9 I Wasn’t Kidding About Those Canvas Bags
They are expensive for the vendor to supply, they are TERRIBLE for the planet, and they more than likely go right in the trash, no matter how many vows you make to reuse them. And even if you do, there is this short film. There are just too many in the world and by making the commitment to BYOBag, you are helping the Earth and the overhead that keeps money out of the pocket you just read all about.

All that said, I am off to plan my meals for the week, write a list for the market, dream about adding rhubarb to this Baked Apple Pancake recipe and send my canvas bags through the wash. What’s your plan?

  • Patricia

    Love this article!! Having been on both sides of the typical farmers’ market (as consumer and vendor)it summarizes fluently what most of us need in hand before we head off. I especially loved #8!

  • Food-G

    Great article Emily! I was really impacted by # 3 especially. Very well put. I kept thinking this would make a great piece for the “Culinate 8” (although you’d have to bring it down to 8 somehow…)Nice job!

    ps- i’m guessing in # 9 you’re referring to plastic??

    pps- IACP is in Austin next year!! Hope you can make it.