I cannot resist farm stands or farmers' markets. It's a known fact. I've been loading up the car with Jersey peaches and watermelons and tomatoes and corn my whole adult life, criss-crossing the state on the way to the shore and back. I stop at roadside stands for eggs and homegrown veggies and leave money in honor boxes. And hallelujah, we have so many farmers' markets here in Pennsylvania, it's really easy to feed my obsession all year round. Food tastes better when it's grown locally and in season. Bonus points for natural growing, organic and/or biodynamic farming, orchards that use IPM (integrated pest management—y'know, sending out armies of good bugs to eat the bad ones), and so forth.
As a result of spending countless hours at markets, even through the winter, I've learned a few things and observed a whole lot, too. I came up with this idea, and then saw something similar by the good food people at the Kitchn recently, but I've got some of my own things to add. Here's how to be a happy shopper at the farmers' market. Small gestures go a long way.
1. Mind your money. If you know you are going, you will likely need quarters if you have to pay for parking. Let me take this a step further. Bring lots of small bills. Farmers are constantly making change for $20 from people who beat a path from the ATM to the market. I hang onto as many $1s and $5s as possible. I apologize if I have to give a farmer a $20 for something less than $5. They often thank me for the small bills. They'll thank you, too.
2. Get there early. This is important for so many reasons. You can do a lap around once before you commit to a purchase, if that's your strategy. You beat the crowds. You get first dibs on the first edamame or brussel sprouts or cauliflower or tomatoes of the season. You can choose from all the kales in the world at any given moment. I can't tell you how many times during the first winter market in Easton, in 2012-2013, I got there a a mere few minutes after 10, the starting time, and the kale was already all gone. (Judy's kale, from Blooming Glen, to be precise.)
3. Ask questions. If you do number 1 and 2, you will be the first person to notice when the red potatoes show up. You'll know that there's been a reduced crop of sour cherries for some vendors this year, and know to do number 2—get there early. You'll spy the sorrel that is incredibly zippy that my kids love, from Pheasant Hill in Emmaus. If you see something you haven't seen before, ask about it. Inquire as to how the farmer him or herself likes to prepare it; they know, they grow it. Ask how long a farmer will likely have a given crop. Ask what's coming up. This helps you plan meals and prioritize your spending, without overbuying or missing something. It assists the farmer because it's feedback from customers; they learn what people are interested in and how you like to prepare their food.
4. Bring extra bags—and extra friends—to help carry the load. In the middle of the season, once the fruit really starts rolling in, my super huge bag from Mercantile reaches capacity at the same time as my right shoulder. Canteloupes and berries and peaches get heavy really quickly. And you know you can never have enough tomatoes, right? At Easton Farmers' Market, they have a new veggie valet service, which helps you carry your haul to the car or wherever you're headed.
5. Investigate seconds. If you find a vendor whose peaches, tomatoes, or cucumbers are perfect for canning or pie making or whatever you love to do with surplus produce, ask if they sell seconds. You can often buy a bushel or half bushel or some other denomination, depending, for a reduced cost. If the vendor's produce is really exceptional, there will be minimal difference between the firsts and seconds. You will probably need to move quickly, however, because some fruits and veggies are more perishable than others and won't keep as long. Again, time is of the essence, because vendors who regularly bring seconds will likely sell out of them lickety split.
There are lots of other things you can do, too, if you love markets. Take photos and share them via Instagram. I use the hashtag #buyfreshbuylocal and always tag the market I'm at. Did you know the @eastonfarmersmarket is on Instagram? Now you do! You can follow me at @writercarrie, too.