Fresh, Seasonal and Affordable: 9 Ways to Save Money at the Farmers Market
It’s a common misconception that eating locally grown and produced food means spending more.
In fact, “the best way to save money on produce in general is to buy it in season,” says About.com Local Food blogger Molly Watson, “so shopping at farmers markets is a great step in the right direction.”
Shopping and saving at your local farmers market requires a different approach than the one you use at the grocery store, but with these tips it’s easy to start enjoying the benefits of eating local.
Here’s how you can save money while shopping at your local farmers market.
1. Ditch Your List
If you go to the market looking for something specific, you’ll likely be disappointed and end up spending more than you intended.
Instead, “keep your mind open and just see what is available and then create a recipe based on what you get,” suggests shopper Brittany Haskell.
Local food enthusiast and registered dietician Nicole Cormier calls this practice intuitive cooking. “You don’t want your food to go to waste, so it is important to explore using vegetables in new ways.”
My trusted resource for making the most of what I find at the farmers market is the cookbook From Asparagus to Zucchini: A Guide to Cooking Farm-Fresh Seasonal Produce.
This handy guide has an alphabetical listing of common veggies with recipes, cooking and storage tips to help you make the most of whatever produce is fresh, available and inexpensive.
2. Shop What’s In Season
There is nothing like a sweet strawberry in the middle of the winter, but health- and budget-wise it’s not the way to eat. Shopping locally forces you to learn about the seasonality of food.
“Agricultural products are more expensive early or late in the season,” according to EatLocalGrown.com.
“Farmers work hard to come to market ‘first’ or ‘last’ with a particular product. If everyone at a market has a particular product, the price will drop, but if only one vendor has an item, he or she can set the price individually. To save big cash, buy products at the peak of their season.”
Food budget blogger Tiffany of The Nourishing Home agrees. “In-season produce is usually more affordable, better tasting and contains more nutrients compared to produce that is not in season and is shipped from a far away location.”
She offers two great resources to help you know what to look for during different times of the year: “Know what’s in season before you shop using this cool page from the Natural Resources Defense Council. It allows you to see what’s in-season by state, by month and by food!”
“Another option is Locavore, a free app that shows you what’s in season and what local markets carry what you’re looking for.”
Yes, yet another way your smartphone can help you save money!
3. Choose Seconds
Not all your food needs to look perfect or pretty.
“Check with the farms about seconds — vegetables that they would not sell to a restaurant, but would eat themselves,” suggests Cormier.
The Carson City Farmer’s Market agrees, explaining, “Many farmers also sell ‘seconds’ – produce that is slightly bruised or not as large as the full-priced items, yet tastes just as great or is perfect for canning.”
You might have to cut off a few bruises, but your veggies will taste just as good as their prettier cousins.
4. Buy in Bulk
Purchasing in larger quantities also helps the pennies add up. The trick to buying in bulk is to make sure you have proper storage.
“If you have an extra freezer, buying bulk meats and veggies from local farmers is an option,” says Cormier.
A quick search on Craigslist pulls up a number of inexpensive local chest freezers, and Cormier also suggests investing in a vacuum sealer.
5. Carry Cash, Especially Quarters
Cash is king at your local farmers’ market, but apparently so are quarters, advises EatLocalGrown.com.
“You can often get great deals if you pay in quarters, especially at a Sunday market! Quarters are a hot commodity at farmers markets because farmers commonly run out of them when giving change. If you show up with rolls of quarters, you are likely to find a farmer that will give you a tomato or beans or something just for using your quarters.”
Free food just for having a couple of coins? That’s not a bad deal at all.
6. Build Relationships
It’s all about who you know, and shopping locally is no exception to the rule.
“Form a relationship with your local farmers and let them know that you’ll take any ‘need to sell quickly’ produce off their hands at a discounted price. Then use it right away or freeze. I often buy extra zucchini for bread and muffins,” Erin Chase of $5 Dinners told AllYou.
Once you have a good connection with a farmer or two, see whether you can trade non-food items for your produce.
The key here is to build a relationship first, before trying to barter — vendors may be less willing to barter with strangers.
“Vendors often are willing to engage in old-fashioned bartering,” Kelly Thompson and Kasey Trenum of Time 2 Save told AllYou.
“Try trading your stockpile items, including cleaning supplies, paper products and toiletries, for fresh fruits and vegetables.”
7. Go Regardless of the Weather
With such a short season, farmers markets are usually open rain or shine.
“You can usually get great deals when the weather is bad,” suggests ValPak.com.
“Rain, cold and even excessive heat drive away customers, so the farmer may offer discounts in order to get sales. Fewer customers also means that you can spend a few minutes talking to the farmer to build a relationship.”
8. Shop Late
Arriving late can be a bit of a gamble, but regular shoppers say they often find their best deals in the market’s last 30 minutes.
“The selection won’t be as good and stands may be out of popular items, but vendors would often rather sell what’s left at a slightly reduced price than haul it home,” says Watson.
“Don’t assume the farmers have nothing else to do with their goods, however, and offer a pittance. Rounding down to the nearest dollar (or $5 increment for larger amounts) or getting a free item thrown in for purchases of multiples is the more likely scenario.”
EatLocalGrown.com suggests this smart strategy:
If you do show up to the market right before closing time on a consistent basis, make sure that you are willfully entering into a mutually beneficial relationship. If a farmer gives you a good deal before closing time, do him or her a favor by purchasing a sizable amount of food. For instance, say, “I see that you have some food left over, and I want to help you out. What can you give me for $20?”
By initially offering a set amount of money and giving the farmer a choice in what to sell you, the farmer will be inclined to give you both a good deal and the best of what his or her table has to offer.
9. Consider Joining a CSA
CSA is short for Community Supported Agriculture, another great option for adding more local produce to your diet.
By joining a CSA, you agree to purchase a “share” of produce from a farmer over the course of the season and pick up new items weekly.
“While you typically do have to pay upfront, the average share is about $30/week and you’ll have a bounty of fresh produce to enjoy,” says Cormier.
When I was part of a CSA a few years ago, I purchased a half share for the season, saved a bundle and still had veggies to spare. Get started shopping local by checking out this directory to find a farmers market near you.
Ally Piper is a writer, designer and marketing director. She loves to cook and eat local food and blogs about life, business and balance.