The Beginner's Guide To The Farmer's Market

A while back I had the chance to return to my hometown of Madison, Wisconsin, giving me the opportunity to relax, see friends and family, and, of course, visit my local farmers’ market.

The Dane County Farmers’ Market, located right next to the Wisconsin Capitol Building, has been a staple of Madison culture for decades. With about 300 venders, it’s one of America’s largest.

But for those who don’t make it a weekly event, it can seem a bit overwhelming. Fortunately, the folks who sell their products at farmers’ markets are eager to help you. By talking to venders and market-goers, I was able to compile some great tips on how to make the most of your local farmers’ market.

Know what’s in season

By doing a little research, you’ll have a better idea as to what you can buy. Some farmers markets’ websites have guides, but Epicurious’s seasonal ingredient map is a great starting point.

Avoid peak times

Generally, farmers markets are busiest around late-morning and early afternoon. Your best bet is to go early because some items are extremely popular and sell out quickly. “We try to get down there by the time it starts,” said my friend Prateek, a Madison local whose family goes every week.

Bring your own bags

"We might not have bags, and we often run out,” I was told by a decorative gourd farmer. Either way, the more sustainable option is to bring your own.

Know what you’re looking for

You know what you’re buying, roughly, when you enter a grocery store. Why treat the farmers market any different? However, since part of the experience is discovering new foods, be sure to buy something on impulse.

Ask a farmer

If you’re wondering how to prepare a certain type of food, ask the people who grew it. Some venders have websites, and occasionally offer photo galleries, recipes, tips, and workshops. “Send me a message,” said The Gourd Guy. “We’ll get back to you, for sure.”

Try before you buy

Though it won’t always be appropriate, ask for a free sample. For example, being in Wisconsin, the DCFM offers a wide variety of local cheeses. And yes, you can (and should) sample them.

Wash your produce

Kind of a no-brainer, but just because it’s from the farmers market, doesn’t mean it’s clean. Though typically free of pesticides, produce might have been touched by other customers or, more likely, the occasional bug.

Don’t freak out about bugs

“This can happen with local food,” I overheard one vender say to a market-goer. It makes sense: finding a worm or insect just means it hasn’t been sprayed with pesticides.

Don’t try to haggle

The farmers often won’t give you a deal because it’s late in the day, or else everyone would get the same idea. However, prices sometimes go down as the market comes to a close. “We charge what we charge,” said a woman named Cindy selling an assortment of vegetables, “but we don’t want our vegetables going to waste either.”

“Like” and follow

Larger farmers markets often have a social media presence, meaning you can easily stay up to date. Wondering who sold you that awesome cheese last year? Ask the Facebook page, because someone’s going to know. Also, look at review websites like Yelp.com. By following the market, you’ll know when cool things are happening. If you’re really dedicated, follow venders’ accounts.

Order ahead of time

Some venders, such as DCFM’s West Star Organics, a seller of garden plants, are happy to let you place an order ahead of time. “We do it because it saves people time,” said the owner. Just ask, and they may or may not be able to meet the request. 

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