What NOT to Buy at a Farmers Market
I love farmers markets. I do suffer from "can't get out of bed early enough" syndrome and usually miss the good stuff. But even when I do drag myself out of bed, I find some amazing produce that is tastier and healthier than anything found in the supermarket. When it comes to fruits and vegetables, farmers markets are tough to beat.
Now, having said that, I talked to some farmers market regulars who gave me advice on things you shouldn't buy. It's not a long list, and it's by no means a huge expose on shoddy produce or overpriced garbage. No, this is more of a guide to stop you spending a little more than you should on a few items that should, ideally, be bought elsewhere. (See also: Are Farmers Markets Frugal or a Luxury?)
I should also add that every farmers market is different, so while these guidelines are generally worth following, some may not apply to the markets in your area. I know I'll get a lot of comments pertaining to that, so I thought it best to disclose it first. So here is my list of what NOT to buy at your farmers market.
1. The First Items You See!
I know, bit of a broad one to start the list, but it is applicable to everything at the market. You will be greeted with a plethora of great fruits, veggies, and other items that are both good-looking and nutritious. But don't start loading up your eco-friendly shopping bag right from the get-go. Walk the stalls, note the prices, and come back when you can make a more informed decision. Cherries that are just as succulent but twice the price will leave a bitter taste in your mouth, and these places don't issue refunds.
2. Pristine Fruit and Veggies
We're a strange bunch. We buy based on looks, but eat for the flavor. As such, farmers and other vendors will knock-down the price of fruits and veggies that are odd-shaped, have peck-marks, or are generally just not as good-looking as the cream of the crop. Don't let that put you off. Avoid the perfect-looking stuff and ask for the discounted produce, but do so with one caveat — make sure you're not buying old, bruised, and rotten merchandise. It's not unknown for some stalls to pass this off as "misshapen" when in actuality they're spoiled and almost inedible. (See also: 7 Ways to Make Use of Sub-Par Produce)
3. Anything That's Out of Season
This shouldn't be available anyway, as farmers markets pride themselves on fresh, seasonal produce. But if you know your calendars, you know what to avoid. If someone is selling asparagus in September, you may be buying something that was previously frozen or bought cheap from a supermarket.
What could be wrong with honey? Well, nothing. The honey sold at these markets is good honey, better than the stuff found in chain supermarkets. However, a lot of the honey being sold at the market is being done through a third party. If you want to save some money, look at the label, find the beekeeper who produced the honey, and buy it direct from the source. Of course, if that beekeeper is miles and miles away, rethink your strategy.
You go to a farmers market to buy produce fresh from the farm. At least, that's the goal. But over time, farmers markets have evolved to offer a little something for everyone. The strategy behind it is simple enough…people come for the fruits and veggies but invariably bring a family member or friend. And if they don't buy the produce, they may walk away with a nice pair of socks or a woolly hat. Well, it goes without saying that most of the time, these are not good quality items, and they have been marked up as well. Save your money for the incredible produce and leave the clothes shopping for another time.
6. Baked Goods
There's nothing like a home-cooked apple pie or raspberry turnover, but usually the people selling these have a local store somewhere in town. And they not only have to cover the costs of running a store, but renting a booth at the farmers market as well. In turn, that means these items are often marked up from the prices they would usually charge in their local store. It's also a good place to sell produce that is not quite as fresh as the pies that come fresh out of the oven and onto a shelf in their store. Saying that, I do know some bakers who prepare the pies fresh that morning just for the farmers market. It's a good idea to grab their information and pop by their store later in the week. You'll get the same fresh product at a lower price. If you have to drive hours to get there, well, then you may just want to pay extra and save gas money.
Chocolatiers would starve if they only sold their wares at the local market, once a week. It's a high-cost item to make, and they need a good return, so they almost always have a store somewhere in town where the chocolate is a little cheaper. Hunt it down and get yourself the same chocolate without paying the middleman. Freshness is not as much of a worry here though; chocolate does not spoil anywhere near as quickly as a baked apple pie or a slab of meat. Which brings us to…
8. Meat and Seafood
Although it's tempting to buy organic, grass-fed beef, wild boar sausages, or fresh salmon, it's difficult to judge how long these items have been sitting in the sun on a bed of melting ice. You probably won't have any sanitation or health issues, but it's better to get the phone number and address of the seller and pick it up direct from them. And if it's frozen, well, you've just eliminated one reason to buy fresh from the farmer's market. Of course, eggs are perfectly fine to buy as they don't need refrigeration (although you will lengthen their life by popping them in the fridge when you get home). And they're usually really tasty when they're fresh from the farm.
9. Gift Baskets
Another way to mark up produce, canned goods, and other fineries is to assemble them in a gift basket, tie a ribbon around the top and sell them for a nice fat profit. Unless you're heading off to a birthday party the second you leave, and have no time to go shopping, this is not a good way to spend your money. As with most gifts that offer convenience, you pay for it. The items in the basket can be bought separately for much less, and you don't have to get any unwanted items in the process.
10. Meals from Food Carts
This last one is a sticking point within my circle of friends. I equate ready-to-eat food available at farmers markets with concession stands at fairgrounds and county fairs. A recent one in my area was charging $5 for a small cup of chili. And that could be washed down with a small $3 cup of iced tea. No refills. I think there are better food deals to be had elsewhere.
However, a counter argument is that it's all part of the experience, and that you get to taste some great home-cooked food that you know has been made with fresh ingredients. For me, I'll usually pass unless the price is right.
What would you avoid at farmers markets? And to add a little meat to the discussion, what should you ONLY buy at farmers markets? Share your ideas.