What NOT to Buy at a Farmers Market

by Paul Michael on 21 September 2011 23 comments
Photo: IanMalcm

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.

4. Honey

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.

5. Clothing

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.

7. Chocolate

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.

Additional photo credits: BrockVicky, MasterMaq
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Guest's picture

NUMBER 1 IS SO TRUE! This happened to me recently. Luckily, I didn't buy too much from the first stand. I go frequently to farmers markets. I was in a more affluent area so I thought maybe the prices were just a little more. As I moved around, there was a local farm that goes to all of the markets that had cheaper prices.

I try to stay away from anything other than food. I will say I have been suckered by really good bakeries that sell there. It's just nice to have the convenience of buying something I would normally buy in the same spot.

Guest's picture
Jennifer

The counter argument to your point about meat is that some of the farmers don't sell in stores - and due to processing availability and volume, frozen's the only practical way to go. Frozen meat straight from the farmer who raised it 5 miles from where you're standing is SO MUCH better than fresh from the supermarket...

Guest's picture
Marilyn

I second that. I have had pasture raised, grass fed beef from a local farmer that was frozen (but butchered just a week ago) and I was floored by the incredible taste of that beef. Sooo much better than fresh from the supermarket!

Guest's picture
vermonter

I can only assume you're talking here about farmers' markets in large population areas where you can't get to know the vendors. If so, this seems to be good advice. However, I live in a small town in a rural area, and can say that our market only allows the honey producer to sell honey, and the baked goods cost the same as they do down the road at the shop. (And they have definitely been baked that morning. I know the bakers!) As far as the meat vendors, well, again, we know them. We can see the meat and the coolers right there. I wouldn't buy seafood, but duh - I'm in a landlocked state.

Again, I don't think this post is BAD advice, but it's not that black and white, and local producers need all the support they can get. Please don't scare people away!

Guest's picture
Guest

Exactly! I live in Oregon and while not land-locked, we have some amazing U-Pick farms that offer up the very best of our local crops. I also live in a very rural setting where 'supermarket-style' Farmers Markets don't exist. Your advice may be best directed at those in the city. I used to live in Seattle where the finest Farmers Market lives, the advice should be more like a cautionary tale, not set in stone.

Guest's picture
Erin

Hey Vermonter, well put. This isn't a bad post or bad advice necessarily but a few things are off. Farmers really need our support, especially this year - don't scare potential customers away!

Guest's picture
Guest

I completely disagree with you on several of these points. I work at farmers' markets and manage farmers' markets. When you shop at farmers' markets, you want to find the BEST deal for you money, not the CHEAPEST. Talk to the farmers and find out their growing habits. It might be worth your money to pay a little more if the produce is not coated with Roundup or pesticides. Frozen meat is the ONLY way to buy meat. Trust me, all meat in the grocery store was frozen at one time. I would not buy meat anywhere BUT the farmers market 'cause I know where it came from and how healthy it was. This is not a helpful article for anyone. If you can't be helpful, be quiet.

Guest's picture
Guest in CA

In addition to not buying produce that isn't in season, don't buy anything that can't be grown in your area (bananas are a good example). In California, certified farmers markets have to segregate the certified (locally grown/produced by the seller) from the noncertified (everything else). And the certified growers have to display their certificate.

Eggs are a great buy at a farmers market (although we now have a friend with too many chickens who gives us fresh ones free). Tomatoes in season - not greenhouse or hydroponically grown; and the funny-looking heirlooms are usually the tastiest. Fresh newly harvested potatoes of all varieties are wonderful; as is freshly picked lettuce - iceberg straight from a farmer is amazingly better than what stores sell.

Guest's picture

I second the comment about meat from a Farmers Market being far superior your Grocery Store options, even if frozen. We buy from a farm 2 counties away that sells for much higher prices at our local coops and isnt available at traditional grocery stores. Plus, their packages all contain processing dates. Full disclosure. Through the relationship I built with them, we were able to order a 1/2 cow - grass fed & organic - for significantly less per pound than we would have paid in grocery store (or even Farmers Market) prices.
Don't over look the meat!

Guest's picture
Canbku

Really? I don't think your market is indicative of all farmers' markets. Automatically turning up your nose to certain products negates the community aspect of markets. Get to know the growers, bakers, producers and farmers and make the decision to buy based on the best quality for the price. Pass unless the price is right? Sure, we have to make decisions based on cost, but the decision to pass should be made first on quality.

Guest's picture
Megan

The farmers market in the town we recently moved from (haven't found a famers market in our new town yet) was in a permanent (though still open on the sides) structure that had electrical outlets. Farmers would keep their perishables (meat, etc.) in powered coolers in the shade of the permanent structure. I know that this isn't the case for a lot of farmer's markets, but I never had any qualms about buying meat at my old farmer's market.

I never, ever buy tomatoes anywhere but at a farmer's market. They're just not worth the price unless they're locally grown. When I have my own yard, I plan to grow tomatoes, but until then, it's the farmer's market or no tomatoes for me.

Guest's picture
David N.

Sorry "adman" but I am not buying what you’re selling. It is apparent that you are writing on a subject that you know little or nothing about. I wonder if you are mistaking your local swap meet for a Farmer's Market. Let's review at least 9 out of 10 or more ways that you got this article wrong:
1. Do you really think that people need to be told to not buy the first items they see? Really? Most people, if not everyone, go to these Farmer's Markets for the entire experience of walking through the various stands and browsing the quality (and price) of the fruits and vegetables. Honestly, how many people do you know stop at the first stand, buy the first items they see, and go home? Nobody!
2. "Avoid the perfect looking stuff" -- are you serious? I am all for buying good tasting deformed fruit/veggies or shopping for a better price -- but that does not mean I should arbitrarily avoid the perfect looking stuff.
3. Well, you at least got this one right.
4. How many local beekeepers do you know? If any of us knew local beekeepers (other than those found at these Farmer's Markets), then I am sure we would consider going directly to them. But unless you live in some rural area, it is not likely. Besides, in my experience, most of the people selling honey at the Farmer's Markets ARE indeed affiliated directly with the Beekeeper. In any case, it is more convenient to purchase such honey while I am at the Farmer’s Market, rather than drive to the beekeeper separately. The savings, if any, is minimal.
5. If people want to buy socks at Farmer's Market, then let them. Who cares? Besides, the prices actually tend to be lower, not higher, than retail. Do we really need to concern ourselves whether the socks are "quality" or not? These are just socks, after all.
6. Despite your implications to the contrary, there is nothing wrong with buying baked goods at a Farmer's Market from a local baker in town. I would expect and hope that local bakers would sell at the Farmer's Market. What's the alternative -- buying "fresh" baked good at the Farmer's market from a major retailer? Or some stranger working out of their house? While I will often times purchase such homemade goods from a stranger working out of their home, it seems to me, that you take on a greater risk than you would with a local baker that has a storefront in town. As for your allegation regarding higher prices, that is not my experience. In any case, I can make up my own mind whether the cost is worth it.
7. See comments for #6.
8. Comments from other readers sufficiently demonstrate why you are misinformed on meats, seafood, etc.
9. If I want to pay a little extra for the "convenience" of a gift basket, then that, sir, is my prerogative.
10. What is wrong with buying ready-to-eat food at Farmer's Markets? If price is your only argument, then again, please give the rest of us credit for being able to make our own decisions regarding whether a particular cup of chili is worth $5.

With all due respect, your article is colored by the fact that you are a real cheap skate. For 7 out of the 10 items above, your reason for not buying such items at a Farmer’s Market, was because you believe that you could get these items cheaper elsewhere. While I certainly can appreciate the desire to be as frugal as possible, for purposes of this article I think you have conveniently overestimated the prices. In the end, I think that your obsession with cheaper prices prevents you from truly understanding and appreciating the overall experience of going to a Farmer's Market. At most Farmer’s Markets, you will find that prices are usually lower than retail; the quality and taste is usually higher; there is a sense of supporting local growers, bakers, barbeque, etc.; there is joy in walking outdoors through the Farmer’s Market and your local community; there is the convenience of picking up all of these items at one time; and so on.
My dear friend -- take the time to smell the roses, not just the cheaper priced ones.

Guest's picture
William

So David, what you're saying is that you're a big boy who can make his own decisions, and know what you want to pay more for, or what is worth paying full price for? Your words...
"I can make up my own mind whether the cost is worth it."
"please give the rest of us credit for being able to make our own decisions"

Why the hell are you reading this site at all then? You come off as a pompous, know-it-all a-hole to be honest. Did you even read his disclaimer. He didn't say these would apply to every single farmers market on the planet. He didn't say they were bad places to buy food. And last time I checked, this is a free blog. You sound like a blowhard who loves the sound of his own voice.

Guest's picture
C

I'll make an add. 99 out of 100 times the beekeeper, or partner is at the market and it's never cut like supermarket honey is, and hardly over priced compared to the grocery store. It does not get any better. Buy honey from beekeepers near where you live and it will help with allergies from local plants. I live where we have the largest farmers market in the midwest and believe me not even one of these ten rules is followed at this market. The biggest rule I follow is know what you are planning to buy before you go to the farmers market, then have a little extra cash for one thing to splurge on, if you can. Next rule is get to know your farmers, learn to buy in bulk, learn to freeze, and can. Don't view your farmers market experience as a shopping trip, look at it as a continual lesson on sustainability and your own personal way of shorting the interests of big agriculture while knowing that you are eating your way to a healthier you.

Guest's picture
the hungry hermit

This is terrible advice and a great disservice to those of us who sell at farmers markets. At our market, the baked goods are still warm from the oven as we have been baking since 3 am that morning. Our market requires that the products sold are grown by the seller only - so honey only comes from the local beekeeper, and veggies have been grown and picked by the person selling to you. No third party sales. And if you want wool socks, mittens or a hat, we have very talented sheep farmers, spinners and knitters providing you with the nicest, most reasonably priced, unique clothing you could ever want. Please ask questions and be informed as to the rules of your local farmers market and you can decide on your own.

Guest's picture
Kevin Eldridge

I purchase my seafood from my local Farmer's market. We have a Lousiana seafood company that catches fish from the Gulf on Thursday and drives to Nashville, TN to sell freshly caught fish (on ice), live crawfish, and other items from Lousiana. Since they started selling fish in the market, I stopped purchasing fish in the grocery store as we are a land locked state. It is by far, the BEST, BEST, fish I have ever eaten.

There is a dairy farm in Kentucky that brings milk, eggs, and bread for sale to the Farmer's market as well on Saturdays. I do not buy milk in the store any longer. There is something to be said of buying low heat pasteurized milk in glass bottles.

Again, by far, the best products. I agree, there are certain items to be wary of. Especially, the products on the tables when you first walk into the market

Guest's picture

This is a great list. I used to go to farmers market but the one close to my house closed. Ever since it became more difficult to go. But when I go, I mainly buy food/fruits/vegetables. They do have good prices.

Guest's picture
amy saves

#8 meat and seafood, good tip! those need to be frozen at least.

Guest's picture

I love shopping at the farmer's market for their wonderful fruit and veggies. I am always disappointed in the fall when our market's shut down for the winter. The best thing I found at the farmer's market was a local organic farm that sold grass fed beef. We have been buying direct from "Glen Ashton Farms" for 3 years and are always impressed by this couple and their operation. They are a very professional and bring a whole new meaning to customer service. Last year we placed our meat order a little late and they managed to fit us in. They truly go above and beyond! I would love to hear about your favorite find at your local Farmer's Market?

Guest's picture

Honestly I do not believe in the farmers markets - it is same stuff being supplied to the supermarkets.
It is just our imagination makes it better, if you ready topay more - go to wholefoods or any other store - excellent selection and good preserved.

But the advice not to buy anything unrelated to farm is good. Thank you for that.

Guest's picture
Ray

I absolutely love everthing about Farmers Markets. The stalls, the stall owners all from different parts of the country. The different foods and they all seem to be better than what you would buy in the local shop or supermarket. The atmosphere is always great with all the banter and the different smells. I know all of the produce comes direct from the farms and all fresh. I would recommend to anyone that has not been to a Farmers Market to search them out, I know if you are a lover of old fashioned good food you will love it.

Guest's picture
Guest

In my area, the farmer's market is only on weekends. So sometimes it's a good time to show up at 5 pm on Sunday (when it closes for the week) to get a good deal on produce because the prices drop really quickly. The people selling the produce want to get rid of their excess fruit/veggies instead of having to hold onto them for the week and losing a profit (and lowering the quality of their food).

Guest's picture
Guest

Not all of us in baked good and chocolates have stores. Some of us are bakers and pastry chefs practicing our skills and brining things to market