This weekend I volunteered at a local farmers' market. It was a great way to get to meet some local farmers and I was able to enjoy a sunny day here in DC. After watching the patrons and answering questions, I realized some tips to make the most of a farmers' market experience might be helpful to my readers.
Come Prepared. Bring your own shopping bags and cash. Most markets are not equipped to accept credit cards, although that is changing. Also, try to be considerate of the vendors and bring smaller bills. Don't count on vendors to supply you with bags, especially if you live in a jurisdiction that is regulating the use of plastic bags.
Scope, Then Buy. I recommend doing a little reconnaissance when you first hit the market. As you walk through you will notice similar items from more than one vendor, but with different prices and sometimes different quality. More than one farmer could be selling tomatoes, but one may be certified organic, and more than one farmer could be selling brown eggs, but one may be $1 cheaper. Because groceries will be stacked on top of each other, you may want to shop for the sturdiest stuff (think potatoes or melons) first.
Taste Test. Most vendors will offer sample tastes of their products. Sample strategically to try and broaden your palate and be adventurous. Some farmers have recipe and preparation suggestions, too.
Talk to Strangers. Take the opportunity to learn how to prepare something new. Most farmers are happy to talk about their goods, their farm, or how they prepare the product, and if they are too busy with other customers, you'll likely get advice from others in line.
Timing. Hit the market early if you want a less crowded experience and your pick of the freshest goods. For a more bustling or energetic scene, hit the market at its midpoint. For bargains, keep in mind that farmers often slash prices about an hour before closing.
Think Beyond Veggies. Many markets are inviting a wide variety of vendors to participate. You may see flowers, yarn, baked goods, cheese, meat, preserves, pasta sauce, and many other things. Local musicians, jugglers, and other entertainers may also be present at your market.
More on Bargains...
Embrace the rejects. The less attractive produce and sometimes be cheaper, and can make a great sauce or can be hidden in a casserole.
Pay for flavor. No matter how you consider it, I think ten bucks is a lot to pay for cheese. I splurge on stronger or more pungent varieties that add big taste in small doses.
How do you find a local farmers' market?
The resource I have found most helpful is searchable database of farmers' markets of the US Department of Agriculture.
I have also found useful information about markets from the private organization, Local Harvest. http://www.localharvest.org
In the Washington, DC metropolitan area, many markets are run by the organization FreshFarm Markets.