August may be the absolute best time of year to go to the farmers’ market: The stands are overflowing with tomatoes, zucchini, melons, flowers, and fresh herbs. You might feel tempted to buy every good-looking peach or bunch of kale you see, but before you do that, our test kitchen has some advice on how to shop at the farmers’ market—and the mistakes you should avoid.
1. It’s Lunchtime—Let’s Hit the Farmers’ Market!
If you want the best of the best, go as soon as the market opens, like chefs do. (The crowds usually don’t arrive until late morning or afternoon.) If the afternoon’s the only time you can get there, by all means, go! But if you can wait until the market’s final hour, there’s a different perk to be had. ”The other day, I went to the farmers’ market at, like, 6 p.m. They had a ton of discounts!” says senior associate food editor Alison Roman. “Actually—don’t write that. I don’t want the secret out.” It’s true: Lots of farmers want to sell their goods so they don’t have to haul their wares back home, and they can do so by slashing prices.
2. All Stalls Are Created Equal
“There are a lot of stands at the farmers’ market,” says senior food editor Dawn Perry. “Don’t go for the first good-looking produce you see.” Perry recommends doing a lap to see who’s got what, testing the quality by sampling everything you can. “You’re going for the best peach or best kale or best apples you can find, and those might not all be at the same stand.”
3. It’s 2014—They’ve Got to Take Credit Cards
“Make sure you bring enough cash!” cautions Roman. While many farmers are starting to use Square (or something similar) to take credit cards, not all do. Make sure you’re armed with green to pay for those pretty squash blossoms. And when you do pay, have your cash ready and “get off your cell phone and interact,” says Perry.
4. It’s All Organic, Right?
“Don’t assume everything at the farmers’ market is organic,” says Perry. “It’s not.” For a farm to get certified organic, it takes a long time and a lot of money. While some farms at the market probably do use pesticides, some farms are using alternative farming methods without the use of pesticides or practice integrated pest management (a multi-layer system for controlling harmful bugs). If you’re concerned about that kind of thing, ask your farmer about his or her farming techniques before buying.
5. Socializing Is for Facebook, Not IRL
“Make friends with your farmer!” says an enthusiastic Brad Leone, our test kitchen manager. “They’ll set their best aside for you, or sometimes give you things like an extra bunch of turnips.” Bonus turnips? We’re in. “Chances are, your farmer’s operation is close to where you live,” points out test kitchen contributor Jackie Ourman. “If you make friends, he or she might invite you up to see the farm. It’s good to see where your food comes from.”
6. Boneless, Skinless, Farm-Raised Breasts
Are Best When buying meat at the farmers’ market, consider the off-cuts. “Farmers desperately want to get rid of the byproducts that inevitably come from whole-animal butchering,” explains assistant food editor Claire Saffitz. Think a pound of chicken livers for $1 or a lamb neck for $3. If they have stuff like that, you can most likely get it for cheap. Those chicken livers are great in fried rice (really!) and make a great pâté. That lamb neck will be meltingly tender in a braise. And it’s all less than what you paid for that large cold-brew.
7. The Stands All Have Plastic Bags—I’ll Use Those!
Actually, it’s better to bring your own canvas bags—and not just to be environmentally friendly. Yes, you’ll probably want to avoid the judgey stares of marketgoers, but ultimately, canvas shoulder bags are roomier and sturdier, allowing you to carry your loot comfortably. It ain’t easy toting around a multitude of small, cheaply made, overstuffed plastic bags while you shop.
8. I Can Eat the Whole Farm
“It’s easy to go overboard when there’s so much great produce,” says Perry. “Sadly, that often leads to waste.” She recommends going in with a plan. But be flexible, says Roman. “If you’re looking for Swiss chard but the kale is looking better, go for the kale.” And when it comes to buying things like beets, carrots—any vegetables with stems—it’ll be in your interest to ask your farmer to cut off the leafy parts if you’re not going to use them. “It’ll make much more room in your bag, and nine times out of ten, that farmer is going to compost those leftovers.” (Although, of course, you can use them: carrot-top pesto, anyone?)
9. Oops! I Spilled Berries. Better Make a Run for It!
It’s inevitable: Your canvas bag full of fennel will swing the wrong way, and you’ll spill a pint of berries. Or upset a precarious pile of potatoes. When this kind of thing happens, don’t run off to the next stall. “Own your actions,” says Perry. “Be apologetic and offer to pay for it. Chances are the produce won’t be that messed up anyway—just rinse it off and use it!”