Eating organic, fresh and local has for some shoppers become something of an obsession in recent years, making farmers markets the new grocery stores for passionate foodies, veg-heads, earth moms and Al Gore-devotees. With the fresh-food season in full swing, we offer some tips on how to make the most of your market experience.
Not surprisingly, plastic bags are taboo at markets, so to avoid the stink eye, bring your reusable shopping bags from home (if they have a smug slogan like "I Am Not A Plastic Bag," even better). While you're at it, throw in some Tupperware – the containers provided for fruits such as raspberries and cherry tomatoes tend to be flimsy and lidless. Also bring small-denomination bills and coins. "A lot of vendors don't have much change," says Seth Goering of Forbes Wild Foods, who manages a regular stand at the Trinity Bellwoods Farmers Market in Toronto.
The Internet is not the enemy
It's not very Old MacDonald, but a certain amount of tech savvy will help you learn about the options in your area. Many markets as well as a number of individual vendors and farmers have Facebook pages and Twitter feeds that give updates on the standout wares of the week, whether it's the season's first fiddleheads (also known as Locavore Christmas) or a face-painting stand for the kiddies.
Don't be a market miser
High prices are probably the most common complaints related to market culture. While it's true consumers will often be charged extra for pesticide-free, homegrown goods, it's important to ensure you're comparing organic apples to organic apples. "I'll hear people complaining about how produce at the market costs twice as much as at the grocery store, but they're not comparing to the grocery store's organic section," says James MacKinnon, author of The 100 Mile Diet. Mr. MacKinnon also says that market shoppers often get more for their money – "Lettuce heads from a farmer are often twice the size of what you're getting at the Safeway."
How to get a deal: part 1
Buying in bulk is probably the best way to get a reduced price on your purchase, but the standard principles of supply and demand apply. "No one is going to offer you a cut rate on fresh summer strawberries," says Mr. Goering. And you'll be far less likely to score a deal early in the day when demand is still high. The strategic rules are: As a basic rule of green thumb, come at the beginning of the day for selection; come at the end of the day for a deal.
How to get a deal: part 2
Farmers appreciate loyalty. "Find a stand you like and go back regularly," says Mr. Goering. In some cases, when a farmer knows you are a good customer, he or she might offer you a reduced rate or add a little something extra to your haul. Just don't expect it of everyone. "I have a hat that says 'Screw A Farmer. Everyone Else Is,'" says market regular Ruth Klahsen of Monforte Dairy. To ensure you're getting what you pay for, you should also feel free to ask questions about where and how food is grown. Some markets are more lax than others, which means certain goods are the same as supermarket quality – or worse. A good trick: When you're talking to the proprietor of a stand, look at their fingernails. If they're dirty, you're likely talking to a farmer.
And don't do this: Unleash your inner Park Avenue princess, meaning don't start shucking your corn at the stand. They're farmers, not maids.
Special to The Globe and Mail