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7 Tips for Saving Money at the Farmers Market
Summer is the perfect time to scoop up plenty of fresh fruit — and incredible deals — at farmers markets and roadside stands.
Not only are you more likely to find produce grown without pesticides, but you can also bag most of your grocery shopping for the week — at a fraction of the cost.
If you’re used to hearing about how expensive farmers markets are, their general affordability might come as a surprise.
But the news didn’t shock Elanor Starmer, administrator for the Agricultural Marketing Service, a branch of the USDA. "We found that the majority of the time, the farmers market was comparable or competitive [that is, within a 10% range] with retail prices,” Starmer told Food52.com.
“[Prices were] equal to or less than at the grocery store, especially organic products," she added.
But buying directly from farmers and navigating produce stands takes some getting used to. Here are 7 expert tips for saving money at the farmers market, no matter what’s on your list:
1. Arrive later in the day
We realize “get there late” goes against most common advice for shopping at farmers markets. Most shoppers will want to beat the crowds and scope out the best offerings from each stand.
But arriving later in the day means you’ll be able to find the best deals on the produce farmers haven’t had a chance to sell — and that gives you an opportunity to save.
Just don’t wait too long, advises Marcy Coburn, the executive director of CUESA, in San Francisco. “It causes the farmers a lot of stress if you are just loitering around, waiting for half price,” she told Huffington Post.
At the end of the day, it pays to be respectful of the produce farmers have to offer. Display prices for seasonal produce are generally fair, and negotiating works best when you have a working relationship with the grower or are buying in bulk.
If the crowds have cleared out for the afternoon, approach a farmer to ask for the last few flats of tomatoes or peaches for a slight discount. If you’re flexible and fair, farmers will remember you and look for your business the following week.
2. Ask for “seconds”
Grocery stores choose the best-looking produce to put out for their customers — but that doesn’t mean fruits and veggies with a few bumps and bruises aren’t good to eat.
“Ugly fruits and vegetables are just as nutritious and flavorful as the produce in your supermarket, and they're typically sold at much lower prices,” explains dietitian Stephanie McKercher at The Food Network’s website.
In fact, asking a farmer for “seconds,” the less-than-beautiful apples, pears, and tomatoes, can be a great way to stockpile for canning or baking.
“If you’re making something that requires a lot of produce and whose appearance doesn’t matter — like jam, pasta sauce, or salsa — ask the farmer for ‘seconds’ at a lower price,” advises Gabrielle Karol at LearnVest.
Usually farmers keep seconds out of view of customers — but they’re likely still on hand at their stall, and ripe for a discount, too.
3. Wait until later in the season
It’s tempting to be first in line for the newest crop of tomatoes, peaches, or cherries. You’ve been waiting all season for your favorite fruits — and it can be difficult to hold out for lower prices.
But if you want to save, it’s smarter to wait until later in the season, says Laura McDonald, the communications specialist for Greenmarket. "Buy the things that are in huge abundance to help stretch your dollar," she explained to Huffington Post.
Wait until other farmers bring in their seasonal crops, so there’s more competition — and you’re not paying top dollar for the first, labor-intensive strawberries of the season.
A few weeks could be the difference between shelling out a premium — and saving up to 40%, according to McDonald.
4. Comparison shop
Once you arrive at the farmers market, take some time to get the lay of the land. If you simply purchase the first basket of fingerling potatoes you see, you could be missing out on a good deal from another table.
"Stroll through the market first," Brie Mazurek, the online education manager of CUESA, suggested at TheKitchn.com. “This not only helps you find good deals, but it also helps you see what's in season, what's new and fresh, what's good quality.”
Once you’ve made your first round of the market, head to the stalls where you noticed the best prices for local produce, dairy, and meat. And don’t forget to chat with the farmer to pick up more tips on food preparation or complementary ingredients.
5. Be flexible
Shopping at a farmers market is all about using seasonal produce to round out your menu for the week. Being too rigid with your shopping list might wind up straining your budget, rather than helping you stick to one.
“Make a list, but be open to items you haven’t seen before,” Anne Meixner, a volunteer for the Hollywood Farmers Market in Portland, Oregon, suggested to GoBankingRates.com. “I think it is more important to know the vendors at the market and who you are going to buy from.”
Remember: it can take time to develop solid vendor relationships. Visiting the farmers market regularly can help you develop a rapport with growers who will come to understand your tastes — and your budget constraints.
6. Pay with cash
Most farmers markets operate as cash-only operations, though some stands might have a mobile card reader for their customers.
Paying with cash can help you budget, but you might also be able to round down and save, suggests personal finance expert Trent Hamm.
“If you have small denominations with you, it can actually be a very good bargaining tool, especially with vendors whose prices aren't rounded to the nearest dollar,” writes Hamm at U.S. News & World Report.
“Many vendors will begin to run short on quarters or dollar bills, so if you notice one who is in such a spot, make a low bid on an item offering to pay in quarters or ones,” he adds.
This strategy works especially well at the end of the market day, or if you’re buying in bulk — when a grower is more likely to want to cut you a deal.
7. Negotiate - but only when buying multiple items or in bulk
At farmers markets, negotiations are more about relationships than the bottom line. More often than not, farmers often sell at reasonable price points and can’t go much lower for a customer who wants to haggle.
But you can (and should!) develop strong relationships with a grower over multiple months. These relationships will help you score discounts on bulk or wholesale foods.
“Farmers are passionate about their work and they'll appreciate when you are too,” dietitian Christy Brissette explained to The Food Network.
But don’t strike up a conversation just on the off chance that a farmer might throw a few extra veggies your way.
Learn more about how they grow their food, ask for recipe suggestions, or find out if they have a CSA model — community supported agriculture — you can support to help make their work even more sustainable.
You don’t have to make lots of extra cash to buy fresh fruits and veggies at the farmers market. Once you understand the ins and outs of market etiquette, you can find plenty of deals on produce — and get to know the local growers in your community, too.
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