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What’s So Great About a Farmer’s Market?

When it’s time to go grocery shopping, where are you most likely to go? Options for buying food are pretty varied in America. There are:

  • national mega stores like Walmart and Target
  • big-box stores like Costco and Sam’s Club
  • regional grocery store chains like Publix, HEB, and Meijer
  • independent local grocery stores
  • dollar stores

But for part of the year, there is another option: the farmer’s market. Farmer’s markets have been growing in popularity, from just under 2,000 in 1994 to more than 8,600 markets currently registered in the United States Department of Agriculture.

Farmer’s markets have appeal on multiple levels. Part of it is the temporary nature. Knowing that I can only go one day a week, for about half the year, makes it more special to me. Another part is that I’ve been going to the same market for years (one of my kids had her first job there) and frequently see people that I know—it’s a social time as well as practical. And of course, there’s the quality and variety.

I see a much greater assortment of types of food than at my local grocery store. Many kinds of wild mushrooms, tiny quail eggs, vividly orange cauliflower, and water spinach are all available at my farmer’s market. I love having the opportunity to try new foods.

The quality is also a draw for me, especially for things like tomatoes. Supermarket tomatoes are bred to last a long time on store shelves, and often lack flavor. Nothing compares to tomatoes that are locally grown and freshly picked. Sometimes I’ll grow tomatoes myself, but if I want a lot of different kinds all in one salad, the farmer’s market is the place to get them.

It’s important to know that although many vendors these days take debit and credit cards, not all do, so bring cash as well. I like to go early, before it gets too hot, but also before things sell out. On the other hand, if you go closer to closing time, the vendor is more likely to bargain on prices. Also, just because it’s from a local farmer, doesn’t mean it’s organic. If organic is important to you, be sure to ask.

Bear in mind that these truly are local farmers, so what’s on the table will be a result of the season and the weather. Different things ripen at different times, so don’t expect strawberries late in the summer or corn on the cob early. Where you are in the country also makes a difference; areas further south have longer growing seasons, but don’t grow the same things. Extremes in temperature can also affect agricultural goods. One year, Michigan had a very bad week of cold weather after all the apple trees had started to flower. The sudden cold killed all the flowers, so the apple harvest that year was almost nonexistent.

Besides the stereotypical fruits and vegetables, many markets also have flowers, herbs, baked goods, meat, and prepared foods like salsa or jelly. Sometimes food is cooked on site, ready to eat—I’ve seen lemonade, doughnuts, hamburgers, bratwurst, pierogi, and samosas, just to name a few. And it’s not just food. I’ve seen antiques, soaps, jewelry, art, toys, and live music at various markets.

That’s another wonderful part about farmer’s markets—each one is unique. The vendors will vary from location to location (and sometimes from week to week, so if you see something you like, don’t assume you’ll be able to get it again in the future). Knowing which one works best for you will vary according to your wants. Proximity to home, size, parking availability, a particular vendor, and general atmosphere all contribute to the appeal of particular markets.

To find one near you, check out the National Farmers Market Directory.

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