8 Shopping Tips for Year-Round Farmers Markets
Many people assume that once fall is upon us, farmers markets close for the season. While many smaller markets do shutter during the winter, there are plenty of year-round markets throughout the Pacific Northwest to keep you well stocked through the colder months.
Winter markets feel a bit slower and more easygoing — which you might even consider a bonus. You can spend more time perusing, enjoy longer conversations with vendors and take it all in without the throngs that fill markets during the summer.
But to really get the most out of year-round farmers markets, check out the know-before-you-go tips we’ve compiled below. These will help both novice shoppers and well-seasoned market patrons make the best of their neighborhood farmers market this winter.
1. Read up online
Check out the hours, location and parking information, and then peruse the list of vendors before you head out. The worst experience is to show up a half hour before closing, struggle to find parking and then discover that all the best produce was sold earlier in the day. Most markets have their own dedicated website or Facebook page, so start there. Often these sites list current offerings or seasonal specials, which can give you inspiration and help you organize your shopping list before you head out.
2. Start with a high-level meal plan
The Northwest produces so much good stuff, the most common reaction to seeing it all laid out at the market is “OMG I want it all!” To avoid buying up everything that looks good, figure out ahead of time whether you need to stock up for dinners, lunches or snacks. Then, while shopping, bucket your purchases into those categories. Ask yourself, “When am I going to eat this?” before you buy it, so you won’t go home with too much food.
3. Do a lap first
Walk up and down the market before buying anything, as multiple vendors may offer similar products at different price points. You might also discover something unique that will influence your cooking plans.
4. Bring plenty of extra bags
While those reusable totes are handy, if you have extra plastic bags or Ziplocs, bring them along as well. Most vendors will offer plastic bags for weighing separate types of produce, but why waste what you’ve got under the sink at home? The purveyors are sure to appreciate your conservation.
5. Introduce yourself to the vendors
Most farmers market vendors sell at markets because they genuinely enjoy making personal connections with their customers. Just ask Hilario Alvarez of Alvarez Organic Farms or the team behind Prairie Creek and Carman Ranch. Winter is the perfect time to strike up a conversation, because foot traffic is slow and the vendors have the time to chat. Ask what is best that week and how they recommend preparing it. You’re bound to get some helpful tips and recipe ideas — not to mention a better appreciation of where you food came from.
6. Get the most bang for your buck
Look for weekly specials or ask if they have any “seconds” (slightly bruised or less-than-perfect products). This is a great way to get deals, particularly on easily dented but still usable produce like apples, pears and squash. Many vendors also offer weekly specials on bumper crops (an unusually large harvest). Check for signs or simply ask the purveyor.
7. Bring small bills
Many vendors are starting to use mobile credit card payment systems, but there are still plenty of stands that only accept cash. Having small bills (or even quarters!) makes it easier on the vendors that are cash-only, and it might encourage you to try new things. Never had jicama? Curious about kohlrabi? Buy a dollar’s worth and see how it goes.
8. Stock up in season
Farmers markets are, by their nature, very seasonal. If those cranberries look good, buy them now. Likewise, if you see a great deal on squash, ask how long it will be available and, if possible, stock up. Many types of winter produce can keep for months in a cool room (winter squash, apples, onions, garlic), and others lend themselves to being dried and preserved (peppers, hardy herbs).
With those tips in mind, it’s time to start shopping!