After an early morning flight back from a family vacation in Detroit, there were a couple things I wanted to do in St. Louis – visit Beck’s Gluten-Free Bakery and head to the Soulard Market, the oldest farmers’ market west of the Mississippi River.
Having grown up shopping at farmers’ markets, I assumed everyone knew that you don’t buy the first good deal you see. Thankfully, my husband understands this and our first step in shopping at the market was to walk the entire market and get an idea of the prices and quality of the food available.
Soulard Market is more than 230 years old and in an otherwise less than desirable part of the city of St. Louis. It’s not an awful neighborhood, but it certainly isn’t full of the same self-satisfaction and snootiness we had encountered an hour earlier at Whole Foods.
To be fair, I doubt than in a market this size, the vendors had anything to do with growing the food themselves, unlike my local farmers’ market. But to also be fair, I’m fairly certain my local farmers’ market has begun price fixing as there no longer appears to be any difference in prices among vendors there.
In actuality, the preparations for shopping at the farmers’ market start long before you ever get there.
Begin with basic price knowledge
When you are planning a trip to the farmers’ market, it’s important to know what the basic prices of produce and other products are at your local grocer. Since these prices can vary greatly during the growing season, it is important to have an idea of what is in season and what the current prices are.
We went to Soulard Market in early June. Locally, strawberries and blueberries are in season. It’s early yet for local corn, but many of the faster growing vegetables, including peas and beans, carrots and various forms of greens, are in season. Lettuce and other greens, in fact, grow better in the cool nights of spring and autumn and burn up in the hot summer sun.
It’s also important to have the right growing information for your part of the country. I had just been to Detroit, 500 miles north, where it was the tail end of the asparagus season and berries weren’t ready yet. Knowing the basic crops that were in season helped to gauge the prices. Paying $3.50 a quart for strawberries in January is expected. Doing it in June makes you a sucker.
Make a list
At least a mental list of the things you are looking for at the market is essentially to making your trip to the farmers’ market effective.
For most Americans who are accustomed to shopping in the relative calm of a grocery store, the chaotic atmosphere of a large farmers’ market can be overwhelming. With vendors shouting and touting the quality of their produce, it can be tempting to buy things that are otherwise not on your shopping list. One vendor at the Soulard Market during out recent visit had beautiful grapefruits at a reasonable price. I was tempted. Then I remembered we don’t really eat grapefruit much.
As always, buying fresh fruit and vegetables, even at a great price, is absolutely crazy if you won’t use them.
A physical list, along with an ink pen, can be a good idea as it will help you keep track of the best prices you see for specific items. We saw the price of a quart of strawberries vary by more than a dollar, depending on the location of the vendor within the market and at least visually, the cheaper berries were the better ones.
A list also helps you remember the oddities on your list. My husband has a recipe he wants to try for kale and we saw it for a $1 a bunch at the market and then promptly forgot it as it was not a vegetables we would usually buy. The list can also help prevent duplicate purchases, so you don’t have to stop and go through the bags to remember what you bought.
Choose stalls that let you choose your produce
One of the distinct advantages of the farmers’ market should be the ability to pick which ears of corn or what tomatoes you want. If the vendor has pre-packaged the product (except perhaps berries), be prepared to find some less savory looking produce at the bottom of the container.
As often as you can, choose each individual piece of produce you can. It takes longer, but you end up with higher quality foods. We paid 85 cents a pound for Yukon gold potatoes, but we chose the potatoes, picking ones that are the right size for our uses as well as ones that were not sprouting eyes or turning to mush.
Take your own bags
Okay, wherever you shop you should be taking your own cloth bags, but at the farmers’ market, every individual piece of produce will end up in a plastic bag if you don’t have bags of your own. In addition to the environmental issues, the bags become a tangled mess , slip off your hands and throw your recently beautiful produce to the ground where it is bruised or ruined.
Once at the market, walk through the market to check out prices and quality of the offerings. Make your selections, and if you arrive close to closing time, ask the vendor if they have any special deals. Often, you’ll get a better price just so they don’t have to take it home.
Many people think of farmers’ markets for fruits and vegetables, but at many, including Soulard Market, vendors have fresh meat, farm-raised eggs, flowers and more. So saving money and feeding your family fresh, local food is just a matter of knowing how to shop at a farmers’ market.