TORONTO – Farmers markets might be intimidating for those used to whipping around large supermarkets with a list in hand.
But most shoppers become hooked by the array of the freshest food available and the chance to discuss with the actual producers where it came from.
“It’s just different than going to a grocery store. People may not really get that realization of how different it really is if you’ve never been before,” says Eileen Kotowich, farmers market specialist with Alberta Agriculture and Forestry, which recently launched a smartphone app with information on just over 130 markets around the province.
Here are some dos and don’ts of visiting farmers markets from Kotowich and Matt Gomez, founder of Soil Mate, an online tool that connects consumers in Canada and the U.S. with local food and drink growers, raisers, producers and supporters.
Rise and shine
For best selection, shop early. On the other hand, latecomers might score bargains from farmers who don’t want to pack up leftovers.
Don’t expect to get everything on your grocery list.
“You may be somebody who always eats carrots every week. Well, they’re only in season at a certain point so if you’re going to a farmers market right now in the middle of June you won’t be finding carrots or new potatoes,” Kotowich says from Vermilion, Alta.
“You’ve got to really learn what’s the seasonality of these vegetables and when they’re available so you’re eating them at the peak.”
The price is right
Haggling for the best price is acceptable in many parts of the world, but the practice is generally frowned upon at farmers markets in Canada.
“You have to think of a farmer’s total business, how weather dependent it is. Every year their income will vary greatly on factors that are outside their control,” Gomez says from Kelowna, B.C.
Kotowich says labour and costs are typically higher because they’re operating on a small scale and doing tasks by hand.
Take a loop of the market before you start buying as costs can vary.
Don’t touch… Unless you’re invited
If vendors want you to taste things they’ll offer samples such as pieces of fruit or hot food cut into bite-sized pieces.
“That for me is probably one of the best things because if I come across a food I’ve never seen before I may be reluctant to take home a whole package of it, but if I get the chance to try it and they tell me how to cook it to make it be exactly how they’ve done it, that’s just the best way to shop,” Kotowich says.
Boxes of berries are often sold by weight, so if people take samples someone else can get shortchanged. “It shouldn’t be treated as a buffet line or a sample station unless they’re providing samples,” says Gomez.
“An organic farmer is less likely to have toxic sprays on them so they would also be more inclined to let you taste without it being washed.”
The benefit of going to a market is that you can questions.
“They generally prefer it rather than people manhandling their product because the difference from a store is typically a store product has been transported and in some cases artificially ripened or picked when not quite ripe whereas farmers market product is typically picked ripe and sold ripe because it’s more fragile,” says Gomez.
Try something new
Farmers markets offer a wealth of knowledge about unusual vegetables and alternative livestock like elk, bison and goat and how to prepare and store them.
“Getting the chance to talk to these guys, how do you raise your animal and how do you feel about hormones and do you use pesticides on your crops, that sort of stuff, it’s so top of mind with people right now,” says Kotowich.
Don’t pull the husks down on ears of corn. Ask vendors when the corn was picked and if it’s possible to look. Most are happy to help rather than have customers shuck the corn.
“There needs to be a little bit of trust that the vendors are picking them at their peak of ripeness and that every cob that’s there will be good, but if you’re not sure, ask them before you start pulling them open because it does remove the moisture from the cob and it doesn’t look as nice when it’s sitting there starting to dry out,” says Kotowich.
Take large empty bags and cash in small bills.
Some markets have ATMs and some farmers offer electronic payment options, but most deal in cash, says Gomez.
Take a cooler and ice packs to keep perishable food safe.