If you think all farmers markets look alike, you’re as out of touch as a rotary-dial telephone.
Drive across North Carolina in summer and you’ll find a big variety of market styles, from a few trucks pulled up in a parking lot to urban spaces surrounded by skyscrapers. Thanks to the continuing interest in locally grown food, there are grower-only markets, with rules about where the food is grown and who can sell it, and markets that truck in food from all over. There are weekday markets and Saturday-only markets.
Diane Daniel of Durham guesses she went to at least 50 spots all over the state, “from teeny to huge,” while working on her book “Farm Fresh North Carolina,” a guide for farm-related travel.
“The market experience itself is such a community draw,” she says. “And it just continues to grow.”
No matter how diverse the markets become, there are some keys for getting the best from any market. For tips, we turned to several experts – Daniel, vendor Suzanne McCord Crawford, who sells Yah’s Salsas at the Charlotte and Raleigh markets, and Sarah Blackfin, former manager of the state’s first grower-only market, the Carrboro Market.
The one piece of advice they all shared? Get to know your farmer. That’s really what farmers markets are all about.
“It should be at the top,” said Blacklin, who now works for N.C. Choices, which supports local-meat producers. “Talking to your farmers, building that relationship. As a consumer, you have every right to ask every question about what you eat and buy.”
What to do
• Plan ahead. “Almost any market of any size these days has an online newsletter or an email list,” says Daniel. Many farmers do, too. That will not only tell you if someone has a special crop, but it will also alert you to events, like book signings, cooking demos or festivals.
• Make a plan, but be flexible. “If you’re not an experienced cook, have a general idea (of what you want),” says Blacklin. “Otherwise, it’s overwhelming. Give yourself some framework for what you might want. But the key word is ‘might.’ You want flexibility to change.”
• Walk through before you decide what to buy. “Stand back and look where the customers are,” says Crawford. “That’s the way to find out the best people to buy from.”
• Go early. Really popular items sell out fast. “Things that are really favorites, like fresh eggs, sell out quickly,” says Daniel. “Some markets, if you don’t go within the first hour, you won’t get anything.”
• Go late. Sometimes the last customer can get the best deal, if the farmer doesn’t want to pack it up. “I personally don’t try to wheel and deal with farmers,” says Daniel. “They work so hard, they deserve what they make. But for some people who want a bargain, it’s OK to do.”
• Buy for multiple meals, but work in a midweek stop, too, says Blacklin. “Don’t think about it like a supermarket. It’s a shift of how we think of our schedule and our rhythms, but that’s helpful (to shop midweek) when you’re buying fresh things.”
• Get to know your farmer – but not when the market is really busy. “You really don’t want to hold things up by chatting too much,” says Daniel. Go in at a slow time or on a slower day of the week, or stay late and offer to help reload the trucks.
• Be considerate. Take small bills, don’t cut in line, and try to share if something is scarce. “I’ll look behind and say, ‘Does anyone else want okra?’ ” says Daniel. “And if they don’t, I’ll take it all.”
• Leave room for a treat. “I’m a big fan of leaving yourself some wiggle room (in your budget),” says Blacklin. “It’s a social experience. Buy yourself that flower or that scone or a cup of coffee.”
• Finally, if you really want to be a regular, volunteer. Most markets need helpers. “There’s always things we could use help with,” says Blacklin. “Even the information booth.”