How to Sustainably Shop at the Farmers Market: 7 of Our Best Tips

The farmers market can even help you save money.

Sophie Hirsh - Author

Jul. 18 2019, Updated 1:22 p.m. ET

farmers market shopping tips
Source: istock

When I started going zero waste, one of the first things I did was go grocery shopping at the farmers market. I was nervous that the food would be too expensive, that I would feel awkward scrutinizing produce right in front of the person who planted its seeds, and that trying to decide how many potatoes I needed would be even harder underneath the beating sun than it was inside an air-conditioned grocery store. But luckily, none of that was actually anything to worry about, and now I’m a farmers market regular.

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Shopping at the farmers market is a great way to save money, support your town’s economy, reduce waste, lower your carbon footprint, and more. Here’s everything you need to know about shopping at a farmers market, plus some tips on how to do so sustainably.

What Is a Farmers Market?

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A farmers market is a market made up of vendors selling fruits, vegetables, plants, bread, baked goods, jam, coffee, olive oil, pickles, maple syrup, and more. The vendors are typically the farmers themselves, and they grow their food locally, which reduces its carbon footprint.

Are Farmers Markets More Expensive?

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The answer to this question will depend on the prices at your particular farmers market and grocery store. Just like supermarkets, every farmers market will have slightly different prices, so you may find that some items at your local farmers market are cheaper, while others are more expensive.

But in general, farmers market produce is all local and in-season, which means it is often pretty well-priced. That’s because produce at your grocery store often accounts for: the cost of being shipped from across the country or even overseas; the price of packaging; and the price of paying the many employees involved — on the field, in transport, and in the grocery store. So if you focus on in-season fruits and veggies at your farmers market, they very well may be more affordable than fresh produce at the supermarket. 

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Are Farmers Markets Organic?

Organic means any crop, plant, or other food product that is grown without any chemical or synthetic fertilizers or pesticides. A lot of farmers markets sell organic produce, but just like with supermarket produce, organic foods are often more expensive. To help decide if it’s worth springing for the organic produce, consult the EWG’s Dirty Dozen and Clean Fifteen.

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I’ve also asked a few farmers market vendors if they are organic out of curiosity, and a few have told me that while they follow organic gardening practices and do not use synthetic pesticides, they are not certified organic because it’s too expensive. An organic certification can cost up to $1,500 in the U.S., according to QuickLabel.

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So if you’re ready to break out the market bag, read on for seven tips on how to optimize and greenify your farmers market experience.

1. Come Prepared

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When going to the farmers market, there are a few things you should always throw in your bag on your way out the door. Most importantly: cash. While some vendors may accept credit cards (or, in the case of my favorite bread vendor, Venmo), many will only accept cash — so make sure to stop by the ATM on your way.

The next most important thing to bring is reusable tote bags. Since most things at the farmers market are package-free, it’s easy to keep things zero waste by using a reusable bag instead of the plastic bags that your farmer may provide.

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Then, take that a step further and bring your own reusable produce bags and containers. For any produce that is wet, small, or a bit dirty, you’ll be happy to have reusable produce bags on hand to keep everything organized. Produce bags are also great for items besides produce that are often seen at the farmers market, such as bread and pastries.

Additionally, if you want to buy any small items that come in punnets, such as strawberries, grapes, or cherry tomatoes, many farmers will let you pour the contents into your own container or jar and hand them back the carton to be reused.

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Plus, some farmers markets sell things like pickles and beverages, so bringing your own containers or jars can also save on the plastic container or cup they would have given you otherwise.

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2. Save Punnets, Rubber Bands, Etc.

Some vendors will actually allow you to bring items back for them to reuse for future customers. For example: rubber bands, twist ties, plastic planters (from plants or fresh herbs), egg cartons, and punnets. So when you get home and unpack, instead of throwing those items in the trash, put them back in your grocery bag for next time you hit up the farmers market.

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Or, if you think you can get your food home safely without the rubber band or twist tie, consider asking the farmer if they will reuse those items if you hand them over before you even leave the market.

3. Get to Know Your Farmers

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At a supermarket, the employees likely don’t know much more about how to tell when a watermelon is ripe than you do — but at the farmers market, the person selling you carrots is likely the same person who pulled them out of the ground. So don’t hesitate to ask them questions. 

For example: How can I tell when a certain item is ripe? What’s the best way to cook a particular item? How much longer will these be in season? How many weeks will this stay fresh for? (Usually longer than grocery store produce!)

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Plus, getting to know your farmer can result in some unbelievable customer service. When I told a farmer at my local farmers market that I was planning to buy a basil plant from him, but that I was nervous about repotting it, he offered to take my clay pot back to his farm, plant it for me, and bring it back the following week. That’s a pretty sweet deal — and now I have a constant supply of fresh basil!

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4. Compare Prices at Different Booths

If your local farmers market has more than one vendor selling produce, start your visit with a walk around the market, and take note of the prices of items on your shopping list. No judgment for walking all the way back to the other side of the park to get the cheaper tomatoes — we’ve all done it.

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If there’s a fruit or veggie you can’t find at your farmers market, feel free to make a stop at a grocery store on the way home to pick it up. But, if you want to keep your grocery trip as local as can be, consider trying something new instead of what was on your list — maybe ask the farmers what in-season offerings they recommend!

5. Build Meals Around What’s in Season

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Going grocery shopping with a shopping list is often a great way to plan meals, reduce food waste, and make sure you don’t wind up buying items that you don’t need. But sometimes at the farmers market, it can be fun to do the opposite. Instead of basing your shopping around your meal, try basing your meal around whatever in-season produce catches your eye. Once you get home, you can google the items you bought and see what recipes the internet suggests, or you can get creative and create a recipe of your own. 

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6. Embrace Wonky Produce

Many supermarkets only put picture-perfect produce on their shelves — meaning a lot of the wonky-looking fruits and veggies unfortunately get thrown away. Fortunately, more and more grocery stores have been taking their imperfect produce and compiling discounted “ugly” veggie boxes. Not to mention, eco-conscious consumers will sometimes purposely opt to buy wonky produce, since it’s less likely to be bought by someone else, and therefore more likely to be thrown away with the other less-than-perfect items.

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At the farmers market, you’re more likely to come across unique-looking produce, since there's no corporate overlord telling employees to chuck what's imperfect. So embrace it, and trust that once you cut up that funny-looking red pepper, it will look and taste exactly the same.

7. Check If Your Farmers Market Accepts Compost

Many farmers markets have compost bins where customers can drop off food scraps from their homes. If you don’t compost at home, an easy way to get started is by storing food scraps in your freezer or in an airtight container to contain smells, dumping it in a paper bag (which is compostable), and then taking the bag and its contents to the farmers market to be composted. If you’re already planning to become a farmers market regular, then taking your compost with you each time should be a breeze.

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