If you’re a fan of farmers’ markets, this month is your time to shine. As Marcy Coburn, CEO of beloved San Francisco organization CUESA (Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture) says, “August is peak, peak, peak season” at the market. “All the berries, all the stone fruit: cherries, apricots, nectarines, cherries, plums” are cropping up, like an edible kaleidoscope. Though CUESA runs several greenmarkets in the Bay Area, August is peak farmers’ market time all over the country. Whether it’s corn so sweet it tastes like candy, peaches so juicy you have to eat them outside wearing a bathing suit, or cherries you down by the pawful, it’s the right time to hit the market every weekend if you can.
But, shopping at the farmers’ market deserves an entirely different strategy than the way you approach the grocery store produce section. Here are Coburn’s top tips for doing better by yourself and your farmer. “These are all mistakes that I have made and lived to regret, but also that I see people making.”
“These are all mistakes that I have made and lived to regret, but also that I see people making.”Marcy Coburn, CEO of Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture in San Francisco
1. Timing It Wrong
Sure, it’s marvelous to sleep in on Saturday and Sunday morning, but it’s also wonderful to have nectarines that look worthy of a still-life portrait. Why else does Coburn recommend being an early bird? One, you get better produce; it’s not picked over. Secondly, it’s not nearly as hot. Third, it’s not nearly as crowded. And finally, “a lot of people love coming and seeing our Michelin-starred chefs shopping the farmer’s market.” That’s not happening at 3pm. Chefs and those in the know tend to roll in early, between 7am and 9am.
2. Buying Everything at the First Stall You See
Another tempting amateur-hour move is to hit a stall on the outskirts of the market and then hit the road, especially when you spy strawberries as ruby-hued as those pictured here. But consider spreading your market dollars around a bit, and support various farmers, says Coburn. That way, you’ll get to appreciate the variety at the market that day. “You might see a white peach at one stall and then walk around and see four other varieties of white peach,” says Coburn. Sampling and chatting with farmers is “a really great technique” for those who want, well, exactly what they want, flavor- and texture-wise. (Anyone who’s ever made tarte tatin knows that Red Delicious apples and Granny Smiths behave very differently when baked!)
Speaking of sampling the produce, do try to keep it in check the tiniest bit. If people treat the market “like Saturday morning at Costco,” says Coburn, that can be hard on the farmers. “Make sure if you’re sampling that you are actually buying,” she says, having watched many market attendees simply snacking their way to a free meal. “This isn’t the same as a mass-produced product being a sample at your local store,” she points out. “It’s a farmer trying to make a living.”
4. Over-Handling Produce
Not to nag, but maybe don’t fondle every piece of fruit at the fair, folks. “We want to be mindful of other shoppers and make sure the produce can last throughout the day for the farmer to sell it.” Stone fruits such as peaches can react particularly poorly to manhandling. “Lots of groping of produce can make life difficult for the farmer.”
“People love to come to the farmers’ market in groups,” says Coburn.” She approves: “Bring grandma!” But maybe don’t bring a giant group of people and then stand in the middle of a thoroughfare trying to decide where to have brunch. “Be mindful of the hustle and bustle around you; people have to get around you.”
6. Dressing Wrong
You can get sunburned at the farmers’ market. You can get sunburned at the farmers’ market! And dehydrated. And tired. “People forget that this is an outdoor experience,” says Coburn. “Bring a baseball hat, a bottle of water, comfy shoes. This is not something you want to do in your party gear.”
7. Only Having Credit Cards
You get to the market. You have four tomatoes in one bag, three zucchini in another, and a roly-poly watermelon (to use in the gorgeous daiquiri shown here) that is about to roll off the scale. Good job bringing your own bags, but wait! Where’s your money? Is your credit card buried deep in a basket of blueberries? Keep cash handy in a front pocket, says Coburn. Not only will you make your farmer happy by keeping her line moving and preventing her from incurring card fees, but you’ll prevent yourself from overspending. (If you only bring $60 and no cards, you won’t spend $80!)