I'll never forget my first visit to a farmers market. I was 22, a college student in Missouri. I walked tentatively one Saturday to a parking lot dotted with booths, and joined the line for the first meat vendor I saw. The bearded farmer was half-crouched inside a metal-clad refrigerated trailer, and you had to wait in line, and then hop up a few steps to join him inside and choose your goods. I ducked in and shyly requested chicken breasts, which were at the time the sole cut of meat I knew how to cook. There was a beat, and then he said, a bit impatiently but not unkindly, "We believe in using the whole bird here. We don't just cut up the parts everyone likes and sell 'em and waste the rest." Flustered, I left without buying anything.
Needless to say, farmers markets can be intimidating for the uninitiated. And why not? If you're like me, you grew up wheeling metal carts around brilliantly lit aisles, examining potential purchases in complete privacy, independence, and control. All of the pieces of fruit are unblemished, waxy, perfect spheres—and always, it seems, in season. All of the animal parts are neatly cut, separated, and glossed over with the clean, anesthetic sheen of plastic. Compared to that, a farmers market is a rustic, intensely personal experience with its own set of rules and expectations.
Over the years, my appreciation for the unique experience that is the American farmers market has triumphed over my initial awkwardness. But I still think about that Missouri chicken farmer and wonder how I could have come better prepared.
So I started calling farmers market vendors all over the country. I asked how they think we should all act when we sidle up to their booths on market day. What are the best questions to ask about how you raise your animals or treat your fields? Am I a total jerk if I try all of your samples and don't buy anything? Are you just pretending to like my dog?
And so, without further ado, here's a guide to farmers market etiquette—the do's, the don't's, and everything in between. Here's to cruising the farmers market like a pro.
Take Your Time
For many of us, grocery shopping is a chore. You march into the supermarket on a mission, sort through the list, and haul everything back out breathing a sigh of relief. But every single vendor I talked to in these last few weeks wanted me to tell you this: farmers markets are not—I repeat, not—quick, efficient, grab-and-go places. If that's your attitude, you're bound to get frustrated. You're also going to stress everyone out, shoppers and vendors alike.
Farmers, artisans, and food crafters are not cashiers. Nor are they governed by big-box retail efficiency measures. What they offer instead is a grocery run that's actually a chance for real human interaction and relationships. And relationships are by nature slow, inefficient, and beautiful things. So enjoy your time in line, grab a lemonade and stroll along with the crowd, and ask a vendor how his day is going.
"We've now known people from the market for almost 10 years," says Matt Russell of Coyote Run Farm, which sells its meat, eggs, and produce at the Des Moines Downtown Farmers' Market in Iowa. "We interact with one another on a weekly basis. We watch life events happen, and share in that together. That's a different relationship regarding food than most people experience. The trend in food has been toward total alienation. But the local food movement has been changing that, and people are being empowered by relationships—with food, with the story of food, with the people who are growing their food. And they understand that that comes with a little inconvenience."
Don't Be Afraid to Ask Questions
These people literally grew, raised, baked, milled, brewed, fermented, pickled, gathered, butchered, and harvested everything you see before you. "Farmers are an amazing resource, and shopping directly from them gives you an incredible advantage," says Elianna Friedman, a staff member at San Francisco's Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture. They know exactly what kind of beer will pair perfectly with the gouda they smoked themselves. They know just how to make a pesto out of tufted carrot-top greens. They know exactly where their eggs came from, because they gathered them with their kids from the coop in the dark this very morning.
In short, farmers markets are treasure troves of information about anything related to food. All you have to do is ask. And while no question is a dumb question, some are better than others. For example, you won't get very far if you ask, "What's your favorite?" ("To me, that's like asking which of my daughters I love the most," says John Martini, founder of Anthony Road Wine Company and nearly 20-year veteran of New York City's Union Square Greenmarket.)
If you want to learn more about an item but aren't quite sure how to start, open-ended and informational questions will invite the vendor to expand. Simple questions like, "How did you grow this?", or "How could I prepare it?" or "What does it pair well with?" are a great start. Animal husbandry can be a deeply personal topic, but you'll find the best conversations happen when the farmer doesn't feel like he or she is being put on the witness stand.
"I love an approach of, 'I'm curious and on this journey, and I'm interested in what you're doing,'" says Matt Russell, who raises cows and chickens.
How to Know What You're Getting
That doesn't mean you have to be satisfied with vague signs advertising "Cage Free!" or "Grass-Fed." Ask specific questions like, how much time do the chickens actually spend outdoors? Is the cattle's grazing supplemented with feed, and if so, what kind? "I'm totally jazzed when someone just says, 'Tell me about your eggs,' or 'Tell me about how your chickens are raised,'" Russell says. "I'm very proud of what we do on our farm and I'm happy to share that."
Farmers who know they'll spend market time educating new customers about farming practices will usually staff their booths with enough employees to keep things moving. But if they look busy and you're still bursting with questions, ask for a way to read up online or get in touch after the hectic market day. "Asking for our card, brochure, or website signals that someone is not only being sensitive to my time, but is also really interested in our farm," Russell says. Also, ask when the market's slowest hours are. Your vendor will be glad to chat at length when fewer customers require his or her attention.
For those with dietary restrictions or food allergies, there is probably no safer place than the farmers market. Close to the source as this food is, little information is likely to be lost in the process. Case in point: "Years ago someone asked me, 'Do you have any vegan wine?'" says John Martini, a New York winemaker. "It caught me off guard at first, but they are actually right—some wines are not strictly vegan. We do refine some of our wines with egg whites and casein. Others we refine with clay. They're no longer in the wine, but they were at one point. And I make sure I know which wine is which."
Sampling the Wares
Some produce stands offer samples. Others don't. What gives?
"Any vendor who samples small amounts has to have a food handling permit from the Department of Health," says Thomas Brodhagen, whose Maple Ridge Orchards offers more than 30 apple varieties at the Sara Hardy Downtown Farmers Market in Traverse City. Health departments in many other states are also setting up sampling rules, and can subject farmers to on-the-spot inspections.
So if you don't see a little plate of sliced fruit sitting out at a tempting produce stand, it doesn't mean the farmer doesn't want you to try it out. It may simply mean that he or she doesn't have time to sanitize and switch knives and cutting boards every hour or two, or don gloves and a hair restraint just to slice up a piece of fruit during a busy market day. So here's a trick of the trade for sampling without the permit: Ask the farmer to sell you a small plum or carrot on the cheap so you can try it. "I'll sell a small apple for a quarter just so the person can see how they like it," Brodhagen says.
For some products, tasting is a no-brainer before buying, so step right up. But don't park yourself in the corner of the table and surreptitiously snack. As you taste, make conversation with the vendor. Show interest in what he or she has worked hard to produce, and offer feedback. Martini gladly pours samples of his Finger Lake reds and whites for Union Square Greenmarket customers. "Sometimes, people will see others tasting and they'll just say, 'Give me one,'" he says. "I get taken aback a bit, because what if it's a dry wine and you don't like dry? I'm here until six o'clock, and I've got plenty of time. Red, white, dry, not so dry, what's your pleasure? Ask me what I have for you."
Bringing Rover to Market
Just like us, dogs love samples and tend to gobble up anything within mouth's reach. They also love marking booths as new territories. "Specifically," says Sean Shatto, who works the Tomato Mountain Farm booth at Chicago's Green City Market, "dogs pee on my tent and my products that are near the ground." In case it's not obvious, vendors don't appreciate either. Some markets have banned pets altogether, but if yours allows them, keep a tight leash and a close eye on your pooch.
Return policies vary according to individual farmer and market. But if you suddenly realize your purchase is damaged or defective, your vendor generally will—within reason—swap out one for another at no cost to you. But when it comes to plants, herbs, and flowers, your green thumb—or lack thereof—must be accounted for. While the best floral and potted plant vendors will gladly provide you with plenty of advice and literature about how to succeed, you're not likely to find a sympathetic ear if you attempt to return the basil plant you forgot to water.
All About the Money
Markets want to make the purchasing process easy on you, the customer, and therefore often come equipped with ATMs, vouchers for city and statewide food assistance programs, smartphone-enabled credit card processing, and good old-fashioned coin purses. But if you want to turn the tables and make the purchasing process easiest on your farmers? Bring cash. Especially during rush hours, exact change—or, for some small-town vendors who accept them, a personal check already half-filled out—speeds up the transaction and makes for happy crowds and happy farmers alike.
Price-conscious shoppers should start by taking a lap. "Walk the market before you buy anything," suggests Brian Gronski of Groché Organic Farms, who sells his vegetables at the Downtown Green Bay Saturday Farmers Market. "Take a look and see what's there. See the different farms and look at the pricing. Some markets regulate their pricing, while others have no pricing boundaries—so you might have a wide variety."
If you're not picky about looks, you may politely inquire if there are any scraggly carrots or bumpy cherries you can buy. "Farmers often have 'seconds' of fruit and vegetables that may not look perfect but taste perfectly good," says Mona Johnson, communications manager at the Portland Farmers Market in Oregon. "Many offer these imperfect specimens at a discount or may offer bulk discounts as well. Shoppers should feel free to inquire."
Is it Okay to Haggle?
What about some good-natured haggling over price? I had heard this was acceptable at some markets, but all of the vendors I spoke to say they set their prices with great care and consideration, and are sticking to them. "Probably the most odious thing that vendors face is 'negotiating for a better deal,'" says Mark Pendleton, manager of Brookside Orchids, which sells at San Francisco's Ferry Plaza Farmers Market.
Brian Gronski puts it this way: "You know, we'd all like to have lower prices. But at the same time, where else do people do that? Are you a doctor, a lawyer, a factory worker? A teacher, fireman, or policeman? Does anyone haggle with you for a different price? Most farmers aren't getting rich, but just trying to make an honest living, raise their families, and do what they love."
But if you insist, deals may be found near closing time. "Farmers don't want to haul back unpurchased produce to the farm," says Mona Johnson. "At the end of the market day, it doesn't hurt to ask respectfully if they would be willing to negotiate on price." That's the Portland Farmers Market's take. On the other hand, The Food Trust in Philadelphia, which operates 30 markets around the city, doesn't encourage asking for deals near closing hours. "I find that the expectation of lower prices at the end of market can make for an odd experience for both farmers and customers," says Mukethe Kawinzi, Food Trust project manager. "Farmers can't properly plan to make a certain amount of income and customers are unsure quite when 'reduced prices' come into play. And should someone who can only come to the first half of market be penalized?"
So what's the takeaway? Flat-out asking for lower prices can be touchy, and different markets have different standards of etiquette. Call your market's managing staff to find out what's acceptable.
Why is "organic" expensive?
Organic food has a reputation for being a high-end trend. And while some might be cashing in, your farmer probably isn't. There's a real cost associated with maintaining the organic standard, says Gronski, whose 144-acre farmland has been certified organic for about 25 years. "While we can grow almost as much food per acre organically as conventionally, it does take more effort and attention to detail," he says. "Instead of going in and spraying an herbicide every three weeks, we go in and hand-hoe and cultivate every week. We spend a lot more time with our vegetables, and the most costly thing in producing anything today is labor."
Secondly, "for every dollar I sell, about 3 to 7 percent of that goes back into keeping the organic certification programs up and running," he says. Some assistance is provided by the federal government—but only as long as it's maintained in the Farm Bill, and then only up to 75 percent of the cost. Fees and stringent record-keeping "puts an extra burden on us who are willing to go through that process," Gronski admits, "but we are maintaining an organic standard. And if you don't use it, you lose it."
Note: "Farmers market," "farmers' market," or "farmer's market" are often used interchangeably, sometimes even by the same market, which is annoying to a grammar geek like me. I tend to agree with AP style's support of "farmers market," no apostrophe, as the correct term, on the grounds that something for a group of people, like homeowners insurance and a writers strike, needs no apostrophe. The AP folks also point out that the market is after all not always owned—or grammatically speaking, possessed—by the farmers themselves. On the other hand, the Chicago Manual of Style disagrees and prefers "farmers' market". One thing I can say: unless it's a lone-farmer deal, it's never, ever "farmer's market."
About the author: Lindsey Howald Patton is a food, architecture, history, and art writer based in Chicago. When not accidentally leaning in way too close to the paintings, she tinkers with recipes at home and blogs about them over on At Burning Degrees.