By Ali Lopez
MRG Contributor

It’s Farmers’ Market season! There’s no place I would rather shop for food than the farmer’s market. We are lucky here in Traverse City to have three weekly markets. The Downtown Sara Hardy Farmers Market runs on Wednesday (my personal favorite day!) while the market at the Village at Grand Traverse Commons takes place Saturday mornings and on Monday afternoons.

First things first: you can find your local farmers’ market in Michigan by visiting Taste the Local Difference. Another resource: Michigan Farmers Market Association, which is a member-based, statewide association with a mission to advance farmers markets to create a thriving marketplace for local food and farm products. If you are not in Michigan, you can try Local Harvest.

One of the best things about farmers’ markets is that they are filled with local farmers as well as artists and craftspeople, meaning you not only can you get the best fresh foods, but you’re also doing your part to help your local economy. And not only can you get some of the freshest, seasonal fruits and veggies, but also local eggs, dairy, meat and breads. But shopping at the farmers’ markets is nothing like shopping at the grocery store and for some folks it can be overwhelming. Here are my top 6 tips so you can really enjoy yourself.

If you have the flexibility, pick your time
This is very individual, and picking the time that’s best for you depends on how you like to shop and what you plan to buy. If you want the freshest produce and the most selection, get there bright and early. The middle of the market time tends to be the most crowded. If you decide to shop later in the day, sometimes you can get the best discounts. Since many vendors don’t want to take home their products, they might be more willing to strike a deal. And don’t forget about rainy or cold days. The farmers are there and could really use your support on those days… and showing up with a cup of coffee or a treat for your favorite farmer can do wonders for you both!

Walk the market first
The way that I like to tackle a farmers’ market is by taking a walk around the entire market first. I take mental notes of which booths I want to come back to. Then, after I’ve seen all that is there, I decide what to do. If several farmers are selling the same fruits and vegetables, don’t hesitate to compare price and quality. Sometimes larger farms will get better locations and will charge a little more. And the smaller farms might not have the big fancy stall or location but may have just as good a selection and a better price. Another good tip: If you expect to spend a lot of time at the market, make any large or heavy purchases right before you leave so you won’t have to carry them around.

Bring your own (bags, coolers, containers, boxes)
Bringing your own shopping bags has become a habit for many of us even at the supermarket. But especially at the farmer’s market, it is a really smart and thoughtful thing to do. Besides the environmental reasons, you are also being kind to the farmers. They have to buy all those bags that they give you. Also, feel free to bring smaller bags or containers to store your goodies in. Another good item to bring, especially as the weather heats up, or you have other errands to run after the market, is a cooler. This will keep those beautiful fruits and veggies fresher until you get home. And if your market sells eggs, cheese, milk, meat, or fish you will definitely want to bring a cooler.

Chat — and ask questions!A huge benefit of farmers’ markets is your ability to look the farmer in the eye and ask questions. Most farmers spend a lot of time working by themselves — they are more than happy to answer your questions. They also love what they do. Ask about how the food was grown, what pesticides were used, how to store something, or how to prepare something you’ve never tried before. Learn about whom you’re buying from. A little note about “organic produce”: Just because the produce is not labeled organic doesn’t necessarily mean it has been grown using pesticides. Sometimes it’s quite the opposite. Smaller farms often can’t afford to get “official “ certification. So, if a farm doesn’t label their produce organic, don’t be afraid to ask questions.

Cash is the best. And small bills are even better
While lots of vendors might be able to accept credit cards or checks, cash is king when it comes to shopping at the market. This also helps the farmer keep more of what he makes since he doesn’t have to pay the credit card company.

Try Something New
One of the best parts of farmers’ markets is sampling new products and foods that you might not normally see if you just shopped at a big grocery store or box store. Keep an open mind and ask for samples. Make a goal to try something new each time you go. Maybe you’ll discover a new favorite.

Have any other farmers’ market tips or questions? Or would you love to know how to cook something new that you found? Let me know!

Have a fueling question for Ali? Post it below in the comments section or email MRG with your healthy-eating questions at heather [at] michiganrunnergirl [dot] com 


Ali Lopez is a northern Michigan runner, chef and health coach. You can learn more about her at her web site Healthy Chef Ali. She’s also on Facebook here »

You can listen to a conversation about running and eating between Ali and Heather on this MRG podcast episode here »

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