Separate the Wheat from the Chaff
It's no secret that we're huge fans of farmers. Spend a few minutes chatting it up at your local farmers' market, and you will be, too. It takes tremendous dedication to both science and art to turn out beautiful produce on a small farm, and the time you spend inquiring about the results of that dedication can yield both useful information and infectious enthusiasm.
The single most important thing to know about farmers’ markets is this: not all vendors are farmers. Some are re-sellers who often undercut the farmers’ prices by bringing in produce purchased from a central distributor, who in turn gets the produce from various sources, (yes, including large factory farms).
You can also spot a re-seller by their perfect produce—think rows of shiny, uniformly sized peppers and broccoli; clean leeks and giant carrots—if it looks like what you see at the grocery store, that's because it is. A local farmer will more often than not have oddly shaped carrots, going-slightly-limp-in-the-sun greens (because they were picked that morning), un-shiny apples and plenty of stuff with the dirt still on. Which is a good thing. Most veggies stay fresher unwashed.
A huge benefit of farmers' markets is your ability to look the farmer in the eye and ask anything you want about how the food was grown. That's a rare opportunity in our supermarket culture. Go for it. Ask about a food you don't recognize, how to cook it, and whether it's coming in or heading out of season. Find out what the farmer expects to bring to market next week so you can start to plan ahead. Learn all you can about the farmer's growing practices, and make sure you know who you're buying from. Some markets require that farmers themselves sell their wares, but not all do.
Find out why it's not certified organic
The fact that produce is not labeled organic doesn't necessarily mean it's swimming in pesticides or is a qualified member of the Dirty Dozen. Sometimes it's quite the opposite. Some of the best farms, where a single farmer can lovingly attend to every seedling, are hardly bigger than a postage stamp. A farm that size can't afford a refrigerated truck, never mind a costly (and questionably bullet-proof) certification by the USDA. Many farms (like the infamous Polyface Farms) use organic practices, often much more stringent than those required by the government, but simply don't get certified. If a farm doesn't label their produce organic, it pays to ask why. You may discover a hidden source of organically farmed food, and if not, you'll be showing farmers that you care about how your food is grown.
BYOB, and maybe a cooler
Sure, that reusable canvas tote is good for the earth and unerringly latter-day hippie-chic, and you should bring it along for those reasons. As a bonus, you're also being kind to the farmers by not cutting into their already slim profit margins. You're also being kind to yourself, because those el cheapo plastic bags are no way to carry a baby watermelon and a dozen ears of corn in one hand. But I have to admit that my primary reason for bringing my own bags is that I truly believe it's a key to getting better treatment without saying a word. It's a visible gesture of goodwill toward the farmers, and it's valuable social capital. A backpack is also good. A cooler with an ice-pack in the car is handy in summer. And if you;re getting too loaded up, do yourself a favor and make that trip to the car rather than grumble and curse as your shoulder slowly dislocates.
If your market sells eggs, cheese, milk, meat, or fish, bring a cooler. The only thing worse than passing up a dozen beautiful, cheap oysters because you're not prepared to bring them home is bringing them home anyway.
Beware the 'health halo'
Have you read about how people are more likely to order unhealthy foods from a menu that also features healthy foods? The mere possibility of choosing salad seems to let our guards down and open our French-fry-guzzling hatches. Given that shopping at a farmers' market is essentially jumping into a giant salad bowl, the health halo (which also goes by "health aura" and falls under the highly scientific-sounding excuse "vicarious goal fulfillment") can really play hardball in that context. Vegan donuts are still donuts. I'm not saying don't go for it once in a while. I'm just saying don't count it toward your Nine a Day.
Shop early for selection, shop late (or in bad weather) for deals
The season's first strawberries and finest morels will disappear within the first hour that the market is open, so if you've got your heart set on something in particular, it pays to wake up early. This is especially true if your market caters to restaurants as well as civilians, since chefs will be there first thing and won't always leave a lot for the rest of us.
If you're a late riser looking for an excuse, or if you'd rather get a great deal at the possible expense of selection, do your shopping in the last hour of the market. Farmers without other distribution channels will often offer steep discounts at the end of the day to avoid driving back to the farm with a hard-earned truckload of compost. And if you can motivate on especially cold or rainy days, you'll get good prices while helping to keep your market thriving.
Bring small bills
Most farmers' markets are cash-only operations, and most farmers do all their daily dealings from a little cash box. It helps a lot and improves your karma if you pay in the smallest bills you've got.
Buy in quantity
You'll also get a great deal if you buy in bulk. Even if you're not the canning type, why not buy a whole box of plum tomatoes instead of just a pint? Toss in five pounds of onions and a couple of bunches of basil and make a big batch of sauce to freeze. It hardly takes any longer than making a dinner's-worth, and you'll thank yourself many a late-working evening.
If several farmers are selling the same fruits and vegetables, don't hesitate to compare price and quality. Sometimes larger farms will get prime market real-estate (closest to parking or highly visible) and will charge a little more. Think of them as the People Magazine and Snickers at the supermarket checkout counter. Sure, you love them, but maybe they're catering to your impulsive side just a tad. Take a look around before you plunk down that thick wad of singles.
Try something new each week
A benefit of farmers' markets as compared to CSAs is the increased ability to stay within your comfort zone if you so choose. But if you're lucky enough to visit a farmers' market with a selection of unusual produce, why not try one new food each time you visit? At best, maybe you'll discover a new love. At worst, you'll be making a contribution to (or in the spirit of) the Ark of Taste.
Now it's your turn! We'd love to hear your best tips, tricks, and all-around love for farmers' markets, in the comments.