Fresh fruits and vegetables are brimming with vitamins, minerals, fiber, and antioxidants that are good for your health. That's why it's worth the trip to your local open-air market where you can buy food directly from the grower. An increasing number of markets have enough variety for one-stop shopping offering meat, fish, and dairy options in addition to the traditional produce staples.

Buying Direct

The USDA estimates that more than 7,000 farmers' markets are in operation today nationwide, and they come in all shapes and sizes. Some markets are quite small, with just a few vendors peddling their goods, while others may have space for dozens of sellers. Regardless of the size, farmers' markets bring farmers to sell their products directly to consumers without any middleman. Buying locally-grown food also helps support your area's economy.

A Cost-Effective Approach

Farmers' markets can also be kind to your wallet, points out Caitlin Gildrien, the outreach coordinator for the Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont (NOFA-VT). "We did a study a few years ago comparing farmers' market and supermarket prices. Our findings revealed that farmers' market prices on many items are the same—or even less—than those charged in many grocery stores," says Gildrien, adding that certified organic foods in particular were much more affordable at many farmers' markets than traditional stores.

One-Stop Shopping

Farmers' markets can be a good choice for weekly, one-stop shopping, offering an array of fresh produce, eggs, dairy products, meat, fish, seafood, baked items, cheese, sweets, craft beer, wine, and spirits, and cut flowers. "Each farmers' market is unique because it reflects the local agriculture and communities it serves," says Laura Wendel, president of the Oregon Farmers Markets Association's Board of Directors. "Food offerings vary widely depending on the season and weather conditions, too."

Where Is the Closest Farmers' Market?

To find a list of farmers' markets in your area, Wendel suggests visiting the USDA's Farmers' Market Directory. You can also access information through, or, or contact your state's farmers' markets association.

Shopping Tips

Here are some strategies offered by Wendel and Gildrien to help you get the most out of your farmers' market shopping trip:

  • Timing is everything. Find out the days and hours for the market in advance. Getting an early start can ensure the best selection of fresh items but for the best prices, wait until the end of the day when vendors looking to get rid of their products slash prices. Keep in mind that shopping late in the day puts you at risk of farmers selling out of the specific foods—and quantities—you want.

  • Make it a family affair. Many children enjoy the experience of open-air markets and farm booths. Dogs may be welcome too as many markets allow pets or provide a pet sitting service for your convenience while you shop.

  • Wear good walking shoes and decide how to navigate the space. Some people like to explore all of the booths first and then go back to buy their favorites, while others prefer to purchase as they go.

  • Keep a stash of recyclable bags in your car to hold your purchases. If re-using bags, be sure to clean them periodically to keep them clean and prevent the transfer of germs to fresh produce.

  • Bring cash or find out in advance if the market accepts debit/credit cards. If so, visit the market's information booth first where you can swipe your card in exchange for tokens, which can be spent anywhere in the market. Some vendors may also accept credit or debit cards directly, but this varies from vendor to vendor.

  • Food stamps, SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), WIC, and Senior Vouchers are accepted at many local farmers' markets. Vouchers can be used directly for purchases from vendors but the SNAP card works a bit differently. SNAP is most often swiped at the farmers' market information booth in exchange for tokens which the shopper can spend on SNAP-eligible products at the market.

  • Get to know the vendors. Most are very knowledgeable about their products and can offer tips on how to prepare them. If you are concerned about pesticides, be sure to ask plenty of questions about how they control insects. Steer clear of vendors who seem unwilling to answer your questions or give unsatisfactory responses.

Food Safety Know How

Eating contaminated food can lead to food-borne illnesses. Here are some simple steps to keep your family safe, courtesy of the University of Wisconsin:

  • Certain perishable fruits and veggies (strawberries, mushrooms, herbs, and lettuce) should be stored in the refrigerator but it's best not to wash it before refrigerating as the additional moisture encourages bacteria growth and spoilage. Other produce such as uncut tomatoes, bananas, potatoes, and onions are kept best when stored at room temperature. But be sure to refrigerate any leftovers you have after peeling, cutting, or slicing.

  • Recent food-borne illness outbreaks have been linked to popular items: cucumbers, green onions, spinach, sprouts, lettuce, tomatoes, and peppers. Keep food safe by washing cutting boards, dishes, utensils, and countertops with warm, soapy water between the preparation of raw meat, poultry, and seafood products and the preparation of fruits and vegetables. Experts also suggest having separate cutting boards—one for raw meat and another for produce.

  • Avoid buying produce that is bruised or damage and when buying partial quantities (half a watermelon, for example) be sure to select items that are surrounded by ice or refrigerated.

Check out your local extension service to find out what's in season—and when—in your state.

Caitlin Gildrien and Laura Wendel reviewed this article.


Sources: "What's in Season in Your Region?" Field to Plate. N.d. Web. 24 May 2013.

Gildrien, Caitlin. Outreach Coordinator, Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont (NOFA-VT). Email interview. 17 May 2013. "Farmers Market Search." US Department of Agriculture. Web. 20 may 2013.

Wendel, Laura. President, Board of Directors, Oregon Farmers Market Association. Email interview. 15 May 2013.