Shopping smart at the farmers markets with the WSFMA

WSFMA Executive Director Will O’Donnell

It is fitting that the Washington State Farmers Market Association (WSFMA) office is located above one of our state’s (and country’s) oldest continuously operating public farmers markets, Pike Place Market.

The WSFMA is a member organization for over 115 farmers markets in our state, and community members feel the impacts of its work through market programs, consumer education and improved food access at their local market.

Executive Director Will O’Donnell has a unique perspective on local food after 20+ years working with farmers markets, managing his own organic farm, and co-founding local food companies Finn River Farm & Cidery and Mt. Townsend Creamery. We talked to him about market shopping tips, the cost of food, and how farmers markets are improving food access in their communities.

HI: For a lot of people, price is a barrier to shopping the farmers markets. Can you talk about that?

Will: The idea that farmers market are more expensive is sometimes more a perceived than a real barrier. A variety like Red Bibb lettuce grown at a local farm and sold at the farmers market is always going to be more expensive than iceberg or romaine from the supermarket, but is likely less expensive than the same variety of lettuce from the supermarket. Plus it’s got about five times the nutritional value. Industrially produced iceberg lettuce or romaine is basically just crispy water.

If you want better nutrition in your food, then farmers market prices become a lot more competitive. Vegetables like chard and kale are often more affordable at a farmers market, where, even if the price per bunch is higher, the size of the bunch is likely way larger.

Can people shop the farmers market with budgets in mind?

WSFMA creates materials for farmers markets like this postcards to help educate consumers about different crops

Yes, you can learn all sorts of ways to stretch your food dollar at the farmers market, but it does take a little practice. When I managed the Port Townsend Farmers Market, we held cooking classes for WIC recipients on how to make three meals from a market chicken.

You can eat well and spend less when you adjust food preparation habits and seek out new, nutritious uses for produce. For example, you can use the green tops of bunches of beets, turnips, or radishes like you would spinach. A single winter squash can provide a week of soups.

Also, pay attention to seasonality.
Zucchini in April is very expensive at a farmers market, but in August your local farmers will practically give it away. The first strawberries of the season always cost more than those at the height of the season. For the best deal, buy them by the flat and freeze some for winter. The economics of buying them this way can’t be beat. Plus the local farmers market strawberries are going to be much much sweeter.

Shopping at the farmers market can be intimidating. What tips do you have for new shoppers?

There’s definitely a learning curve for farmers market shopping. And almost nobody is going to find shopping at a farmers market convenient if they are in a hurry. But regular shoppers learn to come early and prepared. Bring shopping bags, and maybe even a little wagon if you are a serious home cook. Bring some cash. Learn what’s in season. Do a little menu planning, but not too much, because the fun part of shopping at a farmers market is trying something new, or coming across an unexpected deal.

But mostly, talk to your vendors. Ask them questions. Farmers want to tell you about what they grow, and as you build a relationship, they are likely to tip you off to what’s fresh and what’s a good deal. They may even invite you to visit their farm. Just don’t expect to have those conversations at the busiest time of the market – often early or near the end of the market is a good time.

Why are farmers markets important for communities?

Farmers markets are ultimately about fostering healthy relationships. Learn to shop at your local farmers market and you will learn how to eat better. Shop at a farmers market and you will help preserve and sustain farmland and the environment. Shop at a farmers market and you will help grow and support a community of artisans, artists and entrepreneurs. Shopping at a farmers market will connect you with and help enhance the community you live in.

It’s hard to attend a farmers market and NOT connect with your community. I like to say that successful farmers markets are signs of a healthy community.

About the WSFMA
Representing 115 farmers market in 88 cities and towns across the state, the Washington State Farmers Market Association (WSFMA) is a nonprofit association supporting farmers markets and their communities through education, food access efforts, and advocacy.

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