As asparagus, ramps and fiddleheads begin to sprout through freshly thawed soil, Canadians are eager to taste the first delicious harvest of the season.
Soon, farmers’ market season will be in full swing, so we caught up with market insiders Dina Rock and Kim Antonius for their insight on how to score at farmers’ markets this season.
1. Think in season and within reason.
“First off, I know that when a lot of people go to the farmers market they might be thinking that they’ll find a deal because they’re cutting out the middleman,” says Fairmount Park Farm Market founder Kim Antonius. But she warns that isn’t necessarily the case. “Food isn’t always less expensive at the farmers’ market than it would be at your local grocery store,” she says. Grocery stores buy in massive quantities from distributors who import cash crops from warmer climates, and the local produce you buy at a farmers’ market may end up costing the same — or even a little more — than what you’ll find in big box stores. This year, however, Antonius speculates that the high American dollar may allow local markets to be more competitive.
Dina Rock, owner and chief pickling officer at Mighty Fine Brine, is also a regular farmers’ market vendor. She cautions shoppers against the temptation to bargain with farmers and artisans. “People who work in the local food movement in Canada do it mostly out of a passion for our community, our growing season and our environment,” she says. “We live in a place where we’re subject to the elements and limited in the amount that can be produced. So our incomes are already tremendously challenged. You would never walk into a Starbucks and say, ‘Can I get a discount on that latte?’ So to say, ‘I know you toiled on your farms and were up since 5 a.m. harvesting these beautiful pears…but can I get a discount on them?’ That’s frustrating. This is how people make their living — don’t try to discount that.”
2. Fresh is best but good things can come to those who wait.
Still, there are opportunities to score at the market, particularly if freshness and nutrition are priorities. “The fresher the produce, the higher the nutrients it has,” says Antonius .“So when you’re buying something that was picked that morning, or the night prior, it has more nutrients in it than something that has been shipped from California…the other thing is that it’s so fresh, it lasts longer.”
Of course fresh, local, seasonal fruits and veggies is what the market is all about, but consider waiting week or two into the season before scooping up the latest crop. “Ramps are finally available,” notes Rock. “They’re going to be at their most expensive because they’re available right now… Wait a week or two, so that that fever pitch has died down a little bit.”
3. Get friendly with your farmers and vendors.
Rock will dole out deals from time to time — when customers buy a lot at once, she’s liable to toss in an extra goodie. But like all good things in life, the best deals are earned. “For me it comes down to building relationships,” she says. If Rock has brought something special to the market or is in the mood to trade, her regular customers — the ones who take the time to get to know her and her business — will hear about it first.
As you get to know farmers and vendors, Antonius suggests asking them to add you to any email lists they might have going. That way you’ll be the first to know about bumpers and seconds, the rare crops that farmers might sell at discount.
“One of my favourite bumper crops are fava beans,” says Antonius. “They’re amazing when they come, but they don’t last very long. If you learn how to preserve or freeze them, then you can buy larger quantities of them for less and have them when they’re out of season, too.”
Preserving is also a great way to deal with seconds; slightly damaged or ugly produce. Most farmers don’t bother bringing their seconds to market, but are often happy to part with imperfect produce at a lower rate if they know you’ll be there to buy it.
At the end of the day, even shoppers who prefer their transactions swift and silent will benefit from choosing from the farmers’ market. “Your dollars are investing in Canada’s farmland,” says Antonius. “It’s really exciting to think of yourself as a purchaser, but also an investor.”