Insider Secrets from America's Favorite Farmer's Markets

Nab the best farmer's market fare using shopping secrets from the experts.

August 8, 2012
Tips from the Pros

Whether it's the earthy smell of fresh carrots or the chance to connect with the local farmer that grows them, Americans are having a love affair of sorts with farmer's markets. The U.S. Department of Agriculture released its most recent figures showing their increasing popularity: The number of markets increased 9.6 percent between 2011 and 2012, a number the agency released just in time for National Farmer's Market Week, which ends tomorrow. Yes, farmer's markets have become so popular they've achieved "appreciation week" status.

Every year, the nonprofit American Farmland Trust holds a contest for the most popular of all popular farmer's markets, and we wanted to know what makes these markets tick--and what they know that we don't! So we polled the managers of the markets that made the Trust's most recent awards to get their best insider tips on making market shopping easier (and sometimes cheaper!) and why they've drawn such a devoted community of supporters. (Want to vote for your favorite market? The 2012 contest is going on now, and you can vote here.)

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Punta Gorda History Park Farmers Market

Punta Gorda, FL

Insider secret: Block out a decent amount of time to fully explore the market's wonders. "Come, shop, and enjoy the beautiful grounds and park," says market manager Louie Desguin. He also encourages people to browse before buying, and not to purchase the first thing they lay eyes on. "Make it a two or three-hour event and tour everything."

What makes it popular: Visitors get a dose of history with their local food. Contrary to typical farmer's markets that might set up tents in desolate parking lots, this market has a prime location in the Punta Gorda Historical Society, a village-like square where people can learn more about the city's history.

Read More: 8 Foods You Should Always Buy at the Farmer's Market

Lakeside Farmers' Market

Henrico/Richmond, VA

Insider secret: Don't wait around to try and snag a bargain--chances are you'll be too late. "If you want something in short supply, you should come early," market manager Peter Francisco says.

What makes it popular: Other than providing a wide array of juicy, in-season produce, one of the market's claims to fame is its supply of fresh eggs, which come from a small farm located directly behind the market.

Read More: Your Backyard Homestead

Falls Church Farmers Market

Falls Church, VA

Insider secret: Cruise the aisles before you lay down the dough. "My little tip to people is to walk through the entire market before you start to buy, and see what's available that day," says Howard Herman, market manager. "The prices are usually pretty close, but you might find somebody who's a little less expensive and you could save yourself a few bucks."

What makes it popular: One perk of being on the East Coast is the access to tasty, high-quality seafood. "One of the things that really attracts a lot of people is a gentleman who brings freshly made crab cakes with Maryland and Virginia crabs," Herman said. "He sells out of those pretty much every week."

Read More: 7 Economical Superfoods for Everyone

Snellville Farmers' Market

Snellville Farmers' Market Snellville, GA

Insider secret: Strike up a conversation. "Be sure and talk to the farmers," Market Manager Gretchen Schulz says. "You can learn so much by talking to them about farming methods and preparation ideas--a lot can give great ideas on how to prepare different vegetables that they sell."

What makes it popular: Seeing as Georgia is known as the "Peach State," it's no surprise that this plump piece of produce is in high demand at the Snellville Farmers' Market. Aside from that succulent treasure, the market often sells out of other unique heirloom vegetables like lavender eggplant and callalou, a green native to Jamaica and the Caribbean.

Williamsburg Farmers Market

Williamsburg, VA

Insider secret: Bring the right equipment to transport your swag. Libby Oliver, the market manager, recommends carrying some sort of cooler so you can load up on cheese, eggs, ice cream, and other perishables without worrying about it melting or turning rancid. They even provide wagons that people can borrow to help tote coolers and other heavy produce.

What makes it popular: Aside from the crabs, oysters, and bison that make the market popular, some of the most sought-out products are the peanuts, one of the state's most valuable crops.

Read More: Local Food Could Quadruple Job Growth

Lyme Farmers Market

Lyme, CT

Insider secret: Always scope out the entire lineup because vendors might change. "We're always rotating people in and out to keep things fresh," Market Manager Chip Dahlke says. "We set up about 20 seasonal tents, but usually 10 are guest vendors that we swap out."

What makes it popular: What's better than a farmer's market on an actual farm? The market is located on a working farm with cattle, goats, chickens, and horses. So if there's one thing you need to purchase before leaving the market, it's beef. "We raise the beef cattle here, so I tell people to go to that tent," Dahlke said. And though he's a vegetarian, he still takes pride in the meat. "We grill up hamburgers and hotdogs, so it's nice to point to a steer in the field and tell people that's where the meat came from."

Read More: How to Buy Grass-Fed Beef

New Braunfels Farm to Market

New Braunfels, TX

Insider secret: Keep an eye out for signs, says Ron Snyder, this market's director. "You can always tell a market by their signage," he says. "Good markets make all the vendors have a sign out telling people who they are." Since markets can get crowded, it's not always easy to have a conversation with farmers so you can ask them questions about pesticide use, how they feed and treat their animals, and other questions about their growing practices; signs give you those answers at a glance.

What makes it popular: Being so far south, the fact that this market runs year-round is a huge draw. "The celebration of spring isn't quite so joyous," Snyder says, but people love the availability of fresh greens and vegetables from every season.

Read More: Go Green, Get Lean

Pepper Place Saturday Market

Birmingham, AL

Insider secret: Think quality first, price second. Instead of scouring the market for the best price, first inspect produce to make sure it's fresh. "Most farmer's market vendors will keep their prices about the same," explains Lisa Beasley, market manager at Pepper Place Saturday Market. "It's the quality that will vary most--not the price." And if you're shopping for cheese, eggs, meats, or heat-sensitive items like fruit and shelled peas, don't forget a cooler, preferably one with wheels (so your shopping experience will be less strenuous) to keep things fresh.

What makes it popular: Okra! A quintessentially Southern delicacy, "we love okra around here and eat and cook it every way imaginable," Beasley says. "There's nothing better than fresh-cut okra mixed with green tomatoes, tossed in corn meal and flour, and fried hot and crisp. While we don't recommend eating this every day, it is a fresh treat every now and then!" Read More: Tips for Keeping Summer Fruits Fresh

Las Cruces Farmers and Crafts Market Council

Las Cruces, NM

Insider secret: If you're looking for local goods and produce, beware of vendors who masquerade as local farmers but are really just reselling products made or grown far away. "Buy-and-sell vendors sometimes go to farmer's markets with store-purchased goods," explains David Kerr, of the Las Cruces Farmers and Crafts Market, one of the most diverse farmer's markets in the country. (Homegrown local vegetables and eggs are among the large market's most popular items.)

What makes it popular: Green chiles--what else would you expect in the Southwest? Kerr says that roasted green chiles are unique to the Rio Grande Valley, and they don't last long at the Las Cruces market.

Read More: 6 Farmer's Market Scams

Photo courtesy of Lincoln Michaud

Fayetteville Farmers' Market

Fayetteville, AR

Insider secret: Never be afraid to try something new. The great thing about any farmer's market is that you'll find things you'd never see in a grocery store. "If you don't recognize a product, have questions about how it is raised, or even how to prepare it, market vendors are happy to share their knowledge," says Lori L. Boatright, media coordinator.

What makes it popular: The wide variety of seasonal produce is its biggest draw, says Boatright, but the Fayetteville market is one of few places people can find rare produce like pawpaws, the largest edible fruits native to North America. Pawpaws resemble bananas in flavor and texture; in fact, their nickname is the "poor-man's banana." Read More: The Next Superfruit Growing in Your Backyard

Manistique Farmers Market

Manistique, MI

Insider secret: Echoing the sentiment to go early, market director Kerry Ott says that it's good to know what sells out first, and plan accordingly. "We have one farmer that sells kale," she says. "When the market first opened, people who had no idea what kale was, and now they can't get enough of it. It sells out in the first half hour every week."

What makes it popular: Ott says that the decision to sell only food, not crafts, made this market hugely popular. "When we were doing our initial assessment, we heard a lot of complaints that people didn't like going to farmer's markets and not being able to find any food." So they decided to stick with food only, and it's been so popular that as much as 10 percent of the population of small town of Manistique now hits up the farmer's market on a regular basis.

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