5 Smart Tips to Save Money at the Farmers' Market

Or, how to avoid heirloom tomato bankruptcy.

I have a thing for farmers' market tomatoes. Specifically, the way they smell: an inexplicable, powdery, herbal aroma that makes you think of tomato vines and leaves, and promises explosive flavor in the fruit. I am so addicted to the siren song of real summer tomatoes that when I go to the farmers' market, my wallet starts to whimper.

But no more. I've worked out a few frugal strategies and asked farmers for insider tips on how to get more food for less money. They just might work at your farmers' market, too.

Tip #1: Buy Ugly, Buy Ripe

Ugly is in the eye of the beholder. When I spy those odd, sculptural veggies, I see a bargain. One reason why fruits and vegetables get discounted is they have some kind of imperfection, like a bruise on a peach or a tomato that is really, really ripe.

At my farmers' market in Seattle, bargain bins are either behind the main table or under it. "Don't see them? Feel free to ask nicely," says Jay Zimmerman of Lyall Farms. "We would rather have these cherries in someone's tummy than rotting in a cooler."

Tip #2: Buy Big

Produce grown at local farms is not standard "supermarket" size, and vendors often sell by the piece rather than by the pound. I recently nabbed a ginormous heirloom red romaine for $2.50 and ate yummy salads for a week. Later in the season, I buy one giant zucchini for a buck, marry it with my ugly tomatoes, and make ratatouille.

Beautiful woman buying kale at a farmers market
Rawpixel/Getty Images

Tip #3: Buy in Bulk

"Right now, strawberries are super cheap," says Sam Traylor of Hayton Farms as he holds up a box overflowing with six pints of plump, organic, heritage berries he's selling for $15. Because crops come to market in a seasonal flush, buying a lot of whatever is bounteous will often get you a discount. Take a friend to split the bounty.

If you can't do that, plan on a bit more work when you get home, freezing, pickling, or making jam. In a few months when all the farms are sleeping, you'll be glad you preserved a taste of summer.


Tip #4: Go Late

All these tips converge in the 11th hour, when the market is about to close. Farmers would rather sell to you than slog it home. It's also a good time to shop for seconds, because more produce is demoted to the discount bin as the day goes on.

Here's how Xiong Cha, a flower grower of lush artistic bouquets puts it: "Starting in mid-July into August, I do a discount. Especially at the end of the day, I'll do a discount on this for you," he says, holding up a tantalizing bouquet overflowing with color, artistry, and value. If only I could eat it.

Farmers market
Photo by Meredith.

Tip #5: Shop in Terrible Weather

Everyone wants to mill about the market on a perfect summer day. But if you're willing to make the trek when it's pouring (or 100 degrees), you're likely to have fewer crowds to contend with. The smaller the crowds, the more likely you are to score discounts from farmers who'd rather deal than haul it all home.

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