Shopping at your local farmers market is quite simple. Just go sample the wonderful produce, baked goods, cheeses, and more available from farmers in the region.

apples at the market
Eastern Market Apple Picking by flickr user Mr.TinDC, cc license

If you want to make the most of your trip though, this guide will help.

Know where to go

The Washington DC metro area has dozens of great farmers markets to choose from.  If you’re not sure of your options, there are several good websites to get you started. The Eat Well Guide and Local Harvest each maintain directories of local food, including farmers markets. Their sites will tell you start and end dates for market season, open hours, and a bit about what you can expect to find.

The Washington Post also maintains a listing with less information about the markets but a fun recipe finder.

Get to know your market

Different markets have different rules for what farmers can sell. 

Some, like those run by FreshFarm Markets and many others in the DC area, are producer only.  That means what it says; the farmers have to grow it themselves in order to sell it at the market.

Some markets allow a percentage of locally sourced food not grown by the vendor, meaning the farmer can purchase additional produce or goods from neighboring farms.

Other markets allow vendors to sell anything they like, including produce trucked in from hundreds miles away and picked up at a local warehouse. (Little plastic stickers on the produce can be a tip off here.)

There are some strong opinions on which kind of market is best. Only California and Maine have state regulations defining farmers markets. Everywhere else, market management makes the rules.  If it’s important to you to buy from the farmer who grows the produce, you’ll want to learn your market’s rules.

Get to know your farmer

If you shop at a mixed market and are looking for local food, it will be especially important to get to know your farmer. If you have any questions about where the food at your local market was grown or how it was grown, ask. 

Know when to go

The best time to go to a farmers market is early or late.  

Early in the day, the weather is still cool, lines are short, and you have the best pick of the produce (or baked goods, or cheeses).  Many of my local farmers sell out of their cheeses and eggs by late morning.

Late in the day, you may be able to take advantage of closeouts and freebies, especially on Sundays.  Farmers often prefer to negotiate reduced prices than load produce back on the truck so you may be able even to stock up cheaply for canning or freezing your produce for later.

And don’t assume you are out of luck if you can go on a weekend.  There are a number of weekday markets in the area including ones in Penn QuarterFoggy Bottom, and Balston.

child in bike carrier eating peas
snap peas fresh from the market

Know what’s in season

The Natural Resources Defense Council has a great tool on their website that tells you what produce is in season in your area any time of the year.  You can figure out when to stock up on blueberries and peaches, but also when that asparagus you are looking at is likely to have been trucked in from out of state.

There’s even a Locavore iPhone application by a company called Enjoymentland that does the same thing.

Know what to buy organic

The Environmental Working Group publishes a very helpful list of produce most likely to have pesticide residues.  If you are buying those at your local market, you may want to buy organic or query your farmer about their pesticide use.

Only farmers certified by the U.S. Department of Agriculture can advertise as USDA Organic. But the certification process is time consuming and costly, so many smaller farmers who may follow organic methods, may not have applied for the organic label.  It pays to ask your farmer about their production methods.

Also, many aspects of food production that you may care about are not captured in the organic certification. For definitions of other terms you might stumble upon at a market, such as cage-free or naturally-raised, check out Food & Water Watch’s guide to food labels.

Come prepared

Cash is the currency of most farmers markets so hit the ATM on your way there.

And bring your own bags or baskets. If you are shopping local to be eco-friendly, it doesn’t make much sense to tote home lots of plastic bags.  

You’ll want to bring a couple of canvass totes and perhaps a few smaller bags for things like berries or fragile produce you don’t want rolling around a bag.  You may consider bringing a basket instead of a bag to reduce bruising on the way home.

Take a few risks

Variety is the spice of life but Americans have gotten used to a very limited selection of produce at national chain stores.  There are hundreds of different kinds of tomatoes, squash, root vegetables, greens, and more.  But supermarkets usually stock only a handful that ship well and are proven sellers.  Farmers markets can be a great source for unusual vegetables or heirloom varieties of more common fare.   

Not sure how to cook that kohlrabi, tatsoi, or rutabaga? Turn to your old friend the Internet search engine or, better yet, ask your farmer.  In all likelihood, your market vendor doesn’t just sell the produce, he or she eats it and serves it to the family as well.  You’ll get no better endorsement than that.