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Shopping at the Farmers Market can be a vastly different experience than a trip to the grocery store. For starters you are outside in the open air and behind each produce stall is a real live farmer, with everything you need to know about the products for sale. Shopping at the market has its advantages but it can be a confusing concept for first time or novice shoppers. That is why we put together this blog that will give you all the tools and advice needed to shop at the next market like a pro. By following our simple tips you will leave satisfied with your reusable bags full of delicious local produce and goods, all while leaving your wallet intact.

When to Arrive 

If you have what it takes to get up early on Saturday for the Kalamazoo Farmers Market (KFM) or Sunday for the Portage Market (PM) you will be rewarded. If not grab a coffee when you get there. As the old adage goes, the early bird gets the worm, or in this case you will beat the crowds and get first picks on the highest quality and most ripe produce. If you appreciate your sleep in the morning, don’t worry, some vendors offer deals at the end of the day. Just don't expect a giveaway, after all farmers gotta to eat too.

Looking for a slower paced market day? Visit KFM on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 7:00 to 2:00ish. You'll usually find around six to ten vendors, but it changes depending on the season. 

What to Have in Your Toolkit

  1. Reusable Bags: Before you come to market you should bring a reusable bag and some smaller canvas bags to separate your produce. If you are really advanced you can bring your own collapsible cart and be the envy of shoppers all around carrying their items.
    Bonus: Bring your reusable coffee cup too!
  2. Shopping List: A shopping list is a good idea but don't be afraid to substitute produce with different varieties or similar items. Go for the unique heirloom varieties of tomatoes like pineapple tomatoes from Silverbeet in the place of Romas, or try substituting entire species as well. Kale can be replaced with Swiss chard, it just depends on what is in season or on sale.
  3. A Bike: If you don't like dealing with parking, ride your bike. You can also purchase a Bike Benefits sticker for $5 and bring it to every market for a free $2 in Market Bucks every week. You may need to invest in bike storage or a backpack, but the time saved looking for parking alone is worth it, not to mention you are the savings on gas and getting those glutes in shape for beach season. 
  4. Cash or Card: The final item in your kit should be some cash but there are other options if you happen to forget your stash. Cash is always king though. 

Don't have cash, don't worry 

If you don't have cash don’t worry  The KFM and the PM can swipe a credit or debit card to purchase Market Bucks, which can be used just like cash with nearly all of our vendors. Just like an ATM, there is a small $2 fee to withdraw market bucks. The KFM also has an ATM on site if you prefer to withdraw cash, for a slightly higher fee.

Both markets also proudly to accept many types of food assistance currencies, such as SNAP, Double Up Food Bucks, WIC and SENIOR Project Fresh, and Hoophouses for Health. Every time you use your Bridge Card at the market, we'll double your money through a program called Double Up Food Bucks. Through this program, your SNAP dollars will be matched up to $20, and those tokens can be used to purchase Michigan grown fruits and vegetables. The Double Up program originated in Detroit and is now being adopted around the country. It's a win win situation as it helps lower income families have access to more fresh produce while also gaining new customers and income for farmers.

Don’t know what to do with a vegetable or food item? Keep calm and ask the farmer.

Finding unique heirloom and specialty produce is the reason many people come to the Farmers Market over the grocery store. Another reason is that every produce stand comes standard with  an expert that has either grown the product themselves or knows who did. When I am shopping and see an unusual item I will simply ask, “how do you prepare this?” or for some items I may ask, “what the heck is that?”. Our Farmers take pride in what they grow and they will be happy to tell you about their products. We only ask that customers be respectful of our vendors time during peak hours.

And don't forget to check our blog for the latest recipes for in season produce too! We have cooking demos daily on Saturdays at KFM and have them regularly at PM as well. Those are great times to talk to a chef, learn a new technique, and try something before you buy it.

How to stretch your money

  1. Budgeting and planning ahead is usually a good idea. If you have the time, jot down the ingredients for some meals you would like to cook that week and write down a flexible list of produce you are looking for. Once you have an idea of what you will need, bring a set amount of money and leave your wallet at home.
  2. Taking a lap around the market and surveying for good deals. When you first arrive at the market, it's a good idea to take a lap and scan the stalls. This will give you an idea of what is in season and allow you to compare prices and quality between stalls.
  3. Know what is in season. Find out what is in season in SW Michigan by checking our website or asking a local farmer. It's also helpful to sign up for our newsletter and scan our social media networks for the latest fresh photos. 
  4. Buy what is in season and save it for later. Shopping for what is in season has a number of benefits. First, you know it is fresh and fresh produce tastes better and is generally more nutritious. Along with that you can find good deals on in season items when they are in abundance and multiple farmers are selling them.  Take those savings to the next level and buy items in bulk to freeze or preserve for the winter. Turning your local fruits into jams and blanching greens is a great way to bring back summer through those cold winter months. You'll be spending extra money now, but definitely saving it all winter.

If you follow these simple tips you will be ready to hit the market like a fruit ninja and snag great deals in no time.