Farmers market etiquette is probably the last thing on many shoppers’ minds as they head for the nearest open air popup to buy locally sourced produce, meat, dairy, and in some places, wares from artisan bakeries and craftspeople. The impersonal nature of big box retail means that most shoppers never encounter the person who actually produced the items they’re considering.
Farmers markets take away that divide. The person who is sitting on the opposite side of that folding table or makeshift counter is quite often the same person who picked and prepared the items early that morning. Even though they are indeed in business to please and may have developed a thick skin dealing with the public, there are still misconceptions about farming and farmers and, yes, the products themselves, that can lead to lapses in etiquette.
Here are a few things your local farmer would like you to know:
Farming requires knowledge that goes beyond knowing when to plant corn.
That couple in the “Go Razorbacks!” t-shirts selling tomatoes may be smarter than you think. Farming requires knowledge and skill in farming itself. However, it doesn’t end there. Farming requires strong working knowledge of real estate and business laws, government regulations regarding food production and labeling, and a knack for marketing. In the case of multi-generational heritage farms, the most recent generations more than likely hold degrees. There are also many small farmers who started their professional lives as lawyers, engineers, and scientists before deciding to devote their lives to farming.
Some farmers don’t mind sharing their stories about their farms. In fact, some farmers see markets as part of their mission to educate people about why small farms are important to communities. Is it bad manners to ask? If they’re not in the weeds with people lined up to buy their okra, and they seem friendly, it’s not poor etiquette to see if they want to tell more about what they do.
Produce at a farmers market is not cheap, and there’s a good reason for that.
Shoppers who are not used to farmers markets might experience sticker shock the first time they see the prices of some crops, especially produce that is still very early in season. Visitors to markets may remember their parents or grandparents buying large amounts of produce at very low prices. The current prices don’t match with that memory.
Here’s an etiquette tip. Your local farmer cannot sell you their produce for proportionately the same price. They might even be a little higher than your local chain grocery. There’s a reason for that. Years ago, many vendors were not producers. They were in the business of buying produce from wholesalers or brokers and reselling it at farmers markets and roadside stands. Their overhead was low and their prices reflected that. Many farmers markets are now what are called producer-only markets. The people who sell the produce are the people who grew it.
Farming is expensive. Aside from the costs involved with farming, there are other things to consider. Markets charge for space to sell what they grow. They have fees to pay for permits and licenses. If they decide to become a certified organic producer, there are a whole host of expenses involved that can run into the thousands of dollars every year.
So what are you paying for at a farmers market? You’re paying for quality. You’re paying for knowing where your food came from and the knowledge of what went into producing it. One way to think of it is to consider the difference between buying an original piece of art or an inexpensive print. With the original piece, you are getting something made by that person and you are supporting their continued work.
It’s a market, not a buffet.
Would you go to a grocery store and grab something off the shelf or out of a bin and start eating it without paying for it? Remember that the beautiful produce on those tables at the farmers market cost those farmers time and money to produce. They suffer from what retailers call “shrinkage” just as much as your local chain grocer. Thing is, if you went into a typical grocery store and asked to try something before you bought it, the store manager might, at best, laugh at you, at worse, call the police. Many farmers understand people being curious about their products and will often set out samples for visitors to try. If there’s nothing set out, a polite request if they’re not busy is sometimes all it takes to know if you want to take home a bag of salad greens or loganberries. One more thing, those samples are a try before you buy sales pitch, not a substitute for lunch.
Farmers markets can be a great resource. They’re also a lot of fun and a good way to get to know the people who put the food on your table. Just remember they are family businesses and benefit greatly from your effort to be respectful of what they do by exercising etiquette as well as supporting them with your purchases. It might be a great way to keep peas and hominy between you.
[Photo by Octavio Passos/Getty Images]