What is the Purpose of a Farmers Market? (The Ultimate Guide)

If you’re anything like me, you like to get your grocery shopping done as quickly as possible. But a farmers market feels less like shopping and more like an experience. So what is the purpose of a farmers market?

A farmers market’s purpose is to cut out warehouses, distributors & retailers to bring products, especially fresh fruits & vegetables, directly from the grower to the consumer. This results in less expensive, but fresher produce. But a farmers market can also have live music & events to enhance the experience.

But that’s just the beginning of what a farmers market is and what makes them unique.

So in this article, we’ll get a lot more into the who, what, how, when, and why. I’ll even explain how you can save a ton of money on buying groceries by using a farmers market periodically.

I love farmer’s markets. I’ll answer all of your questions and tell you why I love them.

Just keep reading!

Why are farmers’ markets important?

Fresh, healthy food is vital for our health.

A farmers market brings fresh produce to urban and rural areas where shopping options may be limited. While grocery stores do sell fresh produce, it may have sat in a warehouse for weeks.

Other smaller chains, don’t have access to much fresh produce. And the quality is often far from farm-fresh.

But oftentimes, you’ll find that a farmers market is more than just a market.

In some places, it’s a weekly event where community members kick off their weekend. It may have street vendors, live music, gardening tips, and even cooking demonstrations. You can often find boutique vendors selling things like:

  • Fresh meat and seafood
  • Bath and body products
  • Fresh pasta and sauces
  • Honey fresh from the hive

A farmers market can be a great way to bring the community together and get customers to small businesses.

In addition to bringing the community together, farmers markets also aid in economic development and job creation. Food is grown, processed, and sold in the same region. This means that more money stays in the local economy.

Farmers markets also provide opportunities for small farmers and businesses to sell their products. This helps meet the demand for locally sourced produce.

Being able to directly market to the consumer gives farmers income without the added costs of advertising, shipping, storage, and inventory control.

What can I expect at a farmer’s market?

Shopping at a farmers market is the easiest way to support small, local businesses while eating locally-grown, fresh produce.

Typically the grower is right there, so you can ask them where the food comes from. But if you are going to a big outdoor market with a wide variety of options, it can feel overwhelming.

If you purchase a bunch of fruits and vegetables that you aren’t sure what you are going to do with, they may end up going bad in your crisper. On the other hand, if you just browse, you may come home with nothing.

Either trip feels like a wasted trip – either you’ve wasted time or money or both. That’s no fun.

With just a bit of planning, you can purchase what you need without spending too much money and still having fun. Here are the steps to take to enjoy the experience and make it worthwhile:

1. Start by knowing what’s in season

This way you’ll have an idea of what to expect when you arrive.

Don’t expect watermelon in November, or pumpkins in summer. And if you do see those things, in most climates, the quality won’t be great. 

A great meal starts with great, fresh, and SEASONAL ingredients.

2. Do a quick walk to see all the vendors before making a purchase

After all, there could be 10 different vendors all selling the same types of produce.

You don’t want to buy heirloom tomatoes at the first place you come to only to see the same thing 10 stalls down for 50 cents a pound less!

Check out all your options, and then . . . 

3. Make a plan

Whether it’s a full-blown meal plan or just a general idea of the kinds of fruits and vegetables you need.

Understand that vendors may or may not have what you need. So if you go in with a plan, you’ll have an idea of what can be substituted, too.

Finally, talk to the vendors! If you have any questions, ask! Farmers love talking about their products, how they’re grown, and how to prepare them.

4. Bring your own bags and cash

Vendors don’t always have bags, and if they do, they’ll be plastic.

If you are planning on spending any amount of time at the market, you’ll want to have good sturdy reusable bags. Make sure you have cash, too. While some vendors may have card readers, most won’t.

5. Go early or go late, but don’t go in the middle

If you get there early, the crowds will be smaller.

So the early bird will have their pick of products and get the freshest and best-looking produce. But, if you get there late, you’ll get better deals. Expect more crowds during the middle of the day.

After all, farmers don’t want to reload their trucks and unload them again when they get home. So towards the end of the day, unless they are back open the next day, they’ll be highly motivated to sell off what’s left.

But farmers aren’t the only ones that have to deal with food that goes bad or doesn’t get sold.

If you’ve ever wondered what happens to produce that doesn’t get sold at the grocery store, just read this recent article. You may be surprised at how much food gets thrown out.

I was especially surprised at how many billions of tons get thrown away out of fear (on the part of the grocery chains) of someone getting sick and suing them.

Just click the link to read it on my site.

Farmers don’t like to throw away unsold food, but they may end up giving it to friends and family. It’s much more convenient to sell it at a discount than it is to haul their produce back home.

What should you not buy at a farmers market?

Farmers’ markets are wonderful places.

You can find a myriad of products – and not just produce! Yes, they sell fresh fruits and vegetables, but they also sell honey, baked goods, and candy. Many often sell hand made crafts, bath and body products, and more.

With all of these things to see and purchase, it can be overwhelming to know what to purchase.

While farmers markets will vary from region to region, there are some general guidelines you should follow when it comes to what you should NOT purchase from the market.

  1. The first thing you see

This may seem kind of broad, but the market can have a lot going on!

You may be tempted to buy the first thing you see, but you should definitely walk around and look a bit. Not only can you find something you like better. But, you may even find the same product at a lower price.

If you determine that you liked that first thing, you can always go back and get it later.

  1. Clothing

Typically, the farmers market is intended to get products into consumers’ hands at a lower price.

If a vendor is selling clothing, they likely have a storefront already. If they are hauling their products around to sell at the market, they are likely marking up the prices to do so.

So if you find some clothing that you like, get a business card or store name and visit the brick and mortar store during normal operating hours.

Chances are that they’ll have a wider selection, too!

  1. Meat and seafood

I would be wary of any meat or seafood items at the farmer’s market.

While you probably won’t run into any sanitation issues, you just don’t know how long that meat has been sitting in that bed of melting ice.

And if it’s frozen, that kind of defeats the purpose of selling “fresh” at the farmers market. Your best bet would be to get the seller’s information and purchase it directly from their storefront or farm.

That being said, if it seems like they have their sanitation protocols down and are a reputable local butcher, go for it!

Eggs, on the other hand, are perfectly fine to purchase. In fact, farm-fresh eggs are delicious and don’t need to be refrigerated.

  1. Food cart food

This can go either way. Purchasing food from a cart can be part of the experience if you are making a day of it. I mean, people LOVE food cart food, especially when it’s fair time. Am I right?

But, just like at the fair, food from a cart can be very expensive.

So if you must purchase food cart food, consider purchasing things you either can’t make on your own or can’t purchase elsewhere.

For example, my local market has a wonderful boiled peanut cart. Boiled peanuts can be tricky to make, so I’d rather purchase them from our local vendor. Who is actually very reasonably priced.

What are three advantages to shopping at a farmer’s market?

Shopping at a farmers market has a ton of advantages.

Not only are you supporting local farmers and craftspeople, but if you do it right, it can be a fun and inexpensive family outing. By supporting local farmers and craftsmen, you are helping create jobs and keep money within the local economy.

So while there are tons of advantages, and a few downsides, here are the top 3 advantages of farmers markets:

1. You don’t have to purchase anything

You can just listen to live music, see the sights and smell the smells. Unlike a trip to Walmart, a farmers market trip is about the experience. You’ll often find:

  • Free samples
  • Entertainment
  • The “experience” is worth it alone

Sometimes, your market may even have free events for the kids!

2. Produce from the farmers market is generally cheaper than what you’d find at the grocery store

Grocery stores have to pay rent, utilities, insurance, tons of employees. They also have expensive refrigeration equipment and hundreds of shopping carts. They also buy from a distributor in most cases who also gets a cut. These costs will be passed down to you, the consumer.

When it’s just a couple from a farm 20 miles up the road, the expenses are minimal (comparatively) and the 2 middle-men between you and them are eliminated. 

That can save you a bunch, and it puts more money in their pockets too!

That being said, the price difference is often greater (in your favor) on organically-grown produce and less so on conventionally-grown produce.

That’s because organically-grown growers tend to be smaller farms. Large factory farms that supply conventional produce often don’t sell at farmers markets. Instead, they just sell to large chains at low prices.

3. Finally, produce from the farmers market will be fresher

Local produce will be in season and won’t have spent several days on a truck followed by a week or more in some warehouse.

In fact, the produce you purchase will likely have been harvested the day before or even the same day. Grocery stores simply can’t even come close to competing on freshness.

In fact, with grocery chains, they only buy from farmers who grow enough to supply multiple locations of their stores.

So that often eliminates small family farms. Then, so they can be streamlined and efficient, the produce is sent from the farm to their warehouse. Then, it gets divided up between their stores. But all of that process reduces freshness.

Unfortunately, it can sometimes be difficult to find what you need if you go to a large farmers market.

Unlike the grocery store, where items all have their own department with well-organized aisles, you may find produce stands dispersed throughout the market.

They may be next to food vendors or clothing vendors. Even worse, if it’s not a very organized market, the vendors may be at different locations every week!

Grocery stores, however, have things neatly sectioned. Every item has its place. To read more about the sections of a grocery store check out this recent article. I even get into some of the grocery store trickery designed to make you spend more without even intending to.

Just click the link to read it on my site.

Is shopping at a farmers market cheaper?

Typically it is cheaper to purchase items at the farmers market. That’s especially true when we’re talking about fresh fruits and vegetables. (source)

But as I said above, the price savings is usually better on organically-grown produce.  Large factory farms that supply conventional produce often don’t sell at farmers markets. Instead, they just sell to large chains at low prices. (source)

Here’s a quick glance at how farmers market prices compare to the stores in that linked study.

Produce Item Farmers Market Price Grocery Store Price
Organic Blueberries $5.50/pint $6.50/pint
Conventional Blueberries $3.40/pint $4.18/pint
Organic Tomatoes $3.41/lb $4.27/lb
Conventional Tomatoes $3.09/lb $2.24/lb
Organic Spring Salad Mix $5.61/lb $11.58/lb
Conventional Spring Salad Mix $5.83/lb $9.54/lb
Organic Green Bell Peppers $2.39/lb $3.95/lb
Conventional Green Bell Peppers $2.02/lb $1.78/lb
Organic Potatoes $2.38/lb $1.67/lb
Conventional Potatoes $2.32/lb $1.28/lb

So if the primary goal of shopping at a farmers market is to save money on fresh produce, buy organic. Also, avoid buying eggs and potatoes which tends to be better priced at grocery stores, even when buying organic.

Confused about why organically grown products usually cost so much more?

You’re not alone! Luckily, having worked for Whole Foods Market for over 2 decades, this is something I know a little bit about. 

In a recent article, I break down why it costs more, which items see the largest increase and the few items you can often find cheaper organically. I even review the so-called “dirty dozen” which are the fruits and vegetables that get sprayed with the most pesticides and are worth buying organically-grown.

Just click that link to read it on my site.

Also, if you purchase clothing, baked goods, or meat from a farmers market it could end up being more expensive. Don’t forget the roadside markets, too. If you don’t want to spend a ton of money or don’t care for the fanfare of a community type farmers market, check out the local roadside farmer’s markets.

Just like the big markets, they have everything you need in one small and convenient building. They will typically take debit and credit cards, too!

Grocery stores, especially Whole Foods Market, will probably be more expensive than shopping at the market, too.

That’s because their products, in general, are made of high-quality ingredients. They also spend a lot of money decorating their stores and creating the kind of environment that people want to hang out in.

To read more about why Whole Foods is more expensive, just read this recent article on my site. I even get into how Amazon buying them has affected pricing.

Just click that link to read it on my site.

Did I answer everything you wanted to know about farmer’s markets?

Shopping at the farmers market can be a fun event if you want it to be.

You’ll likely find lots of stuff to do and buy. And there are definitely many things not to purchase at the farmer’s market. Like meat and clothing.

If you don’t want to shop at a big market, a smaller roadside market may be the better option.

What is your favorite thing to buy at your farmer’s market?

Jeff Campbell

Hi! I'm Jeff Campbell. I was a leader for Whole Foods Market for over 2 decades. I worked in 9 stores in 4 states, not counting the hundred-plus stores I've assisted in other ways. I was a Global All-Star, a Gold Pen Winner, and won Top-10 Store (company-wide) 3 times in addition to Best New Store (company-wide).

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