Warm weather always signals the return of fresh produce and other goodies at farmers markets.
From May 1 to October 31, Chicago's Farmers Markets bring more than 70 vendors selling fresh fruits, vegetables, herbs, flowers and homemade goods to over 20 neighborhoods. City sponsored markets are held every day except Monday and Friday. Additionally, there are a number of independently run farmers' markets in varous locations around the city.
If you are looking for locally grown produce and products, you shouldn’t have trouble finding a market in your area. You can see where your nearest market is at www.explorechicago.org.
Once you’ve found a market to explore, here are five key tips to help you make the most of your experience:
1. Have A Plan
It’s really easy to get carried away with all the fresh produce and interesting products for sale at these markets. But remember that the last thing you want to do is have things to go waste. So put a plan together. Have menu ideas for a few days and buy items for that. If you want to take advantage of volume pricing and buy in bulk, then have a plan for preserving the goods, either by freezing or canning, for future use. Or go with a friend or two and share the purchases. The great thing about these markets is that they return every week, so you don’t need to purchase for much longer than that. Plus, if you create a good relationship with your local vendors (see tip #3), you’ll easily be able to plan ahead for fresh and interesting menus each week.
2. Shop Early/Shop Late
Timing is important when you are shopping these markets. If you can be there when they open and everything is just coming out of the truck, you’ll have your "pick of the crop." From flowers to produce, you’ll get the freshest there is to buy. So, get there early and be one of the first to check everything out.
For bargains, vendors are also likely to provide discounts near the end of the day as the market is closing down. Rather than taking items back, growers and other merchants are likely to offer reduced rates to clear their inventory. So it’s a good idea to check out the market at closing time, too.
3. Create A Relationship With The Vendors
Because your local market will return week after week, it’s a great idea to develop a friendly relationship with the merchants. The more you connect with individual growers and vendors, the more information you’ll be able to get on the products you’re likely to purchase. You can find out when currently available items were picked as well as when other items will be harvested and brought to market. Talking with growers will help you understand the differences in pricing, learn preparation methods with certain foods that may be new to you, find out which months are generally best for certain produce and generally get answers to any questions you may have. Building that relationship simply makes the entire experience more enjoyable and your purchase decisions more informed.
4. Bring Your Own Containers
More and more of us are bringing our own shopping bags to the grocery store. We should use the same philosophy with the farmers' market. Using your own bags and containers is good for the environment and makes it a lot easier for you than carrying a number of different bags from various vendors. If you are planning on a long shopping trip, consider using one of those collapsible wire grocery carts so that you aren’t carrying everything on your shoulders. You might also bring along an ice chest with wheels should you want to keep items cool. If you toss in a few ice packs, your items will stay fresh and cool for a long time.
5. Bring More Than One Form Of Payment
Many vendors do accepts credit and debit cards these days. Some of the city sponsored markets are also accepting the Link card. But always have some cash on hand as a backup. You might find a small vendor with a unique item of two that doesn’t accept credit cards.
With all the variety of items being offered in markets this season and these simple but hopefully helpful tips, I’m sure you’ll have a great experience shopping all summer in Chicago’s farmers' markets. If you create some interesting dishes, please be sure to share!