Is Your Farmer’s Market Ripping You Off?

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Springtime has arrived. I love having access to fresh, local produce and supporting the growing number of farmers markets that crop up each spring and summer. I love taking a break from having to rely on the supermarket to for fruits and vegetables which often entails paying a premium for lackluster quality and a greater carbon footprint. However, there are downsides to shopping at the farmers market. I will briefly touch on some of the biggest pitfalls and offer some strategies for dealing with them.

It should go without saying that not every vendor selling produce, eggs, milk and cheese under the farmer’s market umbrella actually hales from a real farm that grows its own food, and either co-ops milk, eggs, and cheese from a nearby farm or supplies these items themselves . If this isn’t the case, you may find that that the local produce and farm fresh eggs you think you are buying are actually from the same supermarket you frequent in the off season with an extra hefty price tag attached. Always do your research first and if possible pay a visit to the farm whose name represents the vendor. They should be able to tell you exactly where what you are buying comes from. If you do pay a visit, ask lots of questions and don’t be afraid to press further if the employees don’t know the answers. Many farms and farm stands employ seasonal college and high school students who may not know the answers to your questions. Have them put you in touch with someone who can.

Many of us believe that the fresh and local produce we find at these markets are magically free of pesticides. The same goes for those of us who are fond of pick your own farms, a popular destination form seasonal fruits and berries.

Not so fast.

Unless they are practicing organic farming, these farms are spraying their produce with chemicals. Any amount of chemical spraying is toxic. Find out exactly what the farm’s growing practices are. If you are dealing with an employee who doesn’t know, find someone who does. Do your research ahead of time. You can call the farm directly to ask questions. Form an ongoing relationship if you will be frequenting the stand with any regularity. Don’t let them forget who you are from week to week. Say things such as “last week you had those amazing heads of cauliflower but I don’t see them this week?” This works remarkably well. The goal is to let them know you are either a regular customer or considering becoming one. Keep in mind that the farm does not necessarily have to have organic certification to practice organic farming. Many farms do grow organically but forgo the certification because it is expensive. Bottom line: ask questions and do further research if necessary.

Another way to get ripped off is in thinking that what we buy at the farmers market is always cheaper than anywhere else. Sometimes it is.

But sometimes it isn’t.

It can be more expensive to shop at the farmer’s market. Some produce is cheaper and some more expensive, even from market to market during the same growing season. Individuals are setting their own prices so they are bound to vary. Bottom line: know the price points for those items you buy frequently at every place you shop and track them.

Yet another way to get ripped off at the farmers market has to do with the lack of mental math skills of some those adding up your purchases. It can get dicey when there are no bar codes to scan. Some people working the stands may not have the math skills or the speed to quickly, efficiently, and accurately add up multiple items. It can also be challenging when there are multiple items to add and math skills are rusty. Customer chaos and the heat probably don’t help either. I have actually seen employees give up in the middle of adding and just declare a number, hoping the customer will go along. I have had to speak up on several occasions, citing that my total and their total do not match up. Even after correcting the error, I have gotten back the wrong change more than once. The best advice I can offer is to carefully track how much you are spending as you go along and have everything added up in total before you check out. If you are buying items that are sold by the pound which is often the case, know the price per pound and have your items weighed before you are ready to check out. That way, you will have a complete total. Do not leave it to the employees to get it right unless you truly do not care if you are overcharged. Bottom line: know your total or at least be within a dollar’s worth before you checkout. Do not walk away without rectifying mistakes.

There are many more good reasons to shop local than not. With a little foresight and planning, you can get the best out of your farmers market without it getting the best of you or your wallet.