Spending Diary: Why I Shop at Farmers Markets

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Strawberries at Union Square farmer's market.
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By Elizabeth Sheer

The first sign of summer, to me, is strawberries. I don't eat fruit out of season, and come April I am thoroughly sick of oranges. By the time the first week of June rolls around, I have a strawberry jones so great that I would pay a fortune for a basket of fresh, red beauties.

But I don't have to do that. All I have to do is go to the farmers market, where the first harvest this year set me back $7 for a quart basket. I can easily eat a quart in one sitting, and I ate half on the way to the car. By contrast, strawberries in the supermarket at that time were $6 a quart, with a special for a second quart at half price. Yes, the farmers market was more expensive, but there's no comparison in taste between those grown locally and those shipped thousands of miles from California.

Going local is one of the main reasons people frequent farmers markets. The food is often fresher and tastier than the fare at most grocery stores. Sometimes it's more expensive, as with the strawberries, although not always. Still, it pays to be selective about what you buy at the farmers market. Some foods seem to taste the same whatever their origin.

I frequent four different farmers markets, and rarely skip a week between Memorial Day and Thanksgiving. Those in Hudson, New York, and Great Barrington, Massachusetts, are located in farm country. The super-fresh produce is often picked the day before. At the Union Square Greenmarket in Manhattan and one in Brooklyn, prices are usually higher than in the country.

Prices at any farmers market reflect the cost of a display table, growing and harvesting the crop, and bringing the stuff to market. One farmer at the Manhattan market, who trucks his produce from six hours away, charges $9 a quart for strawberries, which is at the low end of the price range for Union Square. Most farmers charge $5 to $6 a pint.

Aside from freshness, an advantage of shopping at the farmers market is buying things you won't find anywhere else, either because they don't ship well or because they're too unfamiliar. Garlic scapes are a popular late-spring crop priced at $2 a bunch in Hudson and $3 a bunch in Manhattan. Maybe you could find them at Whole Foods for some exorbitant cost, but you won't find them at a traditional supermarket. The Union Square Greenmarket is a mecca for unusual greens, which I am always eager to try. This year I found perilla, for $2.50 a bunch, whose very strong taste put me off trying it again, although I don't consider the purchase a waste of money.

Sugar snap peas make a very short appearance -- about two weeks -- and I rarely see them at a supermarket. When they are on offer, they're never as crispy and fresh as at the farmers market, where I pay $6 a pound at Union Square, $5 a pound in Brooklyn, and $4 a pound in Hudson. Vegetables such as zucchini blossoms, Romanesco broccoli, and purple cauliflower are difficult to find in the grocery store but in abundance at the farmers markets.

Some things at the farmers market are worth a splurge and some aren't. At Great Barrington, a pig farmer sells a pate that my fat-loving husband adores. I was shocked to learn that a "large" jar for $13 contains only 5 ounces, which he could polish off in two sittings. Then again, it's a unique treat, so I'm happy to oblige. At the same market I bought myself a quart of gazpacho for $13. Sure, I could have made it myself for about one-quarter the price, but tomatoes were nowhere near ripe yet, and that week in mid-June the farmers market variety offered a taste of summer that I craved.

Specialty cheeses at most cheese stores and supermarkets run about $20 to $25 a pound. Ditto at farmers markets, but sometimes a cheese maker offers a unique variety you won't find elsewhere. One Connecticut farmer who sells her wares in Brooklyn has an aged "woman-chego" for about $20 a pound. An aged manchego at the supermarket costs about the same but pales in the flavor department. On the other hand, a Massachusetts creamery sells its own very delicious ice cream at the market for $4 a scoop. I can find the same flavors at the local supermarket for $6 a pint, so a farmers market purchase isn't worth it to me.

Perhaps I'm not a vegetable connoisseur, but to my palate, there's not much difference flavor-wise between farmers market greens and supermarket offerings. Salad-green mixes from the farmers market run about $6 for a bag that's equivalent in size to the clamshell packages of greens sold at the grocery store for about $5. The only variant is the freshness. We've all had supermarket lettuce turn to mush after a few days, whereas leafy greens straight from the farm last close to a week. In summer I eat a lot of salad, so it's a matter of convenience where I buy it.

Broccoli, chard, and cauliflower also seem to taste the same regardless, so I choose the cheapest option. Cucumbers are cheaper at the farmers market (75 cents each vs. 99 cents) and also much fresher. Carrots are way more expensive at the market: $2.95 for a large bunch (although the price drops as summer progresses) compared with 99 cents a bag at the grocery store. But I opt for the vibrant yellow and purple carrots at the farmers market, especially when I'm entertaining.

At the time of writing, the summer harvest is coming in, and I am looking forward to peaches, plums, melons, tomatoes, and corn. I could practically live on corn once it ripens. It usually costs about $1 for five ears at the market, but the supermarket in Massachusetts sells local corn for about the same price; again, it's a question of convenience where I buy it. At the height of summer, it really doesn't matter to me how much tomatoes cost; there is such a difference between the fresh fruit of the farmers market and the hard, tasteless specimens at the chain groceries.
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