How To Shop the Farmers Market Like a Pro

by Amy Armbruster, CFSA Communications Coordinator

NC Farmers Market

Summer’s bounty at the Farmers Market, Photo by Debbie Roos

Ah, the delights of early summer, that much-anticipated time of the year when the farmers market is brimming with fresh, colorful, ripe, and delicious fruits and vegetables. If you haven’t ventured out to your local market yet this year, now is the perfect time. Shopping at the farmers market is easy and fun, but it’s worth the effort to do a little research and make a plan before you show up at the first farmer’s stall. Our best strategy: Before jumping in, take a stroll around the market. Scope out what’s for sale and who has the best looking fruits, veggies, and other goods. Compare prices. Go early for the best selection, try the samples, and don’t be afraid to take home something you’ve never heard of – that’s part of the fun. You’ll want to know how to select the very best, so we turned to Stephanie Turner (ST), the Farmers Market Manager at the Uptown Market in Greenwood, SC, for more insider tips.

CFSA: There are so many amazing fruits in season in July! Blackberries, blueberries, raspberries, melons, and watermelon are all ripe and delicious at this time of the year. Can you give us some pointers on how to select the best from the farmers market?

ST: For berries, you are looking for firm fruit; not wrinkly (which indicates dry) or bruised/dimpled (overripe). Cantaloupe you want a little give at the stem end and mild fragrance. Watermelon: a nice yellow patch at the bottom and a deep sounding thump.


Colorful summer vegetables at the farmers market

Cobblestone Farmers Market in Winston Salem, Photo by Salem Neff

CFSA: And, what about summer vegetables? What do you look for when selecting summer treats like corn, cucumbers, eggplant, green beans, peppers, squash, tomatoes and zucchini?

ST: Often you can tell if something is fresh by the condition of the skin of the vegetable: wrinkly, bruised or dull in color all can indicated older produce. Corn husks/tassles, for instance, will be drier to the touch on older ears.


CFSA: Share your tips for a great farmers market experience. What should shoppers bring to market? What should first-time shoppers expect to find?

ST: Go first thing when they open for the best selection, if you can. Bring your own basket or reusable bags. Bring a large tote if you know you’ll shop several stalls, we often have patrons leave their purchase from one farm on a table elsewhere, and if you have a good size bag to carry everything you won’t leave things behind as you shop. A large, wide bottomed basket is very handy, and helps keep fragile things from getting squished. Bring a cooler bag for frozen meats, eggs, dairy and cheeses. Look up the market online and check out which vendors/products will be there so you can have a game plan. If there is something you know you want, and you’ll be later in the day to arrive, call or email the farmer to see if they will hold something for you. Many will do this, especially if you are a regular or introduce yourself ahead of time.


Shopping at the Uptown Market.

Shopping at the Uptown Market. Photo credit: Uptown Greenwood

CFSA: What’s the word on haggling for a better deal with your farmer: bad etiquette or acceptable practice? Other good tips for farmers market etiquette?

ST: Good manners are good manners anywhere you go. Certainly ask politely if you can get a better price per pound if you buy at least $25, for example. If you taste a sample and don’t like it, say “Thank you, have a nice day”, and walk on. There’s no need to insult the vendor. They KNOW if, for instance, other vendors have squash at a lower price. They all watch each other. No one appreciates the “You’re proud of that squash aren’t you?” comments. Certainly, you could say- “Tell me about your squash?” and you might learn it’s organic or a special variety, or it’s the last of their crop.


Pitt County Farmers Market

Pitt County Farmers Market

CFSA: If you were throwing a party for friends in July, what would be in your farmers market shopping bag? On the menu?

ST: Roasted vegetable salad – this can be anything thrown in a pan with olive oil and roasted in the oven and then cooled, tossed in vinaigrette and put on top of greens/lettuce. Add some goat cheese or your favorite local cheese, if you like. This sort of dish is flexible to what is available at the market that week and can include, corn, tomatoes, and squash or sweet potatoes, onions and beets. I’m a vegetarian, but several of my farmers recommend stuffing zucchini or delicata squash with pork sausage as a hearty entrée. I’m also a fan of the good old cucumber/tomato/onion salad. Watermelon for dessert! Or a berry cobbler, if I was feeling ambitious.


CFSA: If you were interested in doing a big summer project, like canning tomatoes or making jam, and needed to buy a large quantity of produce, how would you do that at the farmers market?

ST: I wouldn’t suggest just showing up with a large produce need without doing a little research and finding some farmers to contact directly to discuss your needs. Sometimes you can request their bruised tomatoes for instance, for sauce, and get a better price and help the farmer move produce they might not normally even bring to market.


CFSA: Why is it important to ‘know your food, know your farmer?’

ST: I think what we choose to eat is the best way to show ourselves some love. Knowing your food is in our roots, and hopefully now a bigger part of our future. Many folks are now getting away from the industrial era, processed foods and back to basic, real food. It used to be that for most of what you ate, you either grew it, raised it yourself, or one of your neighbors did. I think it is a privilege these days to have access to locally produced foods, and we all should get to know the farmers, cheer on their successes, and lend support wherever we can. They don’t take many ‘days off,’ let alone a vacation, and for most, their farm is their passion. It is not an easy profession, and certainly not a way to get rich. So, when someone’s purpose in life is to produce REAL food for you and your family, and to keep money in the local economy, how can you not support them?

Stephanie Turner is the Farmers Market Manager at the Uptown Market in Greenwood, SC. Learn more about this market at


Getting Ready for the Farmers’ Market: Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food

Travelers Rest Farmers' Market

Travelers Rest Farmers’ Market

By Ciranna Bird, CFSA Member and Medical Writer for Farmers.

Spring is here and it’s time to get fresh fruit, vegetables, meat, eggs, and dairy products from your local farmers’ market! Some of these products get sold out quickly in the day, so arrive early and bring a cooler to keep your items cold while you do the rest of your shopping.

Learn about the types of markets, questions to ask your farmer and practical ways to support your local farmers to ensure they can stay in business for years to come.



Market Type: What’s the percentage of growers vs resellers at your farmers’ market?

The first thing you want to know is your market’s ratio of growers, resellers, artists, and value added product vendors. Growers are the farmers that are selling plants, fruits, vegetables, meat, dairy, and eggs they have grown, raised and harvested.  In contrast, resellers buy unprocessed fruits, vegetables, meat and eggs from growers and resell these unprocessed products. Artists sell items they have created such as pottery, photography, flip flops, jewelry, candles, woodworking and soap.  Value added product vendors use ingredients bought from growers and transform them via processes such as baking, canning, or juicing. Baked goods, juice, jams, pickles, dog bones, and lamb’s wool dryer balls are all value added products.

Travelers Rest Farmers' Market peppers

Travelers Rest Farmers’ Market peppers

Each market has a different policy on the amount of booths occupied by non-growers. To learn about your market’s policy have a conversation with its market manager.  You can do this prior to attending, or in person at the market manager’s booth.

For this article, I interviewed Adrienne Hawkins, the market manager of the Travelers Rest Farmers Market. At her market, which is the largest independent non-profit farmers market in South Carolina, 50% of the Travelers Rest Farmers Market vendors are growers, 0% are resellers, 20% are artists, and 30% are vendors that make value added products from scratch and have at least one ingredient sown, grown and harvested within a 100 mile radius of the town.  A market that has no resellers is great if you are looking to do your weekly grocery shopping and buy from local farmers.  In case you are shopping at a market that allow resellers, here are some questions to ask the vendors.

Travelers Rest Farmers' Market

Travelers Rest Farmers’ Market

1.  Which products at your stand are the ones that you grew/raised/harvested yourself?
2.  Where do you source these other products?
3.  How many of the ingredients for this jam, bread, jar of pickles were sown, grown and harvested within 100 miles of here? 

Questions to ask your growers, more commonly known as your farmers:

This past weekend, I field tested some of the following questions at my local farmers’ market.

The best questions are open-ended rather than yes or no questions, because they allow the farmers’ expertise and passion to shine.

When I mentioned my natural tendency to avoid making eye contact to the farmers I spoke with, I learned I’m not the only shopper who keeps their eyes glued on the fruit and vegetables until they know they are ready to make a purchase. The farmers reassured me that they enjoy the opportunity to share details about their work regardless of the customer’s ability to buy something from them on that particular day.

Also, try to choose a time when your farmer isn’t swamped with customers; and remember that in order for them to stay in business, they must be able to attend to all the people at their booth.

Are these fruits and vegetables organic?

Organic produce certified by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) is the gold standard for shoppers concerned about soil fertility, the use of environmentally safe products, and the biodiversity of crops and animals. These vegetables and fruits are grown on soil that hasn’t been treated with synthetic fertilizers, herbicides or insecticides for at least three years. The USDA certification assures you that your farmer has a written plan to cycle resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity.  The farm is annually inspected and maintains the following records: soil and water test results, pest and disease monitoring logs, tillage and cultivation logs, planting and harvest records, post-harvest handling and storage reports, field activity records, and product sales records.

Certified Organic at the Travelers Rest Farmers' Market

Certified Organic at the Travelers Rest Farmers’ Market

It is important to note that there are not a lot of farmers at markets in the Carolinas that are organically certified by the USDA. In 2009, the North Carolina State University Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics conducted a Farmers’ Markets in Central North Carolina survey. Of the 75 farmers that responded only a small percentage certified organic produce (1). As of April 2016, the USDA Organic Integrity Database lists 133 farms in North Carolina, and 29 farms in South Carolina that are registered to grow organically certified vegetables and fruits (2).

If the vegetables and fruits are not organically certified by the USDA, you can still ask the farmer about the following sustainability practices.

4.  How many of your vegetables and fruits are grown from certified organic seeds and transplants?
5.  How do you handle pests and weeds?
6.  What motivates you to handle the pests and weeds in this manner?

Tips for buying eggs, dairy products, and meat at the farmer’s market:

If you have forgotten your cooler, ask your farmer if they would be willing to keep your purchased items in their cooled space while you finish shopping, checking out cooking demonstrations, and soaking in the community atmosphere of the farmers market.

Forx Farm cheese at the Travelers Rest Farmers' Market

Forx Farm cheese at the Travelers Rest Farmers’ Market


To prevent cross-contamination use a separate bag to hold your eggs, from the bag that holds your vegetables and fruits. Insider tips: Eggs sold at market in NC may not be washed (which is a good thing!) and still have a natural protective coating on their shells. Remember to rinse the eggs with warm running drinking water from your sink right before you cook and eat them.

USDA certified organic meat, dairy or eggs has come from livestock that have received at least 30% of their nutrition from pasture with a minimum of 120 days of grazing per year; have been fed organic and non-genetically modified food, and have not been treated with antibiotics (3). Even if the meat, dairy, or eggs are not USDA organically certified you can ask you farmer about their practices.

7.  What do you feed your chickens, pigs, lamb, goats, or cows?
8.  What is your policy on the use of antibiotics or hormones?
9.  How much access to the outdoors do your animals have?

Support the farmers who follow the practices you value:

Asking the questions above will help you find the farmers who maintain and improve soil fertility, conserve resources, manage pests in way that is safe for the environment, preserve and enhance biodiversity of crops and animals, and/or care for their livestock humanely. Here are follow-up questions to help them stay in business.

10.  What’s the best way to stay in contact with you? (Facebook, e-mail, website, Instagram)
11.  What farming associations or certification programs do you belong to?
12.  Aside from buying your products, are there other ways I can support your farm?    

You’ll be surprised on what fun activities your farmer may suggest. It may include posting pictures and positive reviews on the social media channels they use. In response to this question, I got a few invitations to become a farm hand for a day from in exchange for a tour. You can also join, volunteer and read newsletters from farming associations they belong to, in order to stay current with the issues they face.

Now that you have plenty of questions to ask, get out to your local farmers’ market and connect with your farmers. To find the market closest to you, visit the NC Farm Fresh website or the South Carolina Department of Agriculture website.


Another great way to support your farmers? Join CFSA! We’re working towards a food future that is good for consumers, good for farmers and farmworkers, and good for the land.

Pittsboro Farmers' Market, photo by Lea Ciceraro

Pittsboro Farmers’ Market, photo by Lea Ciceraro –

Ciranna Bird helps local farmers educate their customers on the health benefits related to small-scale pasture-based production of meat, dairy, and eggs. In July, she will present a workshop entitled, Keep your hens, customers, and family healthy; Prevent foodborne diseases caused by Salmonella at the Inter-faith Food Shuttle. She loves touring farms, attending CFSA events, and writing articles and website content that promotes local farmers. Prior to becoming a medical writer for farmers, Ciranna was a supervisor of a public health microbiology laboratory. She has a Master degree in Epidemiology.


  1. Renkow M, Georgiade, N. Farmer’s Markets in Central North Carolina: Who buys, who sells, and why. Dept. of Agricultural and Resource Economics, North Carolina State University; 2011.
  2. Organic INTEGRITY Database. Search conducted on April 8, 2016.
  3. US Department of Agriculture. Organic Labeling at Farmers Markets. USDA National Organic Program, Marketing Service; 2015. Pg. 1

How To Get Kids To Eat Local? Use a Super-Computer!

by Susan Sink, CFSA member and 

Getting kids to eat local

Each week as you walk through the farmers’ market or pick up your CSA box of beautiful organic veggies, you expect to see changes to the lineup. This can be challenging when you are trying to feed children that have grown to expect the same thing in each aisle of the grocery store every week of the year. Many of our modern cook books are written around the experience of modern-day grocery stores – with ingredients from around the world. So the question becomes how do we pass on the a unique experience of shopping with local farmers each week for seasonal food to the next generation in a way that they feel compelled to explore? Providing a path that embraces their lifestyle of convenience and customization?

About eighteen months ago, I was given the opportunity to beta-test IBM’s Chef Watson program. It’s a ‘cloud-based’ program using super-computers to make decisions and create inspirational recipes based on existing tested recipes from Bon Appetit combined with a vast amount of ‘big data’ about food chemistry and food pairings from various sources. Using all of that information with the set of ingredients that you choose in the program, it creates unique recipes for each user. You have the ability to choose preferences for culture, dietary restrictions and seasonal changes. And the program developers are not stopping there. As the programming team moves forward, there is a push to help folks deal with wasted items, abundance, dietary restrictions and health management.


Photo by Jennifer Jaskolka

It sounds unconventional to use a computer to develop recipes, but I simply think of this application as a giant reservoir of unwritten cookbooks. You can create your own personal ‘edition’ of a cookbook with this program. It can be influenced by your local farmers’ market, your weekly CSA box, your dietary requirements or your need to simply explore food. It’s flexible. You decide which ingredients to use, the type of dish, cultural influence and dietary restrictions. Each time you make a selection, the computer generates new recipes for you. Thousands of calculations boiled down to recipes you can make in your home with your kids or friends, exploring everything your local farmers grow throughout the year.


Getting Kids Hooked on the Farmers’ Market 


Photo by Casey Boone

If I haven’t hooked you yet into trying this program out, let me explain how I’ve been using it in my farmers’ market cooking classes for a year. Typically, the kids and I shop the market at the beginning of each class so they can talk to the farmers and make an important emotional connection to the food and understand how seasons and weather influence what is available. I’ve generally got an idea of what we are going to make so we start with a shopping list of required items and add flexible ingredients because I’ve brought several variations of the same recipe from Chef Watson. The kids get to decide which variations we will be making so they are more inclined to experiment and try new flavors during class. Interacting with each other becomes as much a learning experience for them as it does for me.

Most of the time, the market managers will ask me to work on a certain food or topic for class. The classes primarily consist of middle-school kids so they are still in that phase of life where they are willing to experiment. The kids’ experience level varies a lot when it comes to cooking. Some kids have some cultural requirements or food allergies, and sometimes I can’t get something I planned on at the market. I need to be flexible and this is where the program is useful in two ways.


Photo by Jennifer Jaskolka

At a recent Frittata class at the UNC Health Center in Cary, I decided to use duck eggs after talking with the vendors at the Western Wake Farmers’ Market. They were having trouble selling them during the high season so it made sense to talk about how to store eggs in the freezer when they are plentiful and use them in recipes instead of chicken eggs. A lot of families have simply never tried to cook with duck or their eggs. Teaching the kids about the size, flavor and color differences between chicken and duck eggs helps them to understand what will pair well and how many to use in a recipe when you make a substitution. But Chef Watson already understands all of those things and I had several recipes that used the vegetables that I knew would be there that weekend, along with cheese I could get from the market vendors. That doesn’t mean other cheese won’t work, it simply demonstrated to the kids that we used what we found at the market and adjusted the recipes accordingly. We had a couple of kids that didn’t eat meat in that class, which was pretty simple to avoid. A couple of kids thought that they might not like the greens, but in the end, they tried the frittatas with the greens and found certain greens were less strong than others when combined with cheese and eggs and they liked the color and flavor of the mixes.


The Secret to Getting Kids To Try New Things

Photo by Jennifer Jaskolka

During a summer class last year at the Durham Farmers’ Market, the “Home Fries” class made spaghetti for breakfast. Carbonara. One of the odd things I discovered using this application with kids in class is that they seem to trust what the computer tells them for food combinations. They are more willing to try things that they might not if I just handed them one recipe. They get to look over several and make decisions. They are invested in their decision and committed to working with it to the end.

I could have totally done this class without the program, but I wanted to give the kids a half dozen recipe combinations to look at before we started shopping and have them make the decisions about what we were going to buy based on what they read in the recipes. The nice thing about the program is that it will also accommodate some typical food allergies now by selecting options like gluten-free, dairy-free or vegetarian. So while I planned to use fresh noodles from one of the market vendors, I could have pushed the recipe to be gluten-free or dairy-free or vegetarian using some of the more recent software enhancements and even pushed it to include some cultural changes to make it more Italian, Indian or Chinese. It might have selected specific herbs, meats, cheeses or changed the technique to fit any of these requests.

The kids were pretty excited when we went to talk with the vendors who explained the differences in the flavors of the greens and what they could expect to find if we made the recipe in the spring, fall or winter with different greens. Meats and cheeses also change during the year, and the program allows you to either create new recipes or adapt saved recipes with substitutions that it provides. So you could change a cheese or the egg type within the existing recipe. Or, you could start over to create a vegetarian and gluten-free recipe that is entirely different!

Chef Watson is a great way to try different flavors found throughout the year. The program is free to use and you can access it at

Which brings me to my last example of how one recipe can accidentally turn into a second recipe from Chef Watson. I started out to make a recipe for pancakes at a “Market Bunch” kids class at Carrboro Farmers’ Market. I’ll admit that pancakes are not my favorite breakfast item and I was really using the application to push my own boundaries a little. There is always the concern at any local market of promoting food in abundance, unusual foods that farmers are trying to market with some challenges, and keeping to a budget that allows everyone to re-create the recipe at home.

During the summer, I use a lot of kefir in smoothies because it’s relatively inexpensive, you can make it at home if you want to and it’s pretty healthy. I thought the tartness might lend itself to interesting pancakes paired with fruit or homemade jams or syrups and as I was shopping the farmers’ market and talking with vendors about my plans, the folks at Chapel Hill Creamery suggested that I try their quark as a replacement for the kefir. I’d never heard of it or used it and I figured most of the kids in the class would be in the same boat. So I took up the challenge and brought some home to develop the recipes for class. The quark is a little like kefir in tartness but more like lebnah in texture so I had to adjust for the thick nature of it in the recipe from Chef Watson. It can vary by maker just like any other cheese so you might have to experiment a little with amounts, which is a good thing in class to teach flexibility.

Susan-Sink-4So with the pancake recipe being scheduled for May, I was a little concerned about the availability of fruit. The weather can wreak havoc on the best of plans, so I had a back up plan to use fruit preserves in the pancakes and honey suckle syrup so that the kids could really customize their individual pancakes by blending the jams into the base recipe or using the syrup as a sweetener in or on top of the pancakes. This is kind of fun because you’ll find all sorts of unusual and delicious preserves and syrups at local markets. The kids got to make their own pancakes, adding in ingredients from the market and the preserves. And when they finished, I adjusted the base recipe to make waffles with fruit by simply changing the way we added the ingredients Whipping the egg whites, adding a couple of additional items to achieve what I can only describe as cheese-cake waffles. Really creamy, light and unexpected. And I’ll admit they are better than the recipe that I’ve used for more than twenty-five years. The perfect accident and it would not have happened without the computer program being guided by locally available products.


A Few Tips to Make Chef Watson Work for You

Susan-Sink-2Each time you begin the process of developing a recipe, the application allows you to select up to four ingredients. And it gives you options for the style of cooking, the type of dish, cultural influences and dietary requirements. As you make selections it creates multiple recipes based on your selections and shows you how well they will work together with a synergy pie chart. If you decide to choose just a couple of ingredients, it will suggest additional ones, giving you the option to accept or decline them. As the recipes appear below your list of ingredients, you can look at the details of each one or return to the ingredient selection process and change them.

When you see recipes you like during the process, you can save them into a personal ‘box’. And if you want to customize the recipes further, the program stores additional substitutions for most of the ingredients, giving you some room to explore variations with friends and family and adjust for seasons, allergies or taste preferences. It will adjust the recipe on the spot for you. It’s a great way to try different flavors found throughout the year. The program is free to use and you can access it at

But please remember, that this is young program and it requires a little interpretation on your part. It’s not perfect but a great starting point to explore what’s local to your area.



You can read more about Susan’s classes at the farmers’ markets in the Triangle and see the recipes at her website,