Browsing the farmers’ market can yield great deals — but only if you’re a diligent shopper who knows what to look for.
A perfect example: on a recent trip to a New York City market, Frugal Foodie spotted $5 New Jersey blueberries. That’s about what you’d expect for a winter pint at the supermarket, but shockingly high for summer. So Frugal Foodie skipped out on the market and got supermarket blueberries, also from New Jersey, for $1.50 per pint.
What are your best tricks to get good prices at the market? Add these 11 to your repertoire:
Use your phone
Some market organizers, farmers and other vendors offer deals if you use an app like Foursquare or Facebook Places to announce that you’re there. Check-in on Foursquare and Springfield, Ore.’s Springfield Farmers Market will give you free produce on your first visit, while Rick’s Picks at the Grand Army Plaza Greenmarket in Brooklyn N.Y., offers a $2 discount.
Watch your weight
Avoid buying items purchased by the weight that look wet or damp. That water can almost double their weight, says Alicia Myers of Gateway to Saving. If the items are sold in packs or units, weigh them, too, to get the heaviest pint or bag for your money, she says.
Buy in bulk
Last year, Frugal Foodie got a farmer to drop his price from $1.50 to $1 per pound for tomatoes because she wanted 40 pounds to make homemade sauce. If you don’t need enough to justify a bulk discount, team up with a friend or family member to increase the quantity and the savings.
“Based on what was going to be at its best that week [one vendor] would put together varied orders or save, say, a bushel of sweet corn for a customer’s cookout, or a peck of snap beans for someone who planned to can,” says Janet Groene of Solo Woman RV, who frequents markets on her travels. “The farmer saved time and waste and passed part of the savings along to customers.”
Join a CSA
Some farms that offer farm shares and also have a stand at the market include discounts as part of your membership. The Wild Miller Gardens in Lee, N.H., lets consumers pay $300 for a $330 farm stand credit, for example, while Stillman’s at the Turkey Farm in New Braintree, Mass., offers a $325 credit for $300, plus a 20 percent discount on farmers market purchases of its “items of the week.”
Farmers may offer better deals on leftovers at the end of the day, because they don’t want to take items home. “Offer to buy all the remaining product,” says Carrie Rocha of PocketYourDollars.com. “You will likely get a much better price than a normal bulk rate.” The same applies for rainy days, when low turnout makes vendors more inclined to offer discounts.
Ask for financial aid
Seniors age 60 and older on a fixed income may be eligible for coupons to their local farmers market through a USDA grant program this year. In West Virginia, that’s an extra $20 off your bill. Some markets also offer deals for shoppers in a food assistance program, like the 50 percent discount for electronic benefits transfer (EBT) cards at Skowhegan Farmers Market in Skowhegan, Maine.
Buy in peak season
It’s when the produce is likely to be cheapest, from all the competition. Scott Gamm, the founder of HelpSaveMyDollars.com, likes the free app Locavore to figure out what’s freshest near you. Just make sure you know the supermarket prices, too, for easy comparison.
“If there is something you’d really like, but the price just seems too high, there is a chance that they will negotiate with you,” Myers says. Ask for slightly less than you hope to pay, so there’s some wiggle room. The worst they can say is “no.”
Support the community
Locals often get better deals. The Bogert Farmer’s Market in Bozeman, Mt., is offering a $10 button that entitles the bearer to a 10 percent discount at market stalls. That pays for itself for shoppers who spend $100 or more during the market’s season. Others, like the Keys Gate Farmer’s Market in Homestead, Fla., offer deals for residents.
Pick up a deal voucher
Watch for half price coupon vouchers on daily deal sites, such as Groupon or Living Social, Myers says. The Greensboro Downtown Farmers’ Market in Greensboro, N.C., for example, offered a $30 Groupon voucher for $15 in June. Sites like 8Coupons.com help find all the daily deals near you.
Don’t forget to track your spending
No matter how many great deals you score, you still want to keep an eye on how much you’re spending at the farmers’ market. Unlike the grocery store, where you get a grand total at the check-out, buying from different vendors can make it hard to tally your purchases (and thus easier to overspend). Empty your wallet and make a separate ATM withdrawal for your food shopping. Deduct any cash that’s left over when you leave the market to figure out your spending total. Even better, Mint.com users with iPhone can enter in all their farmers’ market spending on the spot with a new manual transaction feature.
Frugal Foodie is a journalist based in New York City who spends her days writing about personal finance and obsessing about what she’ll have for dinner. Chat with her on Twitter through @MintFoodie.