Farm Market Report: Rittenhouse Square Farmers Market

I work in downtown Philly, and I frequently take walks during lunch. One of my favorite haunts is Rittenhouse Square, a lovely (if somewhat overcrowded) park just a few blocks south of work. Jenn and I did the “Rocky Steps” walk last weekend, and as we headed back towards the train, we cut through the park, and saw signs for the farmers market (which we’d missed).

So I got up this morning and took the train over to Philly. After wandering around for a bit looking for an ATM, I did a quick pass through all of the stands. It definitely is more “market” than “farmers”, although there definitely were some excellent farm stands. My bounty is thusly:

God, help me, I'm taking pictures of produce...
God, help me, I’m taking pictures of produce…

A couple of lovely peaches & plums (OK, I’ve already eaten one of the peaches), some seriously peppery arugula, fairy tale eggplant, colorful sweet peppers, cippolini onions (I know, I know), white sweet potatoes and a couple of not-yet-overripe plantains are buried in the bottom there somewhere…not in the picture is a free-range whole chicken and a little over a pound of dungeness crab clusters (both frozen and not feeling particularly photogenic).

Whoops! I should back up: the plantains and sweet potatoes I found at Sue’s Produce Market, half a block north of Rittenhouse on 18th street. I discovered Sue’s during one of my lunch constitutionals, and grabbed the potatoes & plantains during my walk to the train station yesterday (which is what got me thinking about coming back today for the farmer’s market).

Prices seem pretty high for the produce: the onions were $5 for a pint. The peppers and eggplant were $3 per pint. The peaches and plums seemed kinda pricey, too, but I don’t recall the specifics. I liked the selection, and it was super crowded (with lots of puppies out), but I don’t think I’d make a special trip out to Philly just to make it to the market, but it may become a necessity in the off-season, as this market runs year-round!

Apparently, they also run a mini-market mid-week (Tuesday) which is seasonal: I may start stopping out here during the week to help fill in the gaps in our shopping as they become apparent.

Saving Money on Produce at the Farmers’ Markets

I hear all the time that Farmers’ Markets are so expensive. At one time, I thought the same thing. Over the years, I have changed my mind and now think that not only do I get a better value for my money at the fm, I actually save money!

Here are a few tips to help you save money at the Farmers’ Market:

Avoid the non-produce booths- I love the artisanal booths at the markets. The bread, cheeses, bath products, gourmet salts, and baked goods booths have amazing products! However, if you are on a tight budget then you will want to window shop only. These booths are usually run by the artist/baker/creator and when you have a little extra pocket money I highly suggest you use it to support these independent local artists. The products sold at these booths are high quality and rightfully deserve high quality prices.

Take a lap- Look around at all the different booths offering the produce you are interested in before making a purchase. In general the prices will be comparable, but sometimes a farm is producing more of an item than expected and the price will be a bit lower because of it. Note prices and quality and comparison shop. If one stand has great prices on kale but expensive carrots, buy the kale there and find another stand with a better deal on carrots. By taking your time and checking the prices and quality first you avoid buyer’s remorse.

Buy items that are in season and grow in your area- Currently blueberries, peaches, kale, chard and summer squash are in season in my area. Because those items are so abundant with all the farms at the market, the prices are lower. Since I live in New Jersey, there are not many farms producing pineapples around here. Even so, there is a booth at my local market that always has a few pineapples for sale but they are expensive. If I compare prices on blueberries at the fm to the grocery store, the fm’s prices are cheaper, however the grocery store has better prices on the pineapple and a better selection. Buying “in season” saves you money but it also means fresher, healthier produce. Produce that is shipped to grocery stores is often harvested earlier so it can withstand the long distance shipping experience. Local produce is likely have retained it’s nutrients because it’s picked/harvested closer to being ripe. This means you are getting more nutrients for your dollar. And the nutrients you get from in season produce often correspond to your bodies needs during that season. For example, winter crops include citrus fruits which are loaded with Vitamin C, something that helps boost your immune system which needs to be at it’s best to combat all the colds going around during that time of year.

Buy only what you are capable of consuming or storing- When the booths are brimming with crisp and colorful produce, it’s easy to get carried away. I’ve been guilty of overbuying and subsequently heart broken when some produce went bad because I didn’t get to it. In my experience, the produce I buy at farmers’ markets generally lasts longer than supermarket produce. How much longer depends on where you live, when I lived in Florida it was maybe an extra day or two, in New Jersey I usually can get an extra week. That being said, I try to only buy what I need for the week. If you are planning on canning or freezing then you should still keep in mind how much you are capable of canning/freezing and your storage capacity before purchasing. Throwing produce away is like taking money and putting it down the garbage disposal.

Along the same lines, keep in mind how soon you plan on preparing each item and how fresh that item looks. For example, if you plan on preparing broccoli the day you are buying it, you may feel satisfied with a cheaper bunch of broccoli that may be a few days old and spending that savings on a basket of peaches that are freshly picked that you will be consuming all week

Make a meal plan and create a list to avoid impulse buys-  Each week I create a meal plan for the week. I start by determining what is in season. Epicurious has a great resource for this here. Many farmers’ market’s websites also list this information. After building my meal plan I create a shopping list that I take with me to the market. Sticking to the list helps me save money and reduces waste. I don’t use this as an excuse to not go out of my comfort zone though. If I see an item that I have not tried or have been wanting to get my hands on, I see if I can swap it with another ingredient. If not, I will check with the person running the stand to see if the item is expected to be back next week. If so, I will build it into the plan next week. If not, I will usually splurge on it. I try to give myself wiggle room but by constraining myself to the list 90% of the time I usually stay on budget!

Go closer to market closing- This tip is risky! Most farmers don’t want to return from the farmers’ markets with a lot of produce unsold. So, sometimes you can find great deals at the end of the day. There are two risks to this strategy. First, the produce you are looking for is gone. Corn season is big here in New Jersey and at a local market, a local farmer pulls up a truck of corn on Saturday morning and there is a line at that truck all day. When it’s gone it’s gone. Second, the items that are left are not the “pick of the litter”. But, you may get a smoking deal on produce that is still fresher than you may find at the grocery store.


What tips do you have to save money at the Farmers’ Market?

Farm Market Report: Stockton Farm Market, Honey Brook Farms & Blue Moon Acres

We got a kind of late start to our day, but headed north anyway to Stockton, which is about 20 minutes north of Trenton on Route 29. I love the drive along the river, through Washington’s Crossing, past Belle Bump and through Lambertville. On our last wander through this part of the state, we’d stopped at a lovely little grocery and picked up some nice grapes, olives and portabello mushrooms.

So when I found an article in New Jersey Monthly listing a bunch of NJ Farmer’s Markets included one in Stockton, we decided that we had to check it out.

When we arrived at the Stockton Farm Market, parking was somewhat difficult to find, but it wasn’t too bad. Walking in, we were immediately taken with the table of fresh, interesting vegetables (including garlic scapes and a few interesting greens, and fresh raw milk!). We didn’t buy anything right away, because we’d already done our market shopping for the week and wanted to see what inspiration might strike.

Unfortunately, that proved to be the only real fresh food stand. Everything else was baked goods, or cheeses, or artisan foods like balsamic jellies and other interesting carbs. It all looked mighty tasty, but way outside of our current carbohydrate tolerance.

Wandering through the building, we did see one or two other stands with a small amount of produce, but nothing particularly robust. Mostly it was artisan stuff, and mostly kinda pretentious. $10 for a bunch of fresh lavender? $7.99 a pound for garlic scapes (that were picked too late, being mostly woody and tough)?

Ultimately, we were in and out of the market in about twenty minutes, as the level of pretentiousness really started to grate on both of us. At one point, Jenn stood in front of a cheese table with no one else around her, and the proprietor stood there and ignored her for a full three minutes. I’m not sure what this marketing approach is supposed to prove, but all it did was chase us and our dollars out the door.

Since we were in the Mercer County area, we decided to head over to Honey Brook Organic Farms, one of the oldest and most successful CSA farms in the area. Their outlet in Pennington includes the pick-your-own option, where CSA members can come out with their family and go pull their produce as part of their CSA membership. There’s also a lot of veggies that have already been picked that members can just collect as part of their weekly allotment. They seemed very busy for being so isolated, and the vibe was cool. We weren’t members (and aren’t really thinking of joining this late in the season), so there wasn’t much for us there, but we were glad we visited anyway.

On the way out to Honey Brook, we passed by signs for Blue Moon Acres, another farm with a nice little shop. Seeing as we still needed rosemary and few other things, we decided to pop in for a quick visit. As we pulled in the driveway, it looked like they were setting up for a wedding or other banquet — as the signs all around eventually told us, they were hosting a Farm-to-Table meal featuring Chef Scott Anderson of Elements restaurant in Princeton. If we’d done a little better planning, we definitely would have hung in for the event. They have others coming up, including a Farm-to-Grill event that I think we’re definitely going to have to check out!