Treat your farmers’ market like your grocery store. That’s my motto (when I’m not on the road).

My problem, though, is I can no more carry all the goods in two arms than I can the goods from my actual grocery store. We used to have a red wagon and toted a two-year-old daughter along with dozens of ears of corn and other veg. But the wagon is long gone, and we don’t own a shopping cart or any kind of cart. Given how I’m always traveling, it was not a far stretch to put my bag to better use.

That’s what I did ten days ago when I needed a lot of food for the week. Packed everything in a suitcase. Made everything so much easier. Takes up less room than a cart or a wagon (or a baby stroller, for that matter). Highly recommend.

Now that I’m thinking about it, can I suggest to those who run farmers’ or better, growers’, markets that you find ways to make purchasing the goods easier. For instance, there ought to be a way to pay more efficiently. I wish each vendor could simply give me a slip of what I owed and I could pay at the end, like at a grocery store. The manager of the market would then pay all the vendors at the end of the day. When I buy a carton of milk at the grocery store, I don’t put money in a slot, and then move on to purchase a chicken, stop and pay again. Couldn’t a farmers’ market operate more like a grocery store?

Someone (calling Will Turnage) should write an app that would allow all vendors to simply put in a price and send it to the market checkout counter. People who used the market regularly would have an account. Each vendor would enter the amount owed. The shopper would swipe their card, or do PayPal or whatever, on their way out and be on their way. The app would tabulate all vendors’ sales for the day and direct-deposit the cash the next business day. The efficiency of purchase would increase sales enormously and more than pay for the costs of what such an app would cost for the 8,000-odd markets in the U.S.

Until then, I’ll trudge along, roller bag following me like an obedient pup on a leash, stopping and paying, stopping and paying.

The haul, FYI, was this, and how lucky am I to be able to buy and cook this wonderful food:

Spring Onions, Gouda-style cheese, a variety of lettuces, tomatoes, 1/2 pound shiitakes, 2 pounds spareribs, 1 quart of spectacular milk, 12 bangers, rhubarb, white spelt, whole wheat flour, oats, 4 pork chops, 2 pounds chicken feet, 2 ducks, 2 chickens, 1 pound chicken livers. Cost: $146.05. Or: 50 pounds of food @ $3/pound. More than reasonable. Those ribs, for instance, were $12, and served three people with leftovers. Special thanks to Donita Anderson for starting the North Union Farmers’ Market more than 20 years ago. And now it’s far from alone. Debbi Snook lays out the dozens of markets in Northern Ohio. Happily this kind of thing is happening all over the country.

Summer’s here.

If you liked this post, check out these other links:

© 2014 Michael Ruhlman. Photo © 2014 Donna Turner Ruhlman. All rights reserved.


36 Wonderful responses to “Packing It In
At the Farmers’ Market”

  • Natalie Luffer

    When there are only 2 to feed, it is so hard to go to a Farmers Market because the choices and the imaginations far outweigh our ability to eat it all.

    Nevertheless, farmers markets bring me back to childhood when Saturdays were spent at the market and a great lunch at one of the outdoor restaurants.

  • Angela Alaimo

    The little old ladies in Chinatown (NYC) use suitcases for their shopping. Good to see the idea spreading!

    Now get some real shoes, will ya?

  • Janet Griffing

    Would you want to see that same model employed at the West Side Market? There’s efficient – and your suggested procedure would certainly be efficient – and then there’s the spirit and heart of the transaction. Yes, you would still be making a personal connection with the person selling you their product, but there is something profound about the financial exchange. You hand them the fruits of your labor in trade for the fruits of theirs.

    (As an aside: I finally admitted that at age 60, I simply couldn’t carry multiple bags of meats, breads, and veggies around the WSM. Just bought a wonderful wheeled cart that even holds my soft-sided cooler. I spent more because I could carry more!)

  • Sara

    For those of us who find farmer’s markets to be a tad on the time-consuming and tedious side, a local business here in CT now offers a delivery service. They go to all of the local farms, pick up whatever you order and delivery it to your door (there are fees of course). It’s fantastic for those of us who struggle to get to the market. I’m not affliated, just a happy customer.

    • Mary

      Be away that this service you speak of takes their fee from the farmers and food artisans themselves-and it is considerable-20-25%! As a small biz food artisan that makes most of our yearly revenue from farm markets you should be aware of the cost to small business owners that your need for convenience generates. We get up at 4 AM every weekend day to get to the markets we participate in. Sorry, but I’m not that sympathetic to M-F 9-5ers that have such a hard time rolling out of bed on Saturday to get to your local market to get the good items. Just get up and support your local farmers and food artisans.

      • Nanci

        Mary – I could not agree more. Thanks for posting so I would not rant!

      • Sara

        How lovely to read such a helpful comment. You are right, anyone who: has to work when their local market is, or is disabled and finds it difficult to get around marketplaces, or has many small children and finds it difficult to get around a farmers market and actually look at anything, or really any other personal and completely valid reason for not being able to make it should certainly shop only at supermarkets instead of being glad that there are services that offer to pick-up farm foods for them and deliver them. Good call, I forget that fresh, local food is only for those who you approve of.

  • Katy Kafantaris

    Hi Michael…Great article and GREAT idea for a mobile app!!

    I also agree that we are very fortunate to have the North Union Farmer’s Markets!…Appreciate the suitcase tip, since I work on a computer so much I have carpal and ulnar nerve issues and THAT would help greatly! (Those big tote bags are killer after awhile at WSM and the farmer’s markets!)

  • John Schneider

    As a vendor at multiple markets I like your ideas here. Our markets here in Edmonton border on the ridiculous as far as size and crowds go. Many of our customers refuse to participate, opting for our retail outlets, because the ability to shop for groceries is unthinkable. Parking problems. Double wide strollers pushed by latte wielding tourists stopping at the craft booths make it hard at times to do any actual food shopping. I’ve always wished for farmers markets to be more focused on farmers. Loved your Growers Market comment!

  • Randy martinez

    Thank god someone stands up and says something. It would be nice if their was a little price competition. Not everyone has to sell their peaches at 2.50 a pound.

  • Clio

    I shop at the Farmer’s Market here in Santa Rosa every week. I get my cash, my bags and off I go. I go early and park close, realizing that it involves multiple trips. Many of our vendors will accept ATM via iPhone payment. I like digging through my coin purse like an old Greek lady and chatting up the farmers.

    I don’t want the payment centralized, I want to pay the person who grows my food directly, it’s the one place in my life where I am actually making a choice to not send my dollars to some anonymous corporation. It’s my form of gratitude to the farmer, a gesture of thanks. It’s an age old human ritual.

    I gave up on the wheeled euro bag because people just kept tripping all over it, they are not used to watching out for it. I carry the take home bags and fill by items. Dairy, meat, vegetables, fruit etc. It’s my weekly pleasure.

    • Jennifer @ Delicious Everyday

      Couldn’t agree more! I love dealing with the individual stall holders directly, and totally agree it is a way I can show my thanks and support to the grower/producer. And I feel it is all the more important to do so here in Australia where we have a supermarket duopoly and those supermarkets are using stand-over tactics (such as removing products from shelves until agreements are reached) to force farmers into unreasonable pricing agreements.

  • Tom Abella

    I can think of one difficulty markets would have with that app–shoplifting. Right now, you can keep a good eye on the people around your individual stall and make sure they don’t leave without paying. Once they can walk away into the rest of the market without paying, you’re opening up more chances for someone to leave without paying. In some markets it won’t be a problem, but I have a feeling the cost of securing the perimeter would offset the improvements of the app.

  • Gayle

    Many markets, including the one I manage, have a centralized market token system where customers can use a credit or SNAP card to purchase tokens accepted by all vendors. While it’s not a central checkout (impossible in our situation due to the likelihood of shoplifting) it does allow all customers to come without cash and allows food stamp customers to participate in the markets which they had previously been excluded from. Plus, credit card transactions can carry a hefty fee which hits small producers hard. We have eliminated the need for them to accept credit cards and saved them money.

  • Madeline M

    I love our LocallyGrown market- each week on Friday the farmers list on the website what they have to sell (and in what quantity) and members ($25/yr) place their orders. Then the farmers deliver it to the pickup spots (your choice of 3) at a pre-determined time. They also hold an open market one night a week spring thru fall.

  • Matt Novak

    I think, when you get a chance, go to Detroit’s Eastern Market. It is by far the best farmers market that I have ever seem. Stating that, it would be far too cumbersome to implement your payment idea. This place is an experience like no other with farm goods of veg, meats, prepared food, food vendors, restaurants and bars packed into a several square block area of the main regional produce terminal. I’d love to host you and introduce you to some of our farmers.

  • Tom

    Interesting idea for the payment app, but it would require enclosing the market or somehow restricting ingress/egress. Otherwise, bad people will simply walk away without paying. That would be hard to do when it would have to be put up and knocked down every time the market opens.

  • Sandra Kay Miller

    As both a vendor and an organizer at several farmers markets over many years, I can tell you that kind of “convenience” would be a logistical nightmare as not all farmers are as tech savvy as their customers and the market organizers have enough on their plates to worry about. Plus, many do what they do simply for the independence and would not be comfortable with someone else handling their income or waiting for a check to be issued. Direct customer sales have been a cash business for hundreds, if not thousands of years so I suggest you hit the ATM prior to market. We’ll always find way to make change.

  • Heidi

    I love that you bought 2 pounds of chicken feet! My store carries them, but I am not sure what to do with them. What are you going to do with them?

  • Bob

    Aww gee, it took a few extra minutes for you to communicate face to face with and individually pay each vendor from whom you purchased your desired goods at probably lower than fair market value? Damn, that’s a real shame.

    If it makes you feel better, it probably took many of those vendors much longer than a few extra minutes to cultivate, craft, package and transport all that stuff to one spot so you could complain about the inefficiencies.

  • Blayne

    I agree with those who point out that it would be nearly impossible to prevent shoplifting. Even at my market, The Coit Road Farmers Market, which is one of the few markets that has it’s own building, there are multiple entry and exit points. It would be a security nightmare.

    And since someone mention the SAP/EBT /food stamps issue, can I mention that, while it’s awesome people can use them at farmers markets and the “produce perks” program is fabulous, those giant wooden coins they issue at NUFM are the pits. They may not seem giant if you are only spending a buck or two, but try buying $60 worth of meat with them. You have to stand there and count out 60 large wooden coins, thereby holding up the line, and making it very clear to your fellow shoppers that you are using “food stamps,” as we called them in the old days. It would be nice if they had the coins in larger denominations than $1 each.

    • Catt Fields White

      Blayne, I agree about how cumbersome the tokens are, but the $1 limit on token denomination is specified by the USDA, which regulates the EBT system.

  • Sarah Galvin (All Our Fingers in the Pie)

    As a farmers’ market vendor in a small city and as a shopper at a farmers’ market in a big city, that’s just the way it is! It isn’t big business (usually) and there is a lot of volunteer work that goes into making them run. If a market is lucky, they can pay a manager but it’s still small. On the other hand, I find that individual members bend over backwards to help out their purchasers, even helping them carry out large orders.

  • Betty

    I noticed in your photo that you are carrying a carton of eggs. Was that just a coincidence or forethought? I’m imagining the potential for a hard-to-clean disaster.

    Although carrying cash and the payment process are a bit less convenient I feel that it’s part of the personal relationship of buying direct from the farmer. It adds something to the overall experience that I enjoy.

  • ChefJayTay

    I am a vendor in 11 markets a week in Sonoma & Marin Counties. What you suggest is a beautiful idea, perhaps achievable with technology

  • ChefJayTay

    I am a vendor in 11 markets a week in Sonoma & Marin Counties. What you suggest is a beautiful idea from an outsiders’ perspective. Perhaps achievable with technology, but an incredible headache in reality.
    Let’s start with certified farmers’ markets are run by farms, non profits, or government entity in CA by law. These organizations are often run on shoestring budgets by low paid managers and volunteers interested in the benefits of a local market. The vast majority of markets could never afford such infrastructure, nor do all vendors trust market management with their sales.
    Even worse, CA puts the burden of certifying vendors actually grow what they sell (when both are county certified by annual inspection) on the market running on a shoestring budget and needing vendors to stay operating.

  • Susie

    The centralized method of paying is already in effect in Oldtown Scottsdale. It makes for a very convenient and speedy checkout, and a more enjoyable market experience.

  • Jasmin

    So love that you are rocking that C of C shirt! Says an alumna who graduated in the dark 20th century.

    At any rate, I rather like talking to the vendors directly. So while a centralized payment system may be more convenient, well, I feel that actually taking the time to get your keester to the market, being out in the open air, listening to the chatter and banter–it’s all part of the experience. Soak up the atmosphere, you know?

  • Joshua Weissman

    Very resourceful using your suitcase! If I’m not traveling I usually use reusable bags and bring a friend that way I can double my haul.

  • Kellen Ferkey

    In regards to the APP mentioned, it would be great to have a PO established with the ‘fence’ at the end of shopping trip. This would help with the reimbursement and reciepts and such that I, as a chef in a subsidized restaurant, need to provide to my tenders. But as we all know, this would be difficult with many vendors. The Amish in particular would be quite hindered by this process. I love my local market as quirky as it is. But making purchases for my restaurant is quite an adventure.

  • Louis Coker

    I am on the last leg of a two week stay in Italy, Rome and cities to the north. When I travel, I always go to the open air markets, see fabulous stuff and take lots of pics. Locals always have those big net bags or little market carts on wheels. You need one of those so you don’t look like a lost tourist! By the way, I was raised in Charleston, so couldn’t help noticing your tee shirt. You have good taste in wearing appeal! Is there a story behind it? Keep the Friday drinks column going, been enjoying Sidecars lately.

  • Chuck shaw

    Brilliant idea. It is such a pain to pay then pay again. A centralized system would be awesome.

  • Don

    Your payment idea sounds possible as long as you have a gated market.

    I live in Rochester NY and our public Market has been going year round for 109 years. It’s the place to be and be seen on a Saturday morning. We get farmers from all over the Finger Lakes selling grass fed meats, cheeses, wine, fresh veggies etc. this market is big. Think Pike’s Place on steroids. It’s the longest continually running public market in the United States. There’s even an Italian family that invites Rochestarians to Italy in the fall to help pick olives which end up back here in the form of olive oil. You can stay on the farm for free as long as you help out. There’s knife sharpeners, a guy who started a spice company and his spices are amazing and not a rip off ( he has every spice you can think of).

    Here’s something that people don’t understand about a farmers market. You don’t have to buy a quart or what ever size they’re selling. If I need one jalapeño, I can go up to any farmer selling containers of jalapeños, hand him a quarter and they’ll give me one or two. We also have what’s referred to as a market cart. I’ve never seen them in other cities. They fold flat for transportation.


  1.  How To Help Small Farmers:A Farmer’s Words | Michael Ruhlman