Santa Cruz County farmers markets: Nine tips to make the most of your trip

Strawberries from Dirty Girl Produce.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

So you’ve read up on the history of the markets and know what to expect when you get there, like which markets accept EBT and to leave Fido at home. In fact, heading to the farmers market and returning home with fresh fruits, vegetables, baked goods and even frozen food is becoming one of the best part of your week. You’ve even made friends with your favorite tomato vendor and can’t wait to try the quiche recipe they shared with you.

You’re on your way to becoming a farmers market pro. These insider tips and tricks will help you get even more out of your farmers market experience. We answer questions like: Should you go early or late? How do you get the best deal? And the one accessory every marketgoer should have on hand.

No. 1: Get there early

If you’re trying to get the best produce (or fresh bread before it sells out), arrive early. While most vendors tend to have ample boxes of extra produce, some fruits and veg, like strawberries, will sell out, so get there before the rush!

No. 2: The one perk to getting there late

If your goal is to get a good deal, but you don’t mind not fulfilling everything on your grocery list, try arriving as the vendors are winding down. You might get a good deal or an extra veg or two!

No. 3: How to get the most bang for your buck

Here are three ways to take advantage of some underrated deals at the market:

  • Produce boxes: Some vendors prepackage a variety of veggies. While they might seem steeply priced for one item, the boxes are packed tightly, have a variety of goods, and the produce is the same quality as you would get in the stall, so be sure to take advantage.
  • Interested in preservation? Farmers markets have you covered: It’s possible to get a great deal on bulk produce for preservation — just check with the vendors.
  • Seconds: You can also ask for seconds, which are the damaged or cosmetically challenged produce items. Vendors will often sell these at a discounted rate. You probably won’t find them on display, but make sure to ask if you don’t mind produce with some defects. Tip: Seconds also make great canning items!

No. 4: Don’t miss the cultural and heritage foods

Don’t worry about feeling hungry while searching for produce. Every market has multiple food vendors and many of them showcase regional and cultural cuisine that can’t be found anywhere else in the county. Depending on which market you visit and the time of year, you can find Salvadorian pupusas; Eastern European pierogis; Chinese bao; Eritrean food; British fried fish; Venezuelan arepas; regional Oaxacan dishes; and so much more.

No. 5: Parking can be tough

Some markets have limited parking. Get there early, or else leave extra time for your trip in case you end up circling the block a few times. Alternately, ride your bike or take public transportation. Bus stops from the METRO are located near every farmers market, and designated bike parking is available at most markets.

No. 6: Take inventory before you buy

Before you buy, do a lap or two to get an idea of what’s available. By doing so, you can discover what exciting produce has come into season just this week (yes, you can find different produce every week!).

Looking around first also allows you to check for the best price and quality. While pricing for produce can be similar among the vendors, it’s worth checking to see if some produce simply looks better or perhaps is priced friendlier for your budget.

No. 7: Don’t need to buy anything? Come for the entertainment!

For your listening pleasure, the Live Oak, Westside, Felton, Scotts Valley and Watsonville markets have free live music scheduled every week. The downtown Santa Cruz market does not have scheduled music, but it does generally have independent artists set up at different spots.

No. 8: Bring your own bags

While most vendors offer paper or plastic bags for fruits and vegetables, not all of them do. Large, grocery-style bags are not available.

This is intentional. Most of the markets have implemented waste-reduction efforts to encourage vendors and marketgoers alike to change some of their market habits. Help them reduce waste by bringing reusable tote bags, produce bags, containers, and even utensils if you plan to eat food.

No. 9: Gluten free? Lactose intolerant? There’s something for everyone

Whatever your dietary needs or preferences, you’ll find something for you at the farmers market. And, unlike the grocery store, the person who made the product you’re interested in buying is likely the one selling it to you. Ask them any questions you have to be sure it’s right for you. That’s what they’re there for!

Dates from Flying Disc Ranch.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

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