Jessica Leigh Hester is a former senior associate editor at CityLab, covering environment and culture. Her work also appears in the New Yorker, The Atlantic, New York Times, Modern Farmer, Village Voice, Slate, BBC, NPR, and other outlets.
Get your grubby hands out of the produce bin.
On any given summer weekend, you’re bound to find a farmers’ market in some corner of your city. Once there, you’ll find a of mix of vendors peddling produce, flowers, and packaged goods—and plenty of people snapping Instagram photos of mountains of colorful carrots and overflowing berry baskets… sometimes nudging customers out of the way to compose the perfectly artisanal shot.
Recently, CityLab interviewed a number of farmers and vendors at some of our favorite markets. Their responses were overwhelmingly enthusiastic—they love that locals are excited to support small-scale local agriculture. But after a little while, they loosened up and swapped tales of nightmare customers, such as serial produce nibblers or sample snatchers. Then there are the aesthetic elitists, who sniff at the “misshapen” heirloom tomatoes.
Below are some of these vendors’ most common—and most surprising—complaints. They just might help you make the farmers’ market experience more bucolic for everyone.
1) You show up too early…In order to set up those mouthwatering displays, vendors arrive at the market long before it’s open to the public. Even if you see them out and about, don’t try to make a purchase before official market hours. “We get here at 6 a.m. to start setting up, but we’re not really open until 8,” explains a flower vendor from Silver Heights Farm Nursery in Jeffersonville, New York. “I’ve had people come knock on the window of the truck at 6:05,” he adds. “It’s like, give us a minute.” He compares this to banging on, say, the door of a clothing shop before the employees have opened it. “If we were a brick-and-mortar business, they wouldn’t act that way.”
2) … or too late
Sure, it’s convenient to swing by a market to grab a few things on your way home from work. By all means, do so. But understand that produce might be picked over at the end of the day, and if you show up with a long list of requests, it might not be possible to meet them. The Silver Heights Farm vendor pointed out that since his farm is hours away, he can’t go to a storeroom in the back and replenish tomato seedlings. “We run out of stuff. If you didn’t get here, and we’re out, I can’t help you.”
3) You make off with the samples
Sometimes, when booths offer samples, it can be hard to tell whether you're being offered a taste or implicitly agreeing to buy a jar of jam. If you accidentally take a piece of chocolate assuming that it’s free, “we’re not going to chase you down for $.60,” a vendor explained. But here’s a good rule of thumb: When in doubt, ask if something is complimentary, rather than just chowing down.
4) You don’t pay cash
Dana Sutton, from urban+ade in Sharpsburg, Maryland, notes that even though many vendors accept credit cards or use Square, companies charge them fees for those transactions. For farmers with super-tight margins, cash is still the optimal option. But don’t unload a stack of $100 bills, if you can help it. “When people have large bills, it’s really frustrating because we don’t have that much cash,” says Ann Yang, from Washington, D.C.’s Misfit Juicery.
5) You contaminate the goods
Ask before you grab, even though nibbling is often encouraged. “We’re happy to have people sample things, because we want them to know what it tastes like if they’re curious,” says an employee at the Windfall Farm booth at the Union Square Greenmarket in New York. The farm, which is based in Montgomery, New York, sells micro greens stuffed into oversized bins. Help yourself to a leaf, but don’t just plunge your hands into a pile of basil. If there are tongs, use them. Says the employee, “We wash everything before we sell it, and it’s a big faux pas to stick your hands right in the bin.”
And—do we really have to say it?—no double dipping. Roxbury Mountain Maple, which sells syrup, creamy candies, and more at the same market, will often put out samples with single-use spoons. (Emphasis on single use.) If a customer double dips, the staffers have to get rid of that sample, says market manager Rebecca Holscher. “It happens all the time,” she says. “We can take it back to the farm in the Catskills and reboil it to kill any bacteria, but it’s a lot of extra work.”
6) You stop by all the time, but never buy anything
A D.C. farmers’ market vendor—who requested to remain anonymous—gets peeved when customers frequently sample, but never spend. “We see people [who] try the same thing over and over. Like, does it taste the same? Yup! It still tastes the same,” she says. If you like it enough to try it multiple times, it’s probably time to fork over a few bucks to take some with you.
7) You balk at the pricesAn employee at Windfall Farm says customers sometimes give him the side-eye because they feel like he’s gouging them, price-wise. “There’s a misconception that we’re getting rich off of this or taking advantage of people in the city,” he says. His greens cost more than you should expect to shell out in a store, largely because of the increased cost of manual labor. “We do everything by hand,” he explains. “Those are our weed-killers.”
Sometimes, when people remark that the prices are too high, he feels as though the customers are dismissing the value of his time and specialty. He attributes that to a lack of understanding about how much work and strategy actually goes in to planting, tending, and harvesting the crops. “If someone is genuinely curious, I’m happy to explain it,” he adds. “It’s an honest question.” But he says complaints about price sometimes take on an accusatory tone, along the lines of Why do you deserve to get paid a living wage? “I’ll be frank: It’s really insulting when someone is holding an incredibly valuable bag, and I know that their rent is more than I make in a month,” he admits. “It feels a little bit rude.”
8) You’re impatient
Even if you’re in a hurry, try to cut the vendors a little slack. Chances are, they drove down in the middle of the night and are already exhausted. “Market days are 21 hours for us,” explains Holscher. “If I mess up your change slightly, it might be because I didn’t sleep at all.”
Alx Velozo, who has worked at the Stoke’s Farm stand at the Union Square Greenmarket for three years, has noticed that customers can be really disrespectful to each other, as well. “Sometimes they grab for the last of something and push people out of the way,” she says.
9) You don’t respect vendors’ time
“One of the best things you can do is not tell us anything about your life,” says the Windfall Farm vendor. “You can ask me questions about the product, or how we farm, or what we love about the farmer’s market, but I don’t need to know what your sister did yesterday.” He understands that customers want to feel a sense of connection, but also points out that he’s a de facto captive audience—and over the course of a 14-hour shift, hears an overwhelming number of personal chronicles.
Don’t be afraid to ask questions, as long as they’re related to the market. “We educate people. It’s part of the job,” says the Windfall Farm employee. “We’ve become so disconnected from where our food comes from that I definitely don’t fault anyone for asking ‘What is that? I can eat flowers?’”
Zoe Walpuck, one of the CSA intern coordinators at FRESHFARM market in D.C., echoes that sentiment. She says, “I was thinking about how cool it would be if there was some kind of farmers’ market pledge that you could take where you vow to try one new thing each week.” Not sure what kohlrabi is? Buy some brassicas and experiment—just don’t be a jerk while you do it.