Every weekend, my town plays host to a fabulous farmers market. Local growers bring their finest produce, meat, eggs, and honey for community members to swarm around and buy in bulk. I’ve always loved wandering the market and chatting with some of the farmers, sampling their products here and there. Unfortunately, I often walk away with only a few small purchases—it’s all my weekly budget allows.
Local food is understandably pricey: it costs a lot of money to grow. Some folks don’t even consider buying local food in fear of breaking the bank. Luckily, I’ve learned a few tricks over the years to stretch my budget and enjoy the harvest:
Realistically, most of the tips listed below will result in your getting one type of food cheaply but only for a short amount of time each season. For instance, the best time to stock up on zucchini is when the fields are overflowing with it, but even then it doesn’t last long. The only thing worse than not buying fresh, local food is buying it and having to throw it away after just a couple of weeks. To make those abundant crops last, you’ll have to properly preserve them.
A quality food dehydrator should only cost about $50 and can be used to dry out squash, apples, bananas, peas, and even meats (jerky!). Dry food takes up very little storage space and can either be eaten as is or rehydrated in winter stews and casseroles. Alternatively, you can choose to freeze your fruits and veggies. There are detailed instructions for freezing any kind of food online, but most can just be chopped and put directly into the freezer. Some foods need to be bathed in boiling water, or blanched, before being frozen.
Canning is a more challenging preservation method, but it’s a great way to enjoy fresh tomatoes all winter long. If you’re feeling up to it, I would definitely recommend taking a class on it, especially because improper canning can result in contaminated food. If you’re into the concept of canning but don’t want to run the risk of eating any harmful bacteria, consider pickling. This technique is a simpler cousin of canning that only requires vinegar, salt, and water. Pickled produce tastes great—especially beets and cucumbers—and can easily be stored in the fridge.
Tip 1: “Seconds”
Have you ever noticed that virtually all of the produce you encounter at the farmers market looks perfectly ripe and unblemished? That’s because most booths will only sell you fruits and veggies in their peak conditions. Consequently, a lot of perfectly fine foods are often discarded and boxed up as “seconds.” Ask a market booth if they have any seconds to score a big box of goodies, often at half the price of “firsts.”
Tip 2: Get CSA Buddies
Signing up for Community Supported Agriculture, or CSA, is a great way to get your produce. Local farmers work with nearby CSAs to deliver a weekly box of harvested goods to each member of the organization. Usually, these packages are delivered right to your neighborhood. CSAs also provide a fun introduction to local produce in that they don’t let you select the contents of your boxes. You only recieve the produce that’s been harvested that week. This gives you the chance to be constantly learning about new foods and the ways you can incorporate them into your cooking. CSA subscriptions tend to be expensive when buying for just one or two people but become better deals when upgrading to “family-size” boxes. These packages are still pretty pricey, but you could always find some CSA buddies to split the cost with! Ask your neighbors or coworkers about establishing a situation like this. In the end, it’s more produce for everyone.
Tip 3: Volunteer on a Farm
If CSAs still seem like a financial stretch, you might consider becoming one of the organization’s “working members.” Some growers will allow CSA members to pay off part of their subscription fees in exchange for a set number of hours of work on their farms. For example, you could knock $100 off a subscription for 12 hours of work over the course of a season. Some generous farmers will even let you work off the entire cost of membership.
If there aren’t any CSAs in your area, try reaching out to some local farms through a university or county government office. Ask if they would be open to you volunteering in exchange for a small amount of their yields. They might be thrilled at the prospect of help, especially during the particularly hectic times of prep and harvest seasons. Farm work isn’t always glamorous, but it’s a great way to learn more about the food you eat and the people in your community. By physically being on a farm, you’ll get the added bonus of being able to choose the produce you receive.
Tip 4: Grow Your Own
You don’t need a farm to grow fresh, tasty produce. Many vegetables and even some fruits are fully capable of growing indoors. Try potting cherry tomatoes, lettuce, herbs, and strawberries. Grow lights are extremely beneficial for indoor plants, but a very sunny window will work almost as well.
If you have a small patch of outdoor space, look into some methods for maximizing your harvest, like biointensive agriculture or square-foot gardening. If you have any friends or neighbors who are also interested in growing produce, you can arrange a swap. Have each person pick a couple of different crops to grow, and come harvest time you’ll end up with twice the variety!
Do you have any tips for finding affordable, fresh food?