Avoid Farmers’ Market Faux Pas

Dear Helena,
I'm a regular at my local farmers' market. Most of the people who come to shop are pretty nice. But some are downright rude. They don't bother to say good morning to the farmers, they manhandle the produce, and, worst of all, they try to bargain. (Interestingly, it's often the richest-looking folks who want to haggle.) Can you set out some basic behavioral guidelines for these people?
—Market Manners

Dear Market Manners,
I talked to some farmers who regularly sell at markets and got their top gripes. Here's what I learned about how they'd like people's manners to improve:

Keep sticker shock to yourself. Whining about the price is less common than it was a few years ago, says Mike Madison, author of Blithe Tomato and owner of Yolo Bulb Farm. This is because people tend to be more educated about the cost of growing organic and the value of local produce. But some customers still harangue stall-holders, says David Winsberg, owner of Happy Quail Farms. "They want to know why the peppers cost so much less at Costco. They really seem to take the price personally."

But complaining is a waste of time, he says: "It's like going to a restaurant. If you don't like the prices on the menu, you don't go in and criticize the chef." In other words, if you think those tomatoes are a ripoff, just take your business elsewhere.

Don't be a buzzard. It might seem reasonable to expect a deal at the end of the day, when farmers may want to offload all their produce before it spoils. But if farmers need to knock down their prices, they will already have done so, Winsberg says. "We call them the buzzards," he explains, referring to customers who swoop in at the end of the day and demand half-price goods. He would rather re-sort the items, reprice them, and sell them at the next market. Or if he's going to donate them, he'll choose "a worthy cause, like Food Runners," not some well-heeled foodie. (Amelia Saltsman, author of The Santa Monica Farmers' Market Cookbook, agrees with the no-haggling rule.)

There is one exception though: when you buy in bulk. Then, say farmers, it's fine to ask for a discount. Just don't expect a protracted bargaining session, Madison says. "It's not like you're in North Africa haggling for three days with a rug seller." Make an offer and a counteroffer, and then either pay the price or move on.

Don't block the aisle. According to Madison, this is "the most consistently annoying thing" about customers' behavior. "Couples walking through the market run into old friends, get talking, run into a few more friends, and soon there's a clump of people completely blocking the farmer's stand." So try to be more aware of your positioning when you stop to gossip.

Don't squeeze and grab everything in sight. Farmers' market produce is more fragile than rock-hard wax-coated apples at your local chain store. While such produce is picked underripe so it can ripen during transport or storage, farmers at the market have often harvested their produce at its prime, so it may be soft and easily bruised. Furthermore, overhandling the merchandise is unsanitary, says Winsberg—and inappropriate in these germ-phobic times. "People pick the produce up and smell it and put it right against their nose. In Europe, you would get your hand slapped right away if you started fondling all the fruit."

Control your kids. Yes, this is an obvious one, but just as some parents let their kids rage out of control in restaurants, they also turn a blind eye as the youngsters mix up signs, knock produce on the ground, or stuff it in their mouths. Winsberg says that kids frequently try to eat the produce at his stall, but since he sells specialty peppers, punishment can be swift. "It can be bad if they grab a really hot one."

You can browse all of Helena's Table Manners columns by topic here. Follow CHOW on Twitter, and become a fan on Facebook.