Farmers Markets. Photo credit: Talbot Farmers Market.

Get the most out of Ballarat’s farmers markets

Going to one of Ballarat’s farmers markets this weekend? Not sure how to make the most of what’s on offer? We’ve got you covered!

What is a farmers market, anyway?

Farmers markets are usually open-air markets where you buy fresh food direct from local farmers and producers. Many markets have policies which ensure that the produce you buy is produced in the local area, and that the people who sell the food are the same ones who grew or made it.  This means you can talk directly to the producer, and get to know where your food comes from and how it’s grown.

What you’ll find at Ballarat’s regional markets

The main categories of stall you’ll find at the markets around Ballarat include:

  • Fresh, minimally-processed produce such as fruit, vegetables, mushrooms, herbs, eggs, milk, meat, nuts, honey, and grains
  • Value-added food products such as bread, preserves, olive oil, spice blends, smoked and preserved meats and fish
  • Ready-to-eat food stalls such as coffee, smoothies, pastries, and in many cases a sausage sizzle of some kind
  • Flowers and plants
  • Candles, soaps, or other locally-made handcrafted items

The smaller the town, the more mixed the market usually is. It’s mostly the larger towns that have specialty food-only markets.  So if you’re visiting a market in one of the smaller towns or villages around Ballarat, expect to find a wide variety of stalls with local food just one of many things on offer.

Organic, VFMA accredited, and other labels

spring creek organics farmers market sign

Spring Creek advertise their organic produce, grown near Ballarat.

Farmers markets are a great place to find organic produce, and producers who are organically certified will have their certificates clearly displayed.  While not every grower at a farmers market is necessarily organic, many still use low-impact farming methods, and offer products such as “no spray” fruit or pastured meat. Ask them and find out!

In Victoria, the Victorian Farmers Market Association (VFMA) have an accreditation program for market vendors and for markets, to provide assurance that produce is locally grown. That said, VFMA accredit only a small proportion of markets in regional Victoria, and many regional markets set their own guidelines for local vendors instead. VFMA accredited markets close to Ballarat include the Clunes and Bannockburn markets.

Shopping seasonally

With cold winters like Ballarat’s, you know that not everything is going to be in season every month of the year.  You’ll need to keep this in mind, and plan accordingly.

Before you hit the market, check this month’s seasonal produce guide, gather some ideas for meals to cook through the week, and write a list.  But stay flexible – adapting to what’s available is part of the fun.  Consider substitutions, like broccoli for cauliflower, apples for pears, or one type of berry for another.

As you get more familiar with your local markets, you’ll learn which products are available year-round, and which ones are only available for a fleeting season. You’ll also learn how much you can expect to spend on different items at different times of year. While you may spend most of your budget on the stalwart staples, it’s great to have a few bucks over to try something special when it’s at its peak.

garry giving a food demo at a local farmers market

Garry gives tips on cooking with seasonal produce at the Lakeside Smart Living Market.

Some seasonal favourites include:

  • Spring: ramps (garlic tops), snow peas, broad beans, asparagus, tender greens like lettuce
  • Summer: berries, stone fruit, new season’s garlic, tomatoes, basil, zucchini, cucumber, eggplant
  • Autumn: apples, pears, nuts, mushrooms, pumpkins and squashes of all shapes and sizes
  • Winter: sturdy root veg like celeriac and carrots, dark greens like kale and silverbeet

Stallholders: the key to all knowledge?

Farmers markets offer a great opportunity to talk to the vendors about the food they’re selling, and often to taste some too!  Sometimes it can seem awkward to strike up a conversation, but you’re always pretty safe asking where something comes from, how it’s grown, or how to use it.  The stallholders are often full of tips and recipes for using their produce, especially if they are selling more specialised ingredients.

tania from burrum biodynamics at talbot farmers market

Tania from Burrum Biodynamis selling grains and pulses at her Talbot farmers market stall

BYOB (Bring Your Own Bags)

While some stallholders offer plastic bags, you’re really best off bringing your own bags or baskets.  Most produce comes unpackaged, so it’s possible to go plastic-free if you put your loose veggies direct into your carry bag.

If you see a vendor who pre-packages their produce and you’d prefer to have it loose, go ahead and ask.  They might have some unpackaged items tucked away behind the stall, or if you’re a regular customer they may be able to accommodate you at the next market.

In hot weather, you might want to bring an insulated bag with a frozen brick to keep meat and dairy fresh. If you have a lot to buy, a market trolley can be a great idea.  These are widely available at discount stores like the Reject Shop.

In bad weather

It has to be admitted, a farmers market on a freezing, rainy day can be a bit miserable.  Still, the markets generally operate year round in our region, so you can still buy your local produce no matter what the weather is like.

lakeside smart living market on a cold day

Ballarat market-goers rug up in cold weather. The markets run year-round.

If you are shopping on a cold or wet day, rug up well and grab a hot drink to sustain you.  Some markets provide sheltered areas to warm up.  And, there’s one added benefit: you’ll find it easy to park (if you’re driving) and navigate the stalls with fewer crowds!

In hotter weather, remember to slip-slop-slap and keep cool with a drink or fruit from the stalls. As mentioned above, protect your purchases with an insulated bag.

When you get home

When you buy your produce at the market, sometimes it’s packaged differently from supermarket products.  Here’s how to store your farmers market produce so it keeps well, and so you can taste it at its best.

Vegetables: You might want to cut the tops off some vegetables, such as carrots or celery, before putting them in the fridge. You can save the tops to make vegetable stock later!  Many vegetables purchased whole, such as root veg or pumpkins, can be kept at room temperature, especially in cooler weather – you might be surprised how long farmers market produce lasts, compared to supermarket fruit and veg. If you’re not sure how to store something, ask the stallholder.

Eggs: Farmers market eggs are usually laid more recently than supermarket ones, which can be a month old by the time you buy them. Fresh eggs will usually keep well at room temperature for a couple of weeks, but if you’re uncomfortable with that, you can refrigerate them. Ask the stallholder what they recommend!

Cheese: Artisanal cheeses should be stored correctly to appreciate them at their best. Those that come in breathable wrappers will do best in an enclosed container (Tupperware or similar) that provides some humidity.  Let cheeses come to room temperature before eating.

Meat: If meat is vacuum packed (“cryovacced”) it will keep better than the stuff you get on a plastic tray at the supermarket.  It may even keep for up to a few weeks depending on the type and cut.  Of course, you can also freeze meat from the farmers market. Check with the stallholder to see what they recommend.

Bulk dry goods: store grains, nuts, and legumes in well-sealed jars or containers in your pantry. On the off-chance you get mice, pantry moths or other pests, you don’t want them getting into loosely stored plastic bags.  Some whole grains and nuts will stay fresher in the fridge or freezer, so ask the stallholder if you’re not sure.

Olive oil: store in a cool dark place and use as soon as possible to prevent oxidation.

Preserves such as jam and pickles: store in a cool pantry until you open them, then refrigerate and eat within a few weeks, or as advised by the stallholder.

Anything else?

Got any other questions or uncertainties, or got a tip to offer that we missed here?  Drop us a note in the comments below.

Feature image photo credit: Talbot Farmers Market.

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