Editorial Policy

Heading to the farmers market? More plastic accepted

Allie Johnson

August 6, 2015

On a Saturday morning at the farmers market, you grab a bag of arugula, a bunch of purple carrots or a carton of duck eggs then realize you're short on cash. But dinner isn't necessarily toast – you might be able to swipe your card.

More individual vendors at farmers markets are accepting credit and debit cards. And some markets have started programs that allow consumers to use plastic to buy tokens that are accepted at any booth in the market, says Ben Feldman, food and farming program director at the Ecology Center, a California nonprofit organization that focuses on the environmental impact of people who live in urban areas.

“It's getting more common,” he says of the ability to use cards at markets.

At some farmers markets, it's a snap to use cards

In general, you can use plastic to make purchases at a farmers market in one of two ways:

  • Pay at individual booths. Some, but not all, vendors at farmers markets take cards, Feldman says. Because farmers have slim profit margins and pay a fee for each transaction, those who sell more expensive items such as meat, honey or olive oil are more likely to accept cards, Feldman says. Most farmers who take cards use card readers like those offered by Square that plug into a smartphone or tablet, Feldman says.
  • Buy a set amount of tokens. Some markets sell tokens that can be bought with a card. So, you can swipe your card for, say, $25, and get wood or metal tokens (or, at some markets, paper coupons) totaling that amount. You can then use your tokens or coupons at any booth, and the vendors can cash them in at the end of the day.

Julie Swenson, a mom and frequent farmers market shopper from outside Minneapolis, says she prefers swiping her card at individual booths over using tokens, which she says can be a hassle and may involve fees.

One day, Swenson says she wanted to buy a $3 lemonade from a vendor who didn't take cards. She went to buy tokens and was told she could only get them in increments of $5, and there'd be a $2 fee for swiping her card. Because she would have felt bad paying the fee just to get one token, she bought three tokens and spent the extra tokens on artisanal croissants she wouldn't otherwise have purchased.

“It ended up being a $17 lemonade,” she says.

Tips for using your card at the farmers market

But if you don't usually carry cash and are tired of trekking to your bank's ATM — or getting hit with fees if you go to the one near the market — using plastic can be a good way to buy from local farmers. Here are four tips for using your card at a farmers market:

  1. Scout out the market. Before you go, check the farmers market website or call the organization that runs the market to find out if cards are accepted, Feldman recommends. If there's a centralized program for the whole market, ask exactly how it works. For example, what denominations of tokens are offered? If you have tokens left at the end of the day, can you turn them back in for a credit on your card or for cash? If not, do the tokens ever expire? (Most tokens don't, but some paper coupons might have an expiration date on them, Feldman says.) Also ask if farmers will make change for your tokens, because it varies by market. If not, a vendor might have to, say, throw in an extra peach to make your $4.50 purchase equal $5, Feldman says. “That's pretty common,” he says.
  2. Make a list and a budget. At the grocery store, the mall or the farmers market, studies show that consumers spend more when they're paying with plastic. As part of a Washington State University study, associate professor Karina Gallardo surveyed 96 buyers at a farmers market that had started accepting cards. About 44 percent said they would spend more because they could use cards, Gallardo says. Swenson says she spends a lot more when using plastic, especially with her favorite vendor, who sells homemade empanadas and soups. “With a card, I'll go nuts and walk away spending $20 or $40 without even thinking about it,” she says. So, plan your trip ahead of time just as if you were going to the grocery store, Swenson recommends: “Be conscious of your spending.”
  3. Shop early if you can. It's generally a good idea to arrive early, Feldman says. Not only do you have your pick of the produce, but you might avoid crowds and make your purchases more quickly. That's helpful if you're using credit because individual vendors sometimes experience technological glitches with card readers, Gallardo says. “Maybe the machine doesn't work or the wireless signal isn't good enough,” she says. “There can be delays.”
  4. Track your purchases. If you're swiping your card at multiple booths, it's a good idea to make a note of where you made credit card purchases, Feldman says. It's common for buyers to wander through the market without really paying attention to where they're shopping, he says. “Then, if you do have some problem, it can be hard to figure out where to go,” he says.

But overall, shoppers say being able to use cards at farmers markets is a plus. “It's super easy and convenient,” Swenson says.