The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates there are more than 4,500 farmers markets across the country, with more added every year. Here are some tips to help you make the most of your farmers market experience. 

If you've never been to a farmers market, you're really missing something.     

The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates there are more than 4,500 farmers markets across the country, with more added every year. So there's surely going to be a seasonal market in your area at least once a week.     

What's the big deal? Just the freshest produce available, often picked the same day it's sold. This super-fresh, locally grown produce tastes wonderful, fully retains its vitamins and minerals and hasn't been transported over thousands of miles.     

There will be dozens of varieties of fruits and vegetables, not to mention the fresh bakery goods, ethnic foods, cut flowers and craft goods filling every nook and cranny of the market. But conducting business at this kind of venue is a bit different than what you're used to at the mega-mart.     

Here are some tips to help you make the most of your farmers market experience. 

Come early, but not too early. Many markets don't allow sales before a set start time. Take this opportunity to walk around the market and check out what each vendor is offering. Look at the goods' quality and price. Even before officially opening, some vendors might set aside items for you without requiring immediate payment.     

Bring your own bags, boxes and cooler. You might also consider bringing a rolling tote for greater capacity. Farmers will often let you buy bulk quantities, and they will often offer a discount. A cooler will help keep berries, meats, cheese, yogurt and other perishable foods fresh, allowing more time to enjoy the rest of the market.     

Cash is king. All vendors take cash; many accept checks and credit cards. But not all vendors accept all forms of payment. If you want to play it safe, come with cash in small bills and coins.     

Buy the homely stuff. It's a farmers market, so absolute freshness shouldn't be an issue. Still, most customers pick the produce that's most appealing to the eye. As gardeners, you know the best produce isn't necessarily perfect-looking. Let the farmer know you're willing to take such fruits and vegetables. You could get a discount. Just be sure to inspect the produce thoroughly.     

Ask questions. Vendors can get pretty busy, but I've never known one who didn't want to talk about his or her wares. If you want to know how a particular vegetable is grown or how to prepare it for cooking, simply ask. A good experience guarantees that you'll become a good customer week after week.     

Know what's in season. One of the joys of eating in season is developing an appreciation of local food at the height of freshness and flavor. If you're not sure when the plums will come into season or when the snap beans stop producing, check the farmers market's information booth. Many markets offer a crop calendar that will tell you when the various local fruits and vegetables are available.     

End-of-the-day bargaining. If it's not fresh, it won't sell. Farmers know this, and by the end of the day, they're looking to move as much of their inventory as possible. Green beans that were $1.50 a pound early in the morning may be deeply discounted just before the market closes. Make sure the market doesn't prohibit this kind of late-day discounting.     

Make connections. Get to know your local farmers and vendors. Some may offer food-for-work trades, bulk discounts or other discounts if you pick up the produce at their farms. Many produce goods like soap, dairy products, greenhouse vegetables and bakery goods all year, even if the market is closed.     

To find a local farmers market, check the USDA website market locator at http://apps.ams.usda.gov/FarmersMarkets.

Joe Lamp'l, host of "Growing a Greener World" on PBS, is a Master Gardener and author. For more information, visit www.joegardener.com.