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Buying Produce in Bulk
For us, buying produce in bulk usually means I’m going to be doing a lot of canning, dehydrating, freezing, or baking! Although we have a sizable garden, there are some things we can’t grow in our zone, or we can’t grow enough of or its not producing yet, so that’s when I look to buying in bulk.
There are many options for buying produce in bulk – Aldi, the grocery store, warehouse stores like BJs and Costco, Restaurant Depot (if you’re lucky enough to know someone with a membership), produce markets, farmers’ markets, and direct from the farmers. On any given day, for any given crop, one of these stores would be a better option over the others, so its important to know your prices and comparison shop, just like you do with any major purchase.
But how do you know what price to look for and whether or not you are getting a good deal?
One trick to getting a good deal is buying produce when it is in season for your region. Not only will this produce taste better, but it is often at the best possible price because it is abundant, and does not have to travel as far to get to you.
The following is a list of produce that I buy in bulk from time to time for various culinary projects. Prices are based on where I live in eastern PA, just north of Philadelphia. However, I do often drive within 40 minutes of where we live for amazing deals, but when I do I tie it into other trips. For example, Schober Orchards is an hour from my house, but when I go there I also go to Bringhurst Meats and Stella Farms, and often stop in to visit friends or family in that area. We make a day trip of it!
Strawberries are in season late May through June in our area. During this time, I can often find PYO farms that are selling the berries for about $2/lb. Strawberries in Florida & Georgia start to roll into the markets in February & March and can often be found for less than $2/lb but are often still white inside because they are picked when they are under ripe. For jams & jellies – I buy local in May and June, but if I need to replenish my freezer supply for smoothies, I don’t mind getting the Georgia & Florida berries earlier in the year.
I am having a lot of trouble finding these at a reasonable rate in the markets around here. Raspberries and blackberries are very delicate once picked and do not ship well at all. We can often get berries from our CSA, but if you’re not a member, look into local PYO farms. The going rate is about $3/lb for fresh PYO raspberries and blackberries. If you don’t want them for fresh use, and want to freeze them for smoothies, your best bet is often to purchase bags of already frozen berries. I have gotten frozen berries from Trader Joes and ShopRite for around $2.25/lb.
Blueberry season begins in late June and continues through out July and into August. Hammonton, New Jersey is the blueberry capital, and if you attend the Red, White, and Blueberry Festival in late June, you can often get blueberries for $15/case. A case of blueberries is 12 pints, so that’s $1.25 per pint. Many of the PYO farms I’ve been contacting have a minimum of 10 lbs of berries, and are $2 or more per pound. Not worth it in my opinion. When I’m at the market I look for the pints of blueberries that say they are from farms in New Jersey (Tabernacle & Hammonton are huge), and then scout the best price. Our local produce market often has pints 2 for $3, but when you buy a case, they were giving a discount making it $15 a case. Same price as at the festival, without the hour drive each way.
Peach season begins in early to mid-summer depending on the varieties. Many of the clingstone varieties produce early, and the semi-freestone and freestone peaches come in later (late July through August). I prefer freestone for canning. Our local produce market has peaches for $.99/lb which is a great price. Once the farms in our area start really producing though, I have found half-bushels (about 20-24 lbs) for $18 for #1 quality, or as low as $10 for #2 quality. The #2’s are still very close to perfect, and just tend to be a little riper or not as pretty for fresh eating. They still work just fine for culinary projects, including being canned in light syrup.
I have yet to find locally grown pears at exceptional prices, which is one reason why we are adding pear trees to our gardens. Our local produce store tends to have them for about $.99/lb, and will occasionally go lower to about $.89/lb. I stock up when they are under $.95 since that doesn’t happen too often.
Apples are a bit tricky. Some early varieties, such as Lodi, are ready for harvest in our region as early as the 4th of July, but most of the apples that people think of (Stayman Winesap, Fuji, Granny Smith, Gala, Cortlands, etc) don’t start rolling in until mid-August and continue straight through until November. There is 1 place, and only 1 place, where I get apples, and that is Schober Orchards in Monroeville, New Jersey. I can get apples from them beginning in late July (Pristine apples), and can continue to get their own apples well into February (they warehouse them and continue to sell until they are sold out). Again, we buy #2 quality apples, but for a half-bushel basked they are often $12 or less, which works out to be about $.50/lb.
Depending on the variety of tomatoes that you are looking for, tomato season can start in early July and continues through the fall as long as the weather is favorable. While grocery stores and my local produce market never go below $1/lb for slightly under ripe tomatoes, I can get beautifully ripe flavorful tomatoes for the same prices. However, when I need LARGE quantities, like over 25 lbs, I go to Specca Farms Pick Your Own. Last year, I was able to get plum tomatoes for under $.25/lb. Once you are over 20 lbs, there is usually a discount, just ask when you get there. If you belong to a CSA, it is very possible you will be up to your eyeballs in tomatoes before too long, so be mindful when buying in bulk.
Cucumbers are ready for harvest beginning in mid to late June, and can often continue producing right through September! The only cucumbers I stock up on are Kirby cucumbers, a small variety that is perfect for pickling. The best price tends to be around $.75/lb at both farms and produce markets, however, cucumbers are easy to find for FREE! You heard that right – FREE! Many people plant multiple cucumber plants in their gardens and are overwhelmed when the cukes start rolling in, especially if they aren’t avid canners. Also, if you belong to a CSA, cucumbers are often plentiful. Ask around to family and friends, or even post a request on Freecycle.
I also can items that aren’t grown in our region. For example citrus and pineapple. Citrus is often at its best price from December through January. Clementines can often be found for under $1/lb, but my stock up price for all other citrus (oranges, grapefruits, lemons, and limes) is under $1.25/lb. Pineapples can sometimes be found for as little as $.99 each, but there is no rhyme nor reason as to when I can find them at that price, so I just check the sales circulars and keep my eyes open. For citrus and tropical produce, I have found that Aldi and the warehouse clubs tend to have the best prices.
Of course there are many other vegetables and fruits that you may want to stock up on, but these are the big ones for my family and the ones where I’ve been tracking prices for more than a season. This coming season, I plan on tracking more of the vegetable prices as well, for things like beans, peas, potatoes, sweet potatoes, and onions so we know when we are getting the best deals buying produce in bulk.