More and more people have been heading to their local farmers markets in recent years – in fact, they are so popular, they’ve grown from less than 2,000 in 1994 to nearly 9,000 that are currently registered in the USDA Farmers Market Directory today.
Consumers have learned that homegrown fruits, veggies, and other foods usually taste much better than what you’ll find in grocery store aisles, as they tend to be the freshest and most flavorful, as well as more nutritious. That’s because the time between harvesting and serving is often less than 24 hours, resulting in more nutrient-rich produce compared to what’s on offer at the supermarket. Savvy, ethical consumers know that is better for the local community and the environment too as the average distance that food travels to get to your dining table is 1,500 miles. Shipping it uses up massive amounts of natural resources, especially fossil fuels. It also contributes to more trash in the landfill because of the packaging and adds to pollution.
Of course, some people still hesitate, wondering how to know if the produce sold at farmers markets is truly organic, safely grown and healthy. That’s certainly a valid question, considering that most farmers markets around the country allow pretty much any vendor to set up in a given space – and, it’s true that while in most cases, they’re filled with clean, healthy, nutrient dense food, not everything is necessarily represented honestly. The best way to find out, is to visit your local farmers market and talk to the local farmers and sellers about their particular practices.
It’s not only fun to chat about where and how your food is grown, it will help you make the best decisions about what to buy for you and your family. As it’s always a good idea to build a relationship with a trusted farmer, it’s also important to remember to ask questions in as polite, and non-judgmental way as possible. No one wants to feel as if they’re being interrogated.
1. Who grew the food, and where was it grown?
You’ll know for sure you’ve got the real thing when you go to a “producer-only” market, which means that the farmers at the market are selling only food they grew on their own farms. You can find out if your local market is a producer-only market by contacting the direct or marketing coordinator.
Otherwise, be sure to ask exactly who grew it and where it was grown. Buying fresh local produce is the point of shopping at a farmers market, so make sure you know where they’re from. Typically, the products are only considered “local” if they are produced within 100 to 150 miles away. Some vendors at farmers markets actually aren’t local, but travel from market to market. They sometimes even cross state lines to sell wholesale produce, which means it may have come from quite a distance. Sometimes these vendors pull up to the market with large amounts of produce and sell straight from the back of a truck. Just because it’s sold at a farmers market, doesn’t mean it’s local. It could come from a larger distributor.
2. Is it organic?
Keep in mind that the smallest growers, meaning those who earn less than $5,000 a year, can legally market their produce as organic, as long as they keep records to prove they are organic. They are exempt from organic certification. Others may not have USDA organic certification, which helps to keep their prices lower, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they use pesticides or other potentially harmful substances. Some farmers may be truly practicing organic farming but decide to opt out of the certification program. Ask how their food is grown, and if they use natural means of repelling insects and disease or pesticides – and if so, how much pesticides are used? Some local growers and family farmers strictly use no pesticides and bring chemical-free produce to sell at the market. Even if it shows some signs of pest damage, this is actually the best kind of produce to buy. Some small growers admit to using pesticides, but only sparingly. Others may use chemicals such as glyphosate without caution as they aren’t aware of the risks. If they advertise “no-spray,” ask for an explanation of what is meant by using this term as often it’s meaningless.
3. Where do their seeds come from? Are they heirloom?
Assuming the vendor is selling the food they’ve grown, the seeds they used are also important. Heirloom seeds refer to seeds that have been used for generations. They’ve never been genetically modified, patented by a corporation or used industrially. They also come in a much greater variety of colors, textures, appearances and flavors than standard seeds.
4. How are their weeds controlled?
While organic farmers may use a wide variety of techniques for suppressing weeds, their fields don’t have to be weed free, in fact, provided the soil is of good quality, it will provide the same results as a weed-free chemical field. Some of the preferred organic methods include mulch and cover crops, though very small operations may even weed by hand.
5. How long will it last?
One of the main reasons to shop at a farmers market is because the food is so fresh. It was likely (or should be) picked and harvest within the last day or so, or even sooner. The only way to get fresher produce is to grow it yourself. The answer the vendor provides can be a big clue to their processes.
6. How should you keep your item so that it will stay fresher longer?
It’s important to ask this question so that you don’t risk ruining your fantastic finds by improperly storing them. Ask how to keep them the freshest. For example, if you store basil in the refrigerator at a temperature lower than 40 degrees Fahrenheit it will turn brown. And when it comes to tomatoes, they shouldn’t go in the fridge at all – instead, they’re best left at room temperature. It’s a good idea to ask how each item you purchase will last, so you can make the best decision as to what you should eat first. The vendors can usually provide outstanding advice on all kinds of things related to farm-grown food, not only how to store it, but things like how to ripen fruit or thaw meat.
7. What items will they have in the coming weeks?
By asking what items the farmer or vendor may have in the coming weeks, you can be sure not to miss some of your favorite items. Produce can really vary by season, and by eating seasonally you’ll be able to enjoy that anticipation, excitedly waiting for their arrival of late summer blackberries, or the bounty of fall, like pumpkins and squash. There are many different factors involved in when things appear at the market, from the first and last frost, rainfall amounts and animal life cycles.
8. Do they offer a CSA program?
CSA stands for “community-supported agriculture,” and it’s a great way to get your produce. Many farmers have CSA programs that will let you basically purchase a share of the farm, and in exchange, receive goods for your loyalty. If you shop your local farmers market frequently, joining a CSA can be a great way to support your local farmers and save your hard earned cash at the same time. When you find a farmer you like and can trust, ask them whether or not they offer this – usually, you can sign up in the early spring or during mid-summer. You may have to make an upfront payment or pay a small membership fee but most of the time, you’ll get a much better bargain than you would have had you purchased the items individually.
9. Can you visit the farm?
This may be the most important question of all. If a vendor has a problem with you visiting his or her farm, without good reason, you may not want to buy from that vendor. If they give you the go ahead, it helps to reinforce what these markets are all about: true freshness, trust, and transparency. And, that’s what defines the key differences between a supermarket and a farmers market.
Keep in mind that you need to be sure you’re phrasing that question the right way too. You don’t want to ask, “Can I come tour your farm?” or “Can I show up just whenever and walk around wherever I like?” And, you can’t expect the farmer to drop whatever they’re doing to show you around. Just imagine if you were interrupted during your work day and asked something similar. It’s the same with farmers. However, you should be able to stop by with reasonable notice and see the farm. You might even be able to take home a fresh bunch of carrots, brown eggs or strawberries as a souvenir if you’re lucky.