Anyone who is trying to eat healthy and make responsible choices for their family can easily see if fresh, local and organic food is available at any farmers market they visit by talking to the farmers and asking a few questions.
With so many choices and distractions at a market making choices can be a bit overwhelming. How do you know what to buy and which booths to avoid? Today I’ll share some tips and resources I’ve discovered.
Finding Local Produce
Most people think if it’s in a farmer’s market it’s all local. That’s not necessarily so. Small markets often are, while large markets may have non-local produce as well. Still there is no iron clad rule. At my local city market the perimeter has fresh produce all week long at better prices and quality than the supermarket, but not from local farms. On the weekend the center is filled with local farmers selling off their trucks.
One way to gauge if someone has local produce is to know what’s in season. If they are selling lots of things that aren’t in season in your area that’s a pretty good clue they aren’t local. I’ve discovered a great website called Epicurious with a seasonal ingredient map. You choose the month and click on your state for a list of seasonal produce for that area. They even offer a list of recipes for each item.
Talk to the Farmers
I like to walk around the whole market first to see what’s there. Even if they are all local farmers with fresh produce quality levels will vary as will selection.
Then I go back to the most promising stalls and begin to get to know the farmers (if I don’t already.) Farmers are usually happy to talk to you about their products so don’t be reluctant to ask questions. Of course the best time to talk is when they aren’t busy with a crowd.
If you’re buying meat, dairy or eggs and care about how the animals were raised or slaughtered, ask. If you want organic produce ask the questions below. Then, if you like what they have to say and you like their products, ask for a business card so you can remember who to look for your on your next visit.
Some Good Questions to Ask to Assure Organic Produce
1. “Is your produce organic?” I know it’s obvious, but still a good place to start. Now organic can mean many things so further questions are necessary, but this will break the ice and rule out any non-organic farms.
2. “What types of seeds do you use?” Specifically ask if the seeds are Monsanto backed or sold by a Monsanto-backed company. Organic growers are not allowed to have GMO’s in their seeds. Here is a list of Monsanto owned seed companies and those not owned by Monsanto.
3. “How do you fertilize crops and control pests, diseases, and weeds?” The only amendments allowed on an organic farm are ones that can be found naturally in the environment. If it is a natural substance that has been chemically altered it is not considered organic. For example, Sulpher is permitted as a fungicide on organic farms but if it is burned, which alters it chemically, it becomes sulfuric acid, which is not permitted.
4.-5.“Where is your farm?” and “Can I visit your farm sometime?” The first question is another way to verify they are local, and is a good lead in to the second question. If there is hesitation in the answer given or the answer is “no”, you may not want to buy from that particular vendor. If the answer is “yes”,a visit during the spring and fall would be good. Even if you don’t have time to visit the farm, it’s probably a good sign if your farmer is very open to the idea of having you stop by.
In your conversations some terms may come up that bear defining.
Certified Organic This is nice but not a deal breaker for me. There are some 38 non-organic ingredients that can be legally included in certified organic food. Some farmers may be truly practicing organic farming but opt out of the certification program The certification means third third-party inspectors have certified farms under the USDA’s National Organic Program .
Certified Naturally Grown uses the National Organic Program as a starting point, but is not affiliated with USDA and does not require third-party certifying agents to inspect farms—nor is it equivalent to certified organic. Instead, other farmers in the program perform the inspections, and unlike certified-organic programs record keeping is not mandated. So it is essentially another set of eyes looking at the farm.
“No Spray” or “Spray Free” This sounds good but is fairly meaningless. If they are promoting no spray you need to ask for clarification.
Spray doesn’t necessarily mean chemicals. There are a number of organic sprays farmers can use as pesticides, like seaweed, so if they claim not to be spraying anything ask them how they control pests.
Some less than forthcoming farmers may completely spray a field with chemical pesticides to kill pests and then plant their crops. Since the produce itself isn’t directly sprayed with chemicals, they may claim “no spray.” This is deceptive and definitely not organic.
If you need help finding a local market try the Directory maintained by the Agricultural Marketing Service. It lists over 8,100 markets and includes market locations, directions, operating times, product offerings, accepted forms of payment, etc.