With piles of dark green zucchinis, succulent strawberries, and juicy heirloom tomatoes as far as the eye can see, the farmers market seems like a locavore’s dream come true.
It is—for the most part. As someone who has shopped at farmers markets for years, I can tell you firsthand that some farmers are much more ethical about their growing practices than others. Before you buy directly from a local farmer, it’s always a good idea to ask a few questions. Here are some good starter questions to help you identify a responsible grower and make sure you’re only buying the freshest local produce.
1. “What variety is this?”
It’s ideal to buy directly from the farmer who grew the crop, but sometimes it’s hard to tell if the person you’re talking to actually grew it—or bought it from another farm to sell. If they did grow the crop, they’ll probably know the variety of every seed they planted. Another good question to ask is, “When was this picked?”
2. “How is the season going? What’s coming up next?”
This is a fantastic way to engage a farmer in conversation. Someone who grows his or her own produce will probably have a lot to say about weather conditions and have an idea of what fruits and veggies will be at the market next week.
3. “Is the farm organic?”
Getting certified as an organic farm can be a headache, including tons of paperwork, not to mention it’s costly for small producers. But even if a farm isn’t certified organic, the grower might still adhere to sustainable practices. If they’re not organic, ask how they handle pests and disease—that way you can at least avoid anything grown with pesticides.
4. “What do the animals eat?”
Herbivores like sheep, goats, and cows should be mostly raised on pasture, while chickens and pigs are okay with some supplemental grain. If you’re talking to a beef farmer, ask how the cows are “finished.” Many grass-fed beef farms finish their cows on corn, which is hard for the cows to digest. If some of the animals are fed grain, ask if it’s organic and soy-free. If not, ask why not. It can be really hard for farmers to get their hands on organic, soy-free grain in bulk, but the more questions they get from customers about it, the more likely they’ll be to seek it out.
5. “Where do the animals live?”
If they live outside and are rotationally grazed, that’s ideal. A good follow-up question: “How often are they rotated?” Herbivores and chickens that are pastured on the same patch of grass each day are not as healthy as those that are moved often.
6. “How did you get corn so early?”
Be aware of what’s in season in your area and question anything that seems out of place. If you see a farmer selling corn or tomatoes in Maine in June, something’s not right. Although some growers may start their plants in a greenhouse, usually those who have a certain crop very early actually purchased it from out of state. Look behind the farm’s table for produce boxes with labels identifying other states—if you’re at a market in Michigan, you don’t want to see a box of blueberries with a New Jersey label. Keep in mind, too, that most farmers in a region will generally have the same items at the same time, so anything out of the ordinary is worth a second glance.
7. “How many different types of produce do you grow?”
The variety of a farm’s produce is usually a good indicator of whether the farm is truly sustainable. If a farm grows several different crops, they’re likely using crop rotation—a sustainable method that reduces soil erosion, increases biodiversity, and improves crop yields. A farm that grows only a handful of crops is less likely to allow fields to lay fallow so the soil can recover.
8. “Can I visit the farm?”
No matter how many questions you ask a farmer, seeing the farm firsthand is really the best way to tell if it’s truly sustainable. From the minute you step out of your car, you’ll be able to tell how well the farm is run. Are the fields full of weeds? Do the animals look healthy? Do they have enough room? Are the tools put away and the machines in good repair? Do the workers seem happy? Don’t be surprised if the farm has specific visiting hours or only a couple of open houses a year—some are more visitor-friendly than others.
9. “Can I volunteer?”
Some farmers are open to bartering for services in exchange for produce. Plus, volunteering at a farm is fun, a great workout, an opportunity to meet new people, and a good way to connect with how your food is grown.
Maybe the farmer you’re talking to has a big sweet potato harvest coming up and could use your help. Are you a great cook? Maybe you could prepare lunch for the farm crew one day. Better with computers? Maybe the farm could use a hand with its website. Just remember that not all farms accept volunteers—there can be liability issues, and they may not have the time or staff needed to train new help.
10. “Do you have more of that delicious (fill in the blank)?”
Let the farmer know how much you loved the zucchini from last week, or how the lettuce made the most delicious salad you’ve ever had. Farming is really hard work that doesn’t pay much, and manning a table all day at the market can be exhausting. Make someone’s day by showing just how much you appreciate them.
Photo credit: Heidi Murphy for The Homegrown Paleo Cookbook
Read more about Diana Rodgers on her website Sustainable Dish and follow her on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Click here to win a copy of her latest book, The Homegrown Paleo Cookbook—five lucky winners will be chosen!