Not only is going to the farmers’ market an enjoyable way to pass a weekend afternoon, but this growing trend also has huge benefits for both farmers and consumers. Farmers’ markets are a great way to increase access to local, fresh food, and they stimulate your local economy and support healthy communities.
While most farmers’ markets have the best of intentions, not all provide organic, or even local fare. To really know what is in the food you are buying, who better to ask than the farmers themselves? Most farmers love answering questions and are proud of their products.
Whether you are new to farmers’ markets or are a seasoned pro, here are the best questions to ask on your next visit.
- Where is Your Farm Located? Buying fresh local produce is the whole point of shopping at a farmer’s market. “Local” is typically anything that is produced within 100-150 miles.
- Did You Grow or Raise This? It is not uncommon for some vendors to buy wholesale items and then resell them as their own. It is probably best to bypass these vendors. If you notice a fruit or vegetable that looks out of season, be wary. Most farmers in a region will generally have the same items available at the same time. Look for “producer-only” markets, meaning that the farmers at the market grow the food they are selling on their own farms. You can contact your market director or check their web site to find out if your market is producer-only.
- What Growing Practices Do You Use? Some vendors may be USDA organic certified, but obtaining this certification can be pricey with loads of paperwork. Even if your farmer isn’t certified organic, they may still adhere to sustainable practices. And farmers don’t always have to go through the organic certification process if they gross under $5,000 per year. Without a USDA organic seal, you will have to talk to your farmer to find out. If they are not organic, ask how they handle pests and diseases so you can avoid anything grown with pesticides.
- What Do your Animals Eat and Where Do They Live? Herbivores like cows, goats, and sheep should be mostly pasture-raised, while it is OK to supplement chickens and pigs with some grain. If some animals are fed grain, ask if it’s organic or soy-free. Also find out if the animals live outside and if they are rotationally grazed. It is optimal for herbivores and chickens to be moved often and not pastured on the same patch of grass each day.
- What Is This Item? While perusing your local farmers’ market, chances are you will see an unfamiliar item or two. The farmer should be able to tell you what each item is, including the variety. After all, the farmers are the experts!
- When Was This Picked? If it was picked more than a day ago, you may want to pass. Some farmers may have fruits and vegetables picked just that morning. The longer it stays off the vine, the more nutrients it loses.
- How Should I Store and Prepare This? Farmers usually have great tips on how to store food. Ask how long different items should last so you can prioritize eating them. They also may have great advice on how to ripen fruit, thaw meat, or how to wrap produce in the fridge. Farmers usually have an idea how to prepare different items as well, especially if they are eating what they grow. Be sure to ask how to use the greens attached to root veggies like the tops of carrots, beets and turnips. Also, ask about the different cuts of meats and how to best cook them.
- How Many Different Types of Produce Do You Grow? A farm with a large variety is usually a good indicator that their farm is truly sustainable. Generally, a farm with several crops are more likely to use crop rotation, which helps to reduce soil erosion, increases biodiversity, and improves crop yield.
- What Items Are Coming Soon? Find out what will be in season next. You don’t want to miss out on what is to come in the weeks ahead. Factors, such as last/first frost and animal life cycles can affect when things are in season and when they are expected appear at the market.
- Can I Visit the Farm? Farmers who are proud of their practices have nothing to hide. No amount of questions can tell you what seeing a farm first-hand can. Does it look clean? Are the animals and workers happy? Some farms are friendlier than others and may have specific visiting hours or offer a couple of open houses each year. It can be a rewarding experience to see exactly where and how your food is grown. If they hesitate or decline your visit, you may want to find a new vendor that better aligns with you.
Not only will asking a few simple questions allow you to make the best food choices possible, but you may also learn some interesting farming facts as well. Don’t be afraid to tell your local farmers how delicious an item you purchased was. Let them know they are appreciated.