If you’re going to the Farmer’s Market, it’s probably because you are someone who wants to eat the freshest and highest quality food you can. But not all products at the Farmer’s Market are created equal. To help sort out your choices, we’ve created a list of questions you can ask your farmer to figure out who to buy from.
What growing practices do you use?
Certified organic can be great, but it’s also prohibitively expensive for many small farms. If a farm isn’t certified organic, you can ask them what kind of sprays, pesticides and herbicides they use, if any. You can also ask them about their pest management strategy. This can vary widely from crop to crop. If they are using certain sprays, you may have to do your research as to their safety. There’s a lot to learn here, but growers are usually happy to talk about their practices!
How do you improve your soil?
This is a key consideration. With large-scale factory farming, both conventional and organic, soil management practices are generally very poor. Fertilization methods tend to focus on macronutrients (nitrogen, potassium and phosphorous or NPK) and neglect micronutrients. This leads to less nutrient-dense food, which is ultimately what you are paying for when you buy food, other than water and fiber. Factory farming also tends to deplete carbon from the soil. Building soil carbon is not only good for the quality of the food, but it’s also one of the best ways to sequester carbon from the atmosphere.
Do you have any certifications?
It may not be organic, but there are many forms of certification that a farmer may have acquired to demonstrate their commitment to healthy and sustainable agriculture.
How many different types of produce do you grow?
It is a good sign if a farmer grows a diverse variety of crops. In part, it is because of the unsustainable nature of monocultures. This is also a way to get a sense of what is coming later in the season. This leads to…
What items are coming soon?
It’s nice to know what to look forward to. Knowing strawberry season is coming up, for instance, can be the inspiration for a strawberry shortcake party or to plan your strawberry jam making. Getting in touch with the local food seasons in your exact bioregion is one of the joys of going to farmer’s markets.
What kind of seeds do you use?
If you are looking to maximize nutrient density then heirloom or heritage seeds are the best way to go. The alternative, hybrid seeds, are usually bred for the size and ability to preserve on the shelf, which is less about health and more about economics. Also, hybrid seeds are sterile, so they need to be purchased new every year– not very sustainable. If you are shopping at the farmers market, you can safely assume they are not using GMO seeds, but if you’re concerned, you can always ask.
What do your animals eat and where do they live?
A farmer may not be certified organic, but many still choose to feed their animals non-GMO or non-sprayed feed. Grass-fed is also a great option, be aware of the difference between grass-finished and grass-fed. Some people use the term grass-fed just to mean that the animals eat some grass, which isn’t saying much. On the other hand, feeding animals grass exclusively is quite a commitment, and may not even be possible in colder climates. This is one of the strengths of the farmers market because by talking to your farmer you can learn much more nuance about what you are eating than you could ever get from a package.
How much fresh air and exercise do your animals get?
Chances are, they spend a lot of time outside, but it’s also good to know they have plenty of room to move around.
Can I visit your farm?
Farmers are usually proud to show off their place, though they may have very specific hours that work for their schedules.
Where is your farm located?
Generally, the more rural the better in terms of the air quality and how this affects the purity of your food. That said, even polluted air is considerably less concentrated than toxic sprays applied directly to your food.
What is this item?
The farmer’s market is a great place to learn about new foods. Unusual variety of familiar things, or things that are new altogether. Don’t be afraid to ask– the market is a great place to broaden your scope of food knowledge and hence your palette as well. What’s the differences between multiple varieties of the same vegetable? It may be flavor, texture or purely cosmetic. Sometimes you can learn a lot from the nuance of varietal differences.
When was this picked/harvested/butchered?
Generally speaking the fresher food is the better, with the exception of some storage crops that need to be “cured” before they are able to be stored properly.
Did you grow or raise this?
If you think this question doesn’t need to be asked, then it’s a good thing that you are reading this article. Though it may seem like the answer would be yes in every case, many people who operate stands buy from other people. This can limit the seller’s knowledge of the food, and it may also reduce its freshness. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it is something to be aware of.
What are your favorite ways to prepare this?
This is a great way to get an insider’s perspective on integrating ingredients into the kitchen.
What’s the best thing you’ve eaten this week?
This is usually something people love to talk about and these conversations can make for inspiration in the kitchen.
How should I store this?
There’s a large range of storage practices, with requirements ranging from a little know-how to advance set-ups for longer-term storage.
How long will this last?
There can be a lot of variance here, so it’s good to know what you are getting in for.
Do you have a CSA program?
Some find that joining a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) is a great way to commit having a regular supply of fresh produce in your life. If you’d like to learn more we’ll have an article coming soon explaining why CSA’s are great.
Are there any questions that you like to ask that aren’t on our list? Let us know and we may add them to the article.