Some Questions for Your Farmer at the Farmers’ Market

Every Saturday my family and I load up and go out to our local farmers’ market (pictured above). We’ve been going for awhile now as it has become part of our Saturday routine liturgy. From there we depart for the local library and then head home.

When we first started these practices, we really had no idea what to expect or what to do. We weren’t aware of any differences between this farmer and that one. Why is this bundle of carrots more expensive than that one? Is there a specific certification I should be looking for? Basically, we walked in wanting to better our diet through local organic foods, but didn’t know where to begin.

The odd fact that there were bananas for sale in the middle of the winter in Syracuse didn’t really phase us. The plastic wrapping some vendors had around their produce seemed normal. After all, we were comfortable with plastic wrap because of its ubiquity at the grocery store. It took reading, research, and getting to know our local CSA farmer – now friend – to chisel away at our grocery store-formed imagination when it came to food.

When our imaginations begin to crumble or shift, we begin to have a new world open up before us. This new world we enter into hands us questions we must ask in order to make sense of things. Not only do coherent questions give us new markers by which we can live by, they also lead to deeper investigations and stories we (possibly) never knew existed. I know for my wife and I that this was the case in regards to our food. We were ignorantly accepting things as normal, good, and healthy simply because we didn’t know what questions to ask.

For many of us this is true due to this simple truth: we are the most divorced from ecology and agriculture civilization in history resulting in a cultural ignorance when it comes to food. As was recently said by Joel Salatin, “we know more about the Kardashians than we do about what we eat.” And because of this multigenerational predicament, many of us do not have anyone in our lives from whom we can imitate their healthy ecological and agricultural ways of life. Rather, the situation as it is, isn’t that we aren’t imitating others’ ecological and agricultural practices altogether; the problem is we are imitators by nature, thus leaving us to imitate those who are formed predominantly by the industrial/commercial/political forms of ecology and agriculture and we are unconsciously perpetuating this phenomenon.

This is fresh in my mind as we returned from the Farmers’ Market this morning. Next week a friend of mine is joining us as he and his family prepare to embark on a similar journey to ours. As I stood there today in the presence of farmers, pseudo-farmers, and food shysters I began to ponder what initial questions we asked while perusing produce and what might be helpful to others. Here is what I came up with:

1. Are you organic? Eating organic is certainly a hot topic today. Many people are wondering anew what it means to eat organically. I find it ironic that we must label what is inherently organic as such. Doesn’t seem to indicate a looming problem? Now, not everyone who grows organically is certified as organic. This is due to amount of profits, inspections, and some other factors. Regardless, they should be able to tell you how they practice organic farming. If you aren’t aware, check out the USDA Certified Organic website for more info. For local folks, check out Northeast Organic Farming Association for an abundance of helpful info.

Any easy way to tell – and a true story, no less – is to compare prices of produce from different organic farmers. If a quart of tomatoes from one seller is a steep $3 difference from another, you can bet the cheap one isn’t actual organic.

2. Where is your farm? Or in other words, are you local? Many people at the Regional Market – some even say 60% of the vendors – do not actually farm. They attend an auction where they buy surplus produce and then sell it at a major mark up for the betterment of their bottom lines. In some, if not many cases, they do not know what it is they are selling because they don’t know what it is they are buying at auction. Sure, it looks like a potato, but the conditions it grew in, the treatment of the workers who harvested it, and the amount of miles it has traveled to get to them is unknown. Unknown produce is a commidified product that will empty your wallet as it fills your stomach with potentially harmful material.

3. Can I visit your farm? If they are local and grow their own food, stay with them. Shop there for a few weeks and then ask this follow up question to, “Where is your farm?”. Many farmers are on their property for the majority of their work week. The ones I have spoken with have been more than hospitable in inviting me to visit. The ones I have visited have allowed me to see their fields, barns, animals, etc. which has easily ensured me of the quality of their harvests. Be wary of a farmer who won’t let you visit their farm.

I don’t presume to be an authority on any of these matters. I bring up these questions and concerns as one who is curious, worried, and longing for health. For me, there is no fragmenting between spiritual, physical, and ecological/agricultural health. The further I have investigated and participated in healthy ecological/agricultural practices, the further I have wanted others to join with us. I hope what I have learned thus far is helpful.

What questions do you ask? What has been helpful in your context? I’d love to hear.



8 thoughts on “Some Questions for Your Farmer at the Farmers’ Market

  1. Excellent post Scott. Your market shouldn’t permit vendors who didn’t raise the food they’re selling, imo. It’s unfair to the real farmers and can be misleading/confusing to the patrons. I definitely agree that folks should question the farmers about their produce and their practices. Ethical farmers are passionate about their methods and LOVE talking about them. A few thoughts: rather than asking if the farmer is organic, a better question is do they use organic practices. The gov’t has coopted the word “organic” preventing us from legally saying we’re organic unless we have a gov’t certification to that effect. That’s why Joel Salatin says Polyface is “beyond organic.” It’s OK to be very specific with questions: Do you use pesticides? Do you use herbicides? How do your fertilize? How do you control pests and weeds? Do you practice cover cropping? What off-farm inputs do you use, if any? It’s Ok to ask about varieties (i.e. are these heirlooms?) Ask about seeds and starts: where do you get your seeds? Do you use transplants? Where do you get them? Of course only ask if the answers would interest you or are relevant to your decisions. Definitely ask if it’s Ok to visit the farm and do go visit. There are plenty of other questions I’d suggest if the farmer is selling eggs or meat. Again, great post.

  2. Thanks for responding, Bill. It’s always incredibly helpful to hear from farmers who are seeking out the best practices.
    Are you ever approached with some of these questions? Have you ever seen farmers selling things as organic, but in reality, they weren’t?

    • Yes, we get questions like this. I honestly wish more folks would ask these questions. Sustainable chemical-free farmers love to get asked about our practices. We’re not ashamed of them. They are what separates us from our industrial chemical-based counterparts.

      Here organic is not as popular as elsewhere. I haven’t seen anyone trying to pass off their produce as organic when it isn’t (although I know that happens). But I have seen people reselling vegetables and pretending to have grown them, and people selling produce that bought in other areas and passing it off as local.

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  4. Thanks for this, Scott. My boyfriend is really interested/involved in agriculture and ethics, and this summer he worked on a local organic farm that sells at farmers markets and provides CSA subscriptions. The thing he learned is that even local organic farms aren’t REALLY the best or most earth-friendly. He told me about how, since it was such a large farm, they still used a lot of fuel for tractors and trucks, and how, since they didn’t use pesticides, they covered the crops with plastic tarps that just got thrown away come harvest time. The experience really solidified his belief in small-scale community-based agriculture for the good of people and of the earth.

    • This raises a good point that is another excellent question to put to farmers at the market: Do you use plastic in your fields? We don’t use it but you’re right that many farmers (organic or not) do.

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