The farmer’s market can be overwhelming and we often wonder how to choose the best produce for our families! Asking if the products are organic just won’t do at the market. In most cases small farmers can’t afford to become certified. And, they can’t falsely represent themselves. Here are 15+ questions to ask at the farmer’s market to help you find the provider and produce that is best for you and your family!
Don’t forget to check out the companion piece Why Local Produce is Best! To better understand the quality differences between local and imported produce.
1. Did you grow this?
The best answer to this question would be “yes”. That won’t always be the case though. Some family farms have a clear division of labor and the seller might not be involved in the day to day farming. If the answer is no investigate more thoroughly. Who grows the produce and are they able to answer additional questions about the farming practices? If they can’t then it’s likely time to move on!
2. Where was this grown?
Locally grown produce should be grown within 100 miles of the market you’re shopping at. If you aren’t familiar with the area then feel free to ask the distance.
I live in southeast Michigan just outside the city of Detroit. The largest farmer’s market in the US is Eastern Market in Detroit. It boasts over 150 vendors in an open air market and averages 45,000 visitors on summer Saturdays. Due to it’s proximity to Canada there are plenty of vendors from our neighbors to the north. If you are shopping in a border town such as this you might want to be aware that your produce may be coming from a different country. But if the farm is within 100 miles it is still considered local! The term “imported produce” usually refers to anything that has been shipped from over 100 miles away.
3. When was this harvested?
The more recently your produce was harvested the better! Produce harvested in the peak of ripeness and landing on your kitchen table within 24 hours is nutritionally higher quality and tastes better! You should have no problem finding produce that has been picked within the past 24 hours!
4. How do you care for the soil?
There are many great ways to care for the soil. Farmers may have soil tested and add needed nutrients. They may also use compost, mulch or manure as fertilizer or to create optimal soil texture. And they are likely to rotate crops and / or plant cover crops. Soil doesn’t take care of it’s self so you can expect to get clear answers to this question.
5. Do you till? If so, by what method?
Tilling is a common practice in farming and is often done by heavy machinery. If your farmer does till you may want to ask how they are preventing soil erosion. Rotating crops and cover crops can help with this as can careful irrigation and allowing some natural plants and trees to remain. Preventing soil erosion is an important facet of sustainable farming.
6. Where do you get your seed & what type of seed do you use?
Often times small local farmers use heirloom seed. These seeds are considered the best for nutrients and flavor. They are open pollinators and are not cross bred with other plants.
Farmers who use heirloom seed often collect, trade or sell seeds from their own harvest each year. Sometimes their seeds go back several generations and there are even interesting stories about the origins and history of the seed.
Whether your vendor is using heirloom seed or not you want to lean toward non GMO and non industrial seed whenever possible.
7. What are your farming practices? Organic? Sustainable? Community Garden?
Many farmers practice sustainable and / or organic farming but can’t afford to become certified. It is helpful to know if this is the case.
It may also be of interest to you to know if your food is coming from a family farm or community garden. Has this farm been in the same family for generations? What is their farming philosophy (if they have one)?
8. What do you use as a pesticide? (How do you control pests?)
Even organic farms have to control pests and they may spray their crops to do so. People often think that organic farms are forbidden from using pesticides. This isn’t true. They have to use natural, approved, pesticides. This doesn’t necessarily make them less dangerous for human consumption. Ask what’s being used to control pests and consider making a note of it. If it is safe for consumption you may want to reconsider washing your produce. It is beneficial for humans to come into contact with soil based microorganisms and this is a great way to do it.
9. What methods do you use for weed control?
There are small farms and CSA’s where people actually weed the crops where necessary and others where weeds aren’t removed at all. What you really want to know is if they are treating with an herbicide or using plastic barriers to prevent weed growth.
Herbicides should kill non-GMO crops along with the weeds. And you may want to consider how comfortable you are with acres of land covered in plastic. Growing practices that don’t include either are likely to cause an increase in price at the market but a significantly decreased environmental cost.
10. Do you have work or grazing animals (or chickens)? If so, what kind? Do you sell animal products?
Regenerative farming practices utilize medium and large grazing animals. And, a lot of small farms utilize chickens for pest control. I personally prefer farms like these. And I am likely to also ask about humane animal farming and whether they sell meat, eggs or other animal products.
My daughter is vegan so she is opposed to the use of work animals. She may prefer to avoid patronizing farms that include animals at all. She would certainly have questions about the welfare of the animals.
11. What is your family’s favorite way to prepare or eat this?
No one will understand the incredible flavors of the produce like a farmer and their family. You can get some really amazing ideas about storage and preperation from your market vendors. This is also a great way to get to know the farmers themselves and begin to connect and create community bonds with them!
12. Do you take snap? If so what is the conversion rate?
Even if you aren’t on SNAP it is beneficial to ask this question and be able to tell others. I understand that some people may feel embarassed. I just hope you will get over it! 1 in 8 Americans which is approximately 40 million (including 12 million children) are food insecure. That means they may not know where their next meal is coming from. This is a particular problem in the summer when children are out of school. A shocking number of children in America rely on school lunches as their ONLY meal of the day.
Asking if your farmers market takes SNAP and if they offer double dollars (double up to a specified amount) creates demand. Markets that don’t already do this will become aware of the need and begin the practice. And those that do will be encouraged to continue.
Consider putting this information on your social media page (along with pictures of your beautiful market) to spread the word. The illusion that healthy food is not affordable is creating a devastating health disparity. Please be part of the solution!
13. What do you do with left over or ugly produce?
Ugly produce is produce that doesn’t look market perfect. It might be off color or unusual size or shape. It is just as good and nutritious but it doesn’t look quite right. Your vendor might work with a distributor like Hungry Harvest or Imperfect Produce (check them out for home delivery options in your area). They might also donate to local food banks and sometimes they have a discounted section at their stall.
Toward the end of the day some vendors offer discounts to avoid having to pack everything up. This can be great to know. If you are flexible about the produce you need to acquire you can come later in the day and get whatever is left at a discount.
The biggest thing you don’t want to hear your vendor say is that ugly produce and leftovers get tossed. Food waste is a BIG no! If they tell you this you may want to ask what would help them avoid this. Maybe you could help them get in contact with a local food bank!
14. What’s next?
One of the best things about buying produce at the farmers market is the ability to buy in season. Your farmer will know better than anyone what crops will be harvested next. They might even know what’s coming for the next month or two. This can be very helpful for creating meal plans and shopping lists. You may also want to look up recipes for items you may not be familiar with so you can broaden your palette!
15. Can I find you at any other markets or do you have a roadside stand?
Many farmers have stalls at several different markets or have a roadside stand near their farm. If you love their product and their farming philosophy become a loyal customer. Seek them out other places and let your friends know where to find them too!
16. Do you have a CSA?
CSA’s give you the oppotunity to support a farm directly by buying a share at the beginning of the season. If you frequent the same vendor regularly you may want to consider joining their CSA if they offer one. This is a great way to get directly involved and to directly support the farm! For more on CSA’s check out Real Ways to Eat Healthy on a Tight Budget.
Enjoy the market
Now that you know exactly what you might want to ask while you’re at the farmers market there is no reason to be overwhelmed. Head out to the market and enjoy the beautiful day!
Share this with your friends and family and encourage them to get out to their local farmer’s market too! Supporting local farmers is a great way to safeguard your health and the environment and to build community!
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