Questions to ask at your local farmers' market

by Rich Heffern

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Farmers’ markets are open-air outlets where anywhere from a few to dozens of height="169" width="225" farmers/producers regularly gather throughout the growing season to sell their fruits, vegetables, meat, eggs, dairy foods and other items. They are currently in peak season. Their bins and tables overflow with fresh offerings.

One of the most important ways to get the most out of the market and all it has to offer is to ask questions, lots of questions. Farmers' markets and sustainable agriculture in general are all about establishing relationships between eaters and producers.

Instead of yes or no questions like - Do you use pesticides? Or, Is your beef grass-fed? -- you can ask open-ended questions: How do you grow your strawberries (or corn, or tomatoes)? Or, How do you raise your beef (or chicken, or lamb)? Let the farmer/rancher tell you about what he or she does. Most of them are more than happy to tell you all about what they do.

Ask vegetable growers about their own individual concept of "organic" and how they practice it. Official organic certification is expensive and time-consuming; often the grower honors the organic principle without seeking certification. Usually, they're eager to discuss this particular subject.

Also, if you are trying a fruit or vegetable for the first time, ask about the best ways to store, prepare, or even preserve it. Farmers have a wealth of knowledge about the products they sell. If you’re buying kohlrabi, for example, for the first time, ask and you will probably learn more than you ever wanted to know about kohlrabi.

When was this fruit or vegetable picked? If it’s been more than a day, you might want to pass, you can probably find some that were actually picked that same morning. Go for the freshest.

Also, you might want to ask where the produce is grown and raised. Part of the idea of going to a farmer’s market is to buy locally, but when you see something like bananas or mangoes, you can ask where they're from.

In the case of meat,egg or dairy producers, you can ask: Are your animals given access to the outdoors? How are they confined? Do you use antibiotics, hormones, or arsenic to promote the growth of the animals on your farm?

Do you welcome visitors to your farm? Often they do, and this is an opportunity both for an excursion to the country and a way to build a relationship with your food producer.

If the produce has stickers on it, it was not grown by the vendor that's selling it.Some vendors bring in produce from Florida, like strawberries and tomatoes.Often they buy at local wholesale markets that exist in every state.

Don’t be afraid to ask for a deal! If you’re buying a large amount of something to preserve, ask for a lower price. Particularly near the end of the day, in the afternoon, good deals can be found; the farmers and vendors don’t want to haul it back home.

If you have a question, just ask!

Most of all, don’t be intimidated. Vendors are selling at the local farmer’s market because they want to sell directly to customers. They want to build relationships and share their expertise and knowledge with their customers.

What questions do you ask the farmers at your local market? What's your best market experience? I'd be interested in hearing from readers. Respond in the comments below, or email me at

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