How to find the best food at farmers' markets

It's still the peak of the season at most of the nation's farmers' markets. Here are some general questions to ask on first contact with a grower at a Farmers Market:

• Do you grow all of the food products you sell?
• Is your produce organically-grown?
• 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?

You should be able to ask any questions that you want but a key to getting them answered well is how you ask them. Your tone of voice and the way you ask the question can make all the difference.

“Do you have a minute to answer a question? I’m really interested in finding out if you grow/raise your food using organic or sustainable practices.” is likely to get you a better response than a short “Is your stuff organic?” Here’s why.

The first question lets the farmer or the worker know that you are interested in the farming practices not just in organics. People tend to see “certified organic” as the end-all, be-all of produce. But it’s not. Becoming USDA certified is a long, expensive process and many smaller farms can’t afford it or can’t qualify for it because of some technicality that doesn’t affect the quality of their food.

If you’re clear that you’re interested in the quality of their food and not just in the label on their food, farmers are more than happy to explain their practices to you. If they think you’re just out for the organic label, they are likely to give you only a short “yes” or “no.” Many people, after receiving that “no,” will simply walk away and miss out on some quality food.

So when you’re asking about how the food is grown/raised, make it clear that you are interested in their practices and not only whether they are certified organic. If they are certified, they are sure to tell you within their answer. Once a conversation gets started, you can ask the specific questions like, "Do you use chemical pesticides or fertilizers?"

What are some other questions you might want to ask?

When was this picked? You’re looking for fresh – picked earlier that morning or the day before (if the market starts at 8 a.m., the food will likely have been picked the day before and that’s fine).

Where is your farm? If you’re interested in as local as possible, this a good question to ask. I know that some of the vendors at my local market are truly local and others come from about an hour and a half away. It’s up to you to decide how far is too far.

Knowing where a farm is can also help you feel more comfortable about the safety of your food. Last summer when there was a salmonella problem with tomatoes, it was clear that the source of the tomatoes was somewhere in Mexico or Florida. Knowing that the tomatoes at my market were locally grown in my own state I bought them freely without worry.

How large is your farm? If you’re looking for food safety, smaller family farms will probably have a better track record. If you’re a small farmer, chances are you’re very dedicated and cleanliness and safe practices are important to you. It’s not, of course, a guarantee that there won’t be a problem with their food.

What’s your name? If you are looking to form a relationship with the vendors at your farmers market, get personal. Ask names, shake hands, introduce yourself.

Other tips:

•The busy times are not the best times to ask questions. If you’re on a fact-finding mission, go early in the day, perhaps even before opening time, and talk to the vendors as they are setting up. They can set up and talk at the same time, but they can’t wait on 15 customers and talk at the same time.
•If you get an answer you don’t like, simply thank the person you’re speaking with for their time and say something like, “I’m going to continue to look around for a while.” Don’t berate them for not meeting your standards.
•Be as specific as possible so you get the answers you want, but ask with a smile.

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