When I first started Sustainable Kentucky nearly two years ago (!), my inbox immediately started filling up with questions from readers around the state. The most frequently asked questions were usually about farmers markets. I started interviewing market managers, sitting in on workshops and lectures, and generally making it my personal mission to learn as much about them as I could.
Well, there’s no better way to learn than personal experience, is there? So this year, I started a farmers market in Somerset with a great group of farmers and some very devoted market shoppers. It has been a rewarding and challenging experience that has found me (as usual) just a little bit in over my head most of the time.
I’ve been quickly learning that there are a lot of misconceptions about farming amongst us consumers. Many of us sort of assume things when we see a farmers market and never take the time to start conversations with our farmers. We assume everything is local or organic when it isn’t always. On the flip side, I’ve noticed that people readily assume that anyone growing in quantity simply must be buying their vegetables from someone else, especially if they are in boxes. Why are we so quick to assume that people are buying their produce at auction? I mean, someone has to be growing all that produce that is being auctioned off, don’t they? A lot of these issues could be resolved quickly and easily by nothing more than a simple chat with the person on the other side of the table.
Yet, I realize it can be confusing, daunting even, to navigate the many farms at a market and try to decide who deserves your hard-earned dollars. Especially if you aren’t a farmer of a gardener, it can be confusing to know what should be in season or even what can be grown in Kentucky—especially with folks like Au Naturel Farm consistently pushing the envelope of what can thrive in our climate! You may not know what to ask or how to be sure that you are getting produce that is local or organic or humane or all of the above.
I thought it might help to make a list of general questions to ask the farmer next time you are at the market. This is not some sort of exhaustive list meant for interrogation to catch some unsuspecting farmer in a lie. And definitely don’t ask all the questions at once! Instead, it is meant as a sort of gentle introduction to agricultural conversation to help you get to know who should be one of the most important people in your life—the person growing the food that sustains you!
(1) Did you grow this? This seems basic, but don’t assume that they did. And don’t cast them immediately as a villain just because they are reselling. Many markets allow for selling the products of others and they may have partnered with another nearby farmer who is too busy or doesn’t grow enough to attend the market on their own.
(2) Can I visit your farm? Usually 30 seconds on a farm is enough for me to know if this is a farm I want to do business with. Seeing a farmer’s passion for what they do on the land that they do it makes it very quickly evident if their values line up with my own. Be respectful of a farmer’s schedule, always give them plenty of notice when scheduling a visit, or even better go on a planned farm tour day. Farming is busy and exhausting work and if a farmer took a couple hours out of every day to give a tour—nothing would get done!
(3) What variety is this? Farmers that are growing their own can usually pretty quickly name the variety they are growing, where they got the seed, etc. Also, there is a difference in flavor and quality amongst vegetable varieties (or even meat animal breeds), so it is good to keep track of what you like and what you don’t.
(4) What’s the best way to cook this? Maybe I’m biased, but I think the best farmers are the ones that actually eat what they grow. (I find it strange when I ask a farmer about something on their table and they say that they have never tried it!) Especially if it something that you are unfamiliar with, let them share their knowledge with you on how to prepare it for maximum flavor awesomeness.
(5) Are you certified organic? Why or why not? So many passionate opinions on both sides of this topic, but I will just sum it up. Not every farm can afford the time or money to get certified. Many think the standards are too lax anyway and so the label doesn’t matter. Let your farmer tell you their perspective on the organic label and why they have it or not.
(6) Who helps with your harvest? I feel comforted when I visit a market and see a small table with an amount of produce that I could have grown in my yard, but I recognize that an operation running on that scale probably isn’t going to feed the world. On the other hand, when I see piles and piles of green beans or corn or potatoes, I always wonder—who harvested that? Having done my own share of farm harvesting, I know how brutal it can be in the hot sun, laboring for hours on end. A farmer once bragged to me about how his migrant workers had put in nearly a hundred of hours of labor in what happened to be one of the hottest weeks of the year! Given the choice, I don’t feel comfortable giving my money to support those kinds of labor practices.
(7) Do you use chemical fertilizers or pesticides on your garden? This is a good follow up question to the organic question if they didn’t already answer it. Typically folks tend to answer on a sort of sliding scale, somewhere between “I spray the heck out of these beauties!” to “I would never use anything manufactured, even organic-approved sprays.”
(8) How do you deal with __________ pest? Okay, so if you don’t use sprays, what do you use? I also like to ask this because it can be helpful with my garden at home, where some seasons I might possibly get carried away by a swarm of Colorado potato beetles. My personal favorite answers usually involve crop rotation and companion planting rather than using chemical treatments that are approved for organic use—but we all are comfortable with different levels.
(9) Tell me about that box. Before I was running a market, I never realized how seriously worked up folks get about how vegetables are packaged. If you bring your stuff to market in dirty, broken plastic crates, people are turned off by your lack of attention to detail. If you bring it in nice, purchased, labeled cardboard boxes, they automatically write you off as someone who is going to auction instead of growing your own. The truth is that when you harvest a few hundred pounds of tomatoes, it is a serious dilemma about where to put them all so that they can be transported safely to market, which is sometimes hours away. So ask about that fancy box before you automatically assume it came from the nearest wholesale auction.
(10) Was this animal born on your farm? My favorite farms are raising their animals from start to finish, but some may just be building up their herd or flock and might have purchased the animal elsewhere. Chickens, in particular, are probably coming from a commercial hatchery if they are growing in any scale at all. It may not matter to you where the animal was born, but then again it might.
(11) Where was this animal processed? There are many complex laws and regulations concerning the processing of meat. Personally, I would prefer an animal that is processed at home, but to sell in most places in the state, Kentucky farmers must use a USDA-inspected processing facility. The good news is that some abattoirs, such as Marksbury Farm, offer tours so that you can see how your food is processed.
The reality is that you may not be happy with the answers to all of these questions. In your mind, if you were a farmer, you might do it differently or better. But it is hard to know until you’ve been there what you might compromise on. The point is that by asking any questions at all, you are already ahead of the game from where you would be when you buy something at the grocery and know absolutely nothing about its farm (or country!) of origin.
(12) Do you need help? It’s a fine line with farm help—most farms need it, but it isn’t worth their time to train someone who just wants to be a casual volunteer. That being said, there might be a specific building project or work day (harvest an acre of garlic, for example) where a helping hand would be welcome. Working on the farm will give you an extra insight into how the farm is run and also probably make everything you eat from that farm taste better! Don’t be offended if they say no—the farm is their life and some farmers may find it intrusive. But many will welcome your offer. Don’t limit it to farm chores either—perhaps they need help setting up a Facebook page, finding grant opportunities, or manning their market booth for an hour on Saturday so they can catch their nephew’s Little League game!
(13) Have I told you lately that I love you? Okay, maybe you don’t need to confess your love or anything, but please oh please tell your farmer thank you for all their hard work. Sometimes we forget that this tiny little potato we are buying had this magical long life before us. The ground had to be prepared, planted, watered, bugs killed by hand, fretted over, harvested, washed, packaged, driven to market, and then sold.
Like I said, use these questions to get to know your farmer. The beauty of buying local is that you actually can know where your food comes from, how it was raised, how the workers who harvested it were treated… When you buy from a chain grocer, you will never know.
The most important thing to remember when talking with a farmer is that—unless you are a farmer—don’t judge what they are doing. Yes, you may choose to take your business elsewhere, but it’s important to realize that we are all learning and growing. Farming is hard work that often requires difficult compromises that those of us not in the business of growing food may not understand. I think this is why these types of conversations are so important to have.
You may be surprised that what starts out as a fact-finding mission can turn into the beginning of a beautiful friendship. And maybe, just maybe, your positive influence may sway someone towards better environmental practices, too. Some of my most valuable friendships are with the folks who produce the food that I eat, and I think a restored sense of community is possible the single biggest health benefit to eating locally!
Happy shopping and happy eating!