What I eat and where my food comes from are very important to me, and I know these are things many of you value as well. As much as I'd love to grow my own garden, I'm not very good at keeping things alive and thriving. That's why I'm happy to let the pros do it and when seasonal produce is plentiful, I heavily rely on my favourite farmers at local markets to keep me stocked.
Developing relationships with the people who grow your food takes time, but is well worth the effort. When you're beginning to explore farmers markets and local food, there are a number of 'first date' questions you can ask to discover whether the farmer in question is right for you and values the same things you do.
So today let's talk about the important questions to ask your farmer at the market. Farmers and food producers are an incredible resource because they're the ones who are growing the food! I have never met a farmer who doesn't take pride in his or her work - and farmers are usually happy to chat with you and answer your questions, even during busy market hours.
The key to asking questions is being nice about it. A part of my creed is to flirt with farmers. Now, in this context I don't mean flirt with them to get them into your bed (even if it's an organic, non-toxic bed), but it's genuinely a good practice to be respectful, kind and curious when asking questions about where your food comes from. You catch more flies with honey than vinegar, so be sweet.
Questions to Ask Your Farmer at the Market
1. What sprays/pesticides/herbicides do you use?
Some farmers markets have certain rules and restrictions about the types farming practices they expect from their vendors. But not all do. Ask what kinds of synthetic sprays, pesticides and herbicides farmers use to grow and tend to their produce.
A recent meta-analysis of 343 studies concluded that organic produce is higher in antioxidants, lower in pesticide residues and lower in heavy metals than conventional. Reducing our exposure by purchasing pesticide-free fruits and veggies is a fundamental place to start.
2. What kind of pest control measures do you use? Do you spray all year or at the beginning of the season, or only as needed?
Some farmers may not use pesticides on a regular basis, but only in special circumstances when there is an infestation or maybe at the beginning of the growing season. Inquire about this, as well as the farmer's approach to dealing with pests. Pest control is a part of farming no matter what - but methods to deal with it differ.
Do they choose certain varieties of plants that are more resistant to pests? Do they create an environment that attracts beneficial insects that eat the pests? Do they rotate crops and have other animals on the farm that deal with pests? (What's a pest to us is dinner to another!)
3. What kind of soil do you use?
Fruits and vegetables get their nutrients from the soil - and that means a fruit or veggie is only as nourishing as the soil in which it was grown.
Great, fertile soil is its own ecosystem, with microorganisms and organisms that work together to break down and create nutrient-rich matter. Soil also works within the larger ecosystem of the farm, including the animals that fertilize or graze, the birds in the area, the water used, the sunshine, and more. A good farmer will understand this symbiotic environment and work to create soil that is nourishing.
Pesticides, monocropping and tillage all affect soil quality. Research shows that the vitamin and mineral content of our produce has declined in recent decades. An apple your grandmother ate as a child was actually more nutrient-rich than most apples available today.
Another major issue with soil is soil erosion because of our chemical farming practices. Fertile topsoil takes time to develop, but most crops aren't given that opportunity. Scientists predict if soil degradation continues at the current rate, we'll only have 60 years of farming left.
Scary? Yes. But thankfully, there are farmers who prioritize the integrity of their soil and making sure they create a farm environment that will support future generations.
4. Do you have any certifications?
Ask your farmer if he or she has any certifications, such as certified organic or any animal welfare certifications if the farm raises animals. These certifications will vary from country to country.
Now, normally I say that labels are for tin cans and certifications aren't the whole story of a farm. But it's good to know if your farmer has pursued any relevant certifications.
It's definitely possible that a farm practices organic and biodynamic growing techniques, but can't afford the expensive certification practice. That's why it's equally important to ask about how they grow their food.
5. What variety of crops do you grow?
Ask your farmer about the kinds of produce they grow throughout the year and their crop rotation methods. This gives you an indication of whether they are trying to support soil fertility, as different plants take certain nutrients from the soil. Crop rotation allows the soil to rest and replenish.
Also, asking about what crops they grow tells you what you have to look forward to and if that farmer grows the types of produce you like. There are a cornucopia of fruits and veggies in the world, and maybe that farmer focuses on foods that aren't your faves.
6. Do you use GMO seeds?
Just as the soil is important, so are the types of seeds that are planted in that soil. You know that I am not a proponent of genetically modified foods - you can learn why and how to have a conversation about them if you're interested.
7. For animal products: How are the animals housed and treated? What are they fed? How much fresh air and exercise do they get?
If you eat and buy animal products, it's important to ask your farmer at the market how he or she raises animals.
Organic, grass-fed and pasture raised animals are more humane and from a nutritional perspective, they actually yield a more nutritious product. Grass-fed beef contains higher amounts of anti-inflammatory omega-3s, antioxidants and conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), which helps with fat burning and protects against carcinogens, artery plaque and diabetes. If you consume dairy, organic milk and organic cheese have more CLA and omega-3s than conventional.
Ask your farmer how they raise and treat their animals. For a full list of what questions to ask about each specific animal, check out this great resource.
8. Can I come and visit your farm?
Most farmers who are proud of what they do and have nothing to hide will be happy to welcome guests to their farms for visits and tours. But don't show up unannounced whenever you want - ask for a scheduled visit so you know the farmer has the time to show you around when it's convenient for him/her.
Remember that farming is hard work so there may be a certain time of the day that's the best, so work around the farmer's schedule.
9. What are your favourite ways to prepare X?
Don't forget that farmers are a goldmine of ideas on the culinary side of things. If they are selling a fruit or vegetable that is unfamiliar to you, ask how to best prepare and use it. For veggies that you know and love, they may give you new ideas and inspiration for cooking and preparation.
They can also offer great advice about storage, preserving and fermenting, so tap into their culinary prowess.
10. Do you have a CSA program?
Community Supported Agriculture - CSA for short - is a wonderful way to support farmers and reap the benefits of the produce they grow. Basically, you purchase a share up front and then once the produce is ready, you get a weekly box for a certain number of weeks. This exposes you to seasonal fruits and veggies and may introduce you to things you've never thought to buy before.
Since you don't necessarily know what will be in your box each week, it's a great surprise and allows you to experiment with 'cooking on the fly'. But if you are panicked by the Iron Chef-style surprise ingredient cooking, this may not be the best option for you.
More things to consider about participating in a CSA right over here.
Purchasing from local farmers helps to support the local economy, fuel your optimal health, and improve the environment by reducing the distance that food travels from farm to plate. Chat up your local farmers at the farmers markets and be curious and open minded - I think you'll be surprised at how much valuable knowledge you'll learn.
Photo Credit: Catherine Farquharson for The UnDiet Cookbook