Farmer’s Market season is beginning!
Farmer’s Market are my favorite places to visit. During the height of Summer and Fall the colors, scents, and energy of freshly picked produce is exciting. I’ve been known to happily drive an hour to get to a great market. Luckily, in NJ we have plenty of fun markets teeming with local produce.
However, when you visit a market it can be confusing to know what the labels mean, which questions to ask about the produce, and which farms to buy from. I’ve listed a few questions that will help you learn about the produce you’re buying the the hard-working farmer you are supporting.
A FEW QUESTIONS TO ASK A FARMER
Do you grow your own produce?
When I first started visiting Farmer’s markets I didn’t realize that I needed to ask this question. I assumed that if someone has a table at a market and a sign calling themselves “[Some Pretty] Farm”, then they are a farmer. However, some sellers are middlemen just like a grocery store is and source their produce from all over the country (just like a grocery store). They choose to sell it through markets instead of a storefront. Also, some sellers provide some of their own produce as well as products from other local farms.
What are your growing practices?
I usually ask ‘Are you an organic farm? or ‘Do you grow organically?’ since buying organic is a must for me, but the above question is more general. There are many types of responses, which I outlined below to give you an idea of what all the terms mean:
- Certified Organic: This is the USDA certification indicating that a farm is “protecting natural resources, conserving biodiversity, and using only approved substances.” (from USDA site https://www.ams.usda.gov/grades-standards/organic-standards) These farms have gone through a lengthy process proving that their growing practices do not use synthetic fertilizers and pesticides and are not harming the environment or animals. This label also means that seeds are not genetically-modified.
- Organic but not certified: Many farms follow organic practices but do not go through the process of becoming certified. The exact definition for this term varies but will likely be expanded upon by the farmer when you ask about their practices.
- Low spray: Low spray methods include the use of some pesticides or herbicides, but not at a level of ‘conventional’ farms. The type of spray differs per farm- some are organic and some not. This method is used when specific crops are routinely attacked by insects and would not be able to be grown on a large enough scale for the farm to sell. Apple orchards, for example, are particularly difficult to sustain in the Northeast, so some farms will choose low-spray methods as a way to sustain their orchard without fully using conventional methods of high-spraying.
- Beyond organic: This is a self-designation, meaning a few farms I have found do not use any manufactured sprays at all, but instead will use alternative methods of fertilizing and protecting against insects. When I spent a season working on a farm, the owners were using alternative methods, such as making their own sprays with molasses and cayenne pepper to keep certain bugs away. This is not very common but I have seen it pop up more and more!
- Integrated pest management: This technique is a way to control insects and weeds while focusing on sustainable practices, such as natural methods and those least likely to upset the ecosystem. Many different types of methods are used on these farms and the farmer will likely be open to explaining their practices.
- Conventional: Conventional practices are the most common means of growing produce. These farms use synthetic sprays and seeds that could be genetically-modified.
Do you give a bulk discount?
Buying in bulk can drastically reduce the price of the produce you use the most. This works especially well for produce that keeps for a while, such as onions, apples, squash, or cabbage. Or, if you’re interested in canning, freezing, or other preservation methods, buying in bulk will give you amazing produce all year! Keep in mind that ‘bulk’ usually means a bushel or half bushel, which can range from 25-60 pounds depending on the product.
ORGANIC OR NOT?
Choosing whether to purchase organic produce is a personal decision, usually based on preferences about spraying, economics, or local factors. To help with the decision check out the Environmental Working Group’s ‘Dirty Dozen’ and ‘Clean Fifteen’ lists, which test the produce with the most and least pesticide residues.
Dirty Dozen: These fruits and veggies have the most pesticide residue and should be purchased organically.
Clean Fifteen: This produce has the least amount of pesticide residue and are safer to buy conventionally.