Shopping at a farmer’s market provides me direct access with my food producers and the opportunity to learn more about the quality of and care of my food.
And yet, it can be intimidating to ask questions.
We don’t get a lot of practice asking about the quality of our food at grocery stores. There, we rely on labels. (Whether we trust them or not is another matter though!) In fact, we can go through an entire grocery store trip without speaking to anyone unless we can’t find something or have a special request. Super impersonal.
Farmer’s markets work on a more human, connected level. We get to look our food growers in the eyes, learn their names, and start conversations. And it’s a good thing when we do because the food doesn’t come all wrapped up with nutritional info and cooking instructions.
If we want to know about the food we buy at a market, we need to ask questions.
Because the world of local food and “healthy” food is fraught with all sorts of politics, I think it can be hard to know what to ask.
For example, I know that a lot of farmers don’t have a Certified Organic designation but still follow many of the organic-type practices that I care about. In fact, I don’t care if they are organic as long as they don’t use pesticides, the food is fresh and local, and the animals are managed humanely.
Thus, asking if a farmer’s produce is “organic” doesn’t really tell me what I want to know.
So I asked some of the farmers at my local market the best questions to ask. I like these questions because they will definitely give me a better idea about the quality of the food I’m purchasing, but they also allow me to really start a conversation with the farmer.
Because, after all, farmers markets are about community and connection to our local food. We benefit when we know the farmer by name and feel comfortable learning more about the food we’re eating.
Plus, I bet we’ll learn some things about food that we’d never learn at a grocery store!
Rebecca and James sell mostly produce and duck eggs. I particularly love their tomatoes and okra.
Rebecca suggested several great questions.
1. How is your food different from the grocery store produce?
Some great answers to this would be higher quality, super clean, comes from happy farmers, picked last night
This is a great question if you are concerned about pesticides but don’t care as much about whether the food is organic. You could also ask how the farmer manages pests and weeds.
3. How fresh is it?
I love this question because most of the food at a farmers market is really, really fresh. Like picked the day before fresh. I remember cutting open a zucchini last summer and water just seeped out of it. I’ve never seen that happen with a grocery-store zucchini that was probably trucked across the country (or farther).
4. Why do you like these varieties?
Karen spoke, in particular, about the variety of tomatoes that can be found in a farmer’s market. If we ask about the varieties, we can learn a lot about the different characteristics of our food. Some tomatoes are juicier or have more or fewer seeds. Some are better for canning or for salads.
This question is useful for other produce items as well where there can be a variety of one thing, like lettuce, mushrooms, peppers, etc. The farmer knows a lot about the things he or she sells and would be happy to pass on this information.
5. Do you grow these foods yourself?
This question is less useful at the Lawrence farmer’s market because our market is producer-only. The answer must be yes to even qualify for a spot at the market. However, I’ve shopped at markets in many other places and remember seeing things like pineapples in Minneapolis. There’s just no way that is local.
If you’re not sure if the market is producer-only, you could ask a market representative or just check with the individual vendors as you shop. It sure would be a shame to visit a farmer’s market and end up with a bunch of produce that was shipped in from another state or country!
One of the fine folks at the one Certified Organic farms at my market also made a good point. Not only do farmers know a lot about how to grow and pick out fresh, local food. They know how to eat it too!
6. What are some suggestions for cooking/preparing this food?
This may seem silly for garden staples like tomatoes or cucumbers or lettuce, but what about kohlrabi or eggplant? Okra can be eaten in a lot of non-fried ways and I bet the folks selling oyster mushrooms would love to tell you about their favorite preparations. If you’re wanting to try something new at the market, ask the farmer who grew it how they suggest eating it. It’s like using Google, but friendlier!
And while some of these questions are useful when talking to vendors selling beef, pork, and other animal products, there are some additional questions you can ask to find out about the quality of your local protein choices.
Jeff from Hilltop Farms sells pork products at the market. His suggestion is excellent for just about all animal-product vendors at a farmer’s market.
7. How are your animals treated/houses/fed?
The answer to these questions could vary quite a bit depending on the animal.
For pigs, Jeff said it’s important for the animals to get a varied diet. I know chickens like to eat kitchen scraps and bugs in the yard so knowing if they are free-range or pastured is important. There is also a wide variety of ways to raise cows, whether with or without grains or grain finished etc.
My best suggestion when asking these questions is to also ask why the farmer chooses his or her methods. I believe there is a range of really good options and farmers with good intentions will be able to support their choices.
Also, if you’ve got a good rapport with the farmer and you think he has a good sense of humor, Jeff said you could ask if the farmer cried when he left his animals at the processing plant. :) He said he named all of his pigs (after the “characters” on Jersey Shore) – you don’t name your animals when they live on a feedlot. Just saying.
And finally, my personal contribution to this list…
8. When should I eat this?
One thing I’ve learned over the years is that farmers can usually tell me when something should be eaten. For example, I can go up to a stand and say that I’m looking to can pickles in the next week. The farmer will most likely be able to tell me how long I can wait before the cucumbers will begin to lose quality.
Or, on the other hand, the farmer might say the peaches will be ripe and most delicious in five days. Asking this question is especially important at a farmer’s market because we just aren’t as used to the ripeness cycle of fresh, local produce. Food at the market isn’t sprayed with preservatives and waxes or stored in containers containing ripening gases. But the farmer knows when the food will be at its prime and would be happy to share this knowledge with us.
So in the spirit of wanting to foster more connections between local food eaters and producers, I’ve got a handy tool and a challenge for you.
The Handy Tool
I’ve created a free PDF wallet guide with the eight questions I’ve explained above. Print it out and stick it in your market bag or in your wallet. I doubt you would ask all eight of the questions at each farm stand you visit, but having the list handy as a reference can really help spark a conversation with the vendors at your market. Feel free to share the link to the PDF with your friends and family as well.
1. From now until the end of May, I challenge you to visit your local farmer’s market and ask some of these questions (or others that you think of).
2. Share the questions and answers in the comments to this post or on The Food Advocate Facebook page. You can have multiple entries if you ask multiple questions. Please leave each as a separate comment so they get counted separately.
3. If your entry is chosen (at random), you’ll win a Citrus Kit and a digital copy of my cooking guide, Easy Whole Foods Cooking for One (or two!). The Citrus Kit contains a citrus peeler (for peeling), a mini microplane (for zesting), and a citrus reamer (for juicing). Huzzah!
Oh, and I wouldn’t add anymore announcements on this already long post, but the end of April is fast approaching. Would you like a streamlined and simple way to eat homemade food more often? Check out Easy Whole Foods Cooking for One (or two!) (available until April 30th) and sign up for announcements about future programs I’ll be offering!