Questions to Ask When Shopping at Farmers' Markets

6/12/2013 11:29 AM

Buying local fruits and veggies at a Farmers’ Market is a popular trend today.  However, consumers who enjoy shopping at Farmers’ Markets should ask some simple questions to ensure that these foods are grown safely and in a responsible manner.

1)      Unlike fruits and vegetables grown and sold to your local grocery stores, fruits and veggies sold at farmers’ markets are often unregulated when it comes to food safety standards.  Therefore consumers should ask the farmers’ market vendor about the water used on the farm and if it is tested for safety.  It is also a good idea to ask about the types of fertilizers that are used. (Manure should be properly composted since raw manure can pose a food safety risk.) It may also be wise to ask about any livestock being raised on the farm.  If the answer is “yes,” ask if any measures are taken to keep livestock away from fruit and vegetable crops.

2)      Many claims are often made at farmers’ markets, like “certified organic” or “pesticide free.”  Organic certification is a rigorous process and the farmer must undergo regular audits to ensure that he/she is, in fact, farming to the organic standard.  If a farmer is certified as organic then they will have documentation verifying this and will happily show it (after all they worked hard for it!).  If a vendor makes claims about being “pesticide free,” consumers should ask how they control pests and diseases.  Since both organic and conventional farmers use pesticides when other pest and disease control strategies fail, a claim of “pesticide free” needs explanation.  If a vendor can’t adequately explain how pests and diseases are controlled, it may be wise to move on.  A consumer should also be aware that if a vendor states that he/she is “certified pesticide free” that no such certification exists.

3)      Part of the fun of shopping at a farmers’ markets is meeting the people who are actually growing the food.  Unfortunately, there have been incidents where vendors purchase produce from another source and then sell them as their own.  (One such case was associated with a recent e.coli outbreak at a farmers’ market.) So, ask general questions about the farm: how long have they been farming; how many acres do they have; where is the farm located; when were the fruits and veggies harvested?  By just asking a few polite questions, consumers will quickly see if the vendor legitimately grew the food that they are selling.  And, consumers may learn some interesting farming facts as well, which will add to the shopping experience.

These suggested questions are quite similar to those asked by local grocery stores and restaurants of the farmers who supply their fruits and vegetables.  Most stores require water testing, documentation of fertilizers used, organic certification documentation, documentation of worker safety and hygiene standards, etc. to protect their consumers and ensure they receive the safest foods possible.  Most stores also mandate that conventional and organic farms are regularly audited to ensure compliance with food safety standards.  Farmers who sell to local grocery stores and restaurants are also subject to stringent government laws and regulations regarding any pesticide usage which are verified through enforcement measures and federal and state product sampling programs.  Vendors selling at farmers’ markets are not subject to the same scrutiny by any buying entity or the government, therefore it is up to the consumers themselves to ask these questions and learn more about how the food is produced.

Buying from farmers’ markets can be an enjoyable and satisfying experience. But adopting a bit of a “buyer beware” attitude is recommended – after all, your family is going to eat this food!  So ask a few questions – real farmers will enthusiastically and happily answer them.  If they don’t or can’t, it might be wise to find another vendor.   

Read, learn, choose, but eat more organic and conventional fruits and veggies for improved health.

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