Here are the questions that will help you get the healthiest food for you and the planet.
“Who grew this food?”
First, it’s important for the ecoconscious consumer to understand that there are two types of market models, and one is anything but a true farmers’ market. In some venues that resemble farmers’ markets—and perhaps present themselves as such—buyers resell produce they bought wholesale. While this market may have a “local” feel, the produce may have been shipped in from faraway states or other countries. If it’s from outside the U.S., it may have been harvested in socially unjust working conditions, or may contain toxic pesticides banned for use in this country (both of which are things that many farmers’ market shoppers are specifically trying to avoid).
Conversely, in a producer-only farmers’ market, the vendors at the market actually grow the food that they’re selling, explains Bill Duesing, president of the Northeast Organic Farming Association. (Exception: Some state- and market-specific rules allow some farmers to sell a small amount of product from another farmer, or produce grown out of state, or baked goods containing ingredients that are not local.) If a market doesn’t explicitly identify itself as producer-only, you can find out by asking the sellers. “The local question is an easy one,” explains Duesing. “Ask the vendor, ‘Where was the food grown?’ or, ‘Did you grow this?’”
“Is this food certified organic?”
Confirming that a farmer’s wares were produced with chemical-free, organic methods can be quite easy if the farmer’s certified, but a little trickier if not.
Under the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA's) National Organic Program, farmers who market their product as “organic” must become certified by a USDA-accredited third party and keep very detailed records regarding their farming practices. (If growers earn less than $5,000 a year, they still must keep records to prove they are organic but do not have to go through the certifying process.) “If someone is marketing their produce as organic, a consumer should ask to see a copy of their organic-certification certificate,” says Don Franczyk, executive director of Baystate Organic Certifiers, third-party inspectors that certify farms under the USDA’s National Organic Program.
“If it’s not certified, how was this food grown?”
There are some farmers who do use legitimate organic growing practices but choose not to enter the certification process (or, as mentioned above, are small enough to be exempt from certification). On the flip side, there are instances of greenwashing at farmers’ markets, too. Absent certification, there’s no one checking to see that a farmer’s “no-spray,” “chemical-free,” “natural,” or “grown using organic methods” claims are true. So your best bet is to talk to the seller, and ask open-ended questions about how the farmer controls weeds and other pests (more about that coming up).
“What do you mean by ‘no spray’?”
At different farmers’ market stands, you’re likely to see all sorts of claims regarding how the food is grown, chief among them being “no spray” or “spray free.” That sounds good in theory, since many environmentally conscious shoppers equate “spray” with chemical pesticide applications. But the truth is, there are a number or organic products farmers can spray that are nowhere near as damaging as chemical pesticides. These include things like seaweed or other plant-based materials, or organic pesticides developed from soil organisms. So if a farmer claims not to be spraying anything, ask what he or she is doing to keep pests under control.
Also, some farmers may completely spray a field with chemical pesticides to kill pests and then plant their crops. Since the produce itself isn’t directly sprayed with chemicals, some less-than-upfront farmers may advertise this produce as “no spray.” Bottom line: If you see a vendor advertising “no spray,” ask questions. “There are no regulatory requirements for ‘no-spray’ or ‘chemical-free’ programs. The terms are meaningless,” adds Franczyk.
“What’s in season right now?”
Many consumers assume that produce at a local farmers’ market is local. But one way to spot an imposter is to know what’s in season before you head to the market. “If they have a whole lot of a lot of things that aren’t in season, they’re probably not local,” says Duesing. For instance, if a New York vendor is selling watermelons and sweet corn in early May, it should raise a red flag for a consumer who is looking for local organic food.
Check out Natural Resources Defense Council's Eat Local tool, where you can select your state to gauge when certain fruits and vegetables are in season.
“Why aren’t you certified organic?”
If your grower says he or she grows organic produce but is avoiding organic certification because of the cost, take that excuse with a grain of salt. “I find that particular argument to be very frustrating,” says Franczyk. “The smallest growers are exempt from certification under the National Organic Program.” Beyond that, growers who gross between $5,001 and $20,000 a year generally only pay about $100 a year when all is said and done because the federally subsidized program refunds up to three-quarters of the cost. “That is pretty cheap for putting a trained third-party inspector on farm every year,” says Franczyk. Again, some farmers may be truly organic but opt out of the certification program. But you’ll want to ask more questions to be sure that they’re not talking the talk without walking the walk.
“Do you have any other certifications?”
You may also see other certifications at the farmers’ market. For instance, Certified Naturally Grown uses the National Organic Program as a starting point, but is not affiliated with USDA and does not require third-party certifying agents to inspect farms—nor is it equivalent to certified organic. Instead, other farmers in the program perform the inspections, and record keeping is not mandated, as it is in certified-organic programs. “It’s basically another set of eyes looking at the farm,” says Duesing.
According to the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture, the third-party Food Alliance certification means that farmers agree to use fewer chemical pesticides (but they aren’t banned completely), promote fair and safe working conditions, nix the use of GMO crops and of hormones and antibiotics supplements in farm animals, and protect water resources while building soil fertility.
“Can I visit your farm?”
“I always tell consumers who are buying from local noncertified producers to ask the farmer about their production methods,” says Franczyk. “Farmers who have nothing to hide will be forthcoming about what they do. I also think it is great when farmers allow consumers to visit the farm to see what is going on.” If a farm is not certified by a third party, the only guarantee that you have that the farm is doing the right thing is to visit them. That’s first-party certification, Franczyk says.
Even if you don’t have time to visit the farm, it’s probably a good sign if your farmer is very open to the idea of having you stop by.
“Do you speak OMRI?”
OMRI stands for Organic Materials Review Institute, and products that bear the OMRI logo are authorized for use in organic production under the National Organic Standards program. Anyone farming truly organically—certified or not—should know what this means.
“How do you control weeds?”
Organic farmers use all sorts of methods to suppress weeds but generally aren’t fixated on a completely weed-free field, and with good reason. As long as soil quality is high, even a weedier field will produce the same yields as a chemical field, according to research done by the Rodale Institute, an organic research farm near Kutztown, Pennsylvania. Organic methods include using cover crops, mulching, cultivation, and if it’s a smaller operation, even hand-weeding.
“How do you control bugs?”
Biodiversity is a major part of organic farming. Farmers who install wildlife corridors and pollinator plantings, including meadows, will attract beneficial inspects into the field to prey on pests that like to eat crops. There are also organic-approved pest-control products on the market. If your farmer uses them, ask for the product name, and check to see if it’s on the OMRI list.