Local Farmers Markets: 10 Things You Should Ask Farmers + Vendors
For me, a large part of blogging is being generous with my gifts and knowledge. It occurred to me that I’ve amassed knowledge not only about food, but also about the places we buy food. You’ll notice a new category in the menu above labeled “places.” I thought that there’s no better place to start than with the local farmers market. This is the first of a three-part series with information that should help farmers market shoppers almost anywhere!
Part 1 | 10 Things you SHOULD ask farmers + vendors
The farmers market can be a little intimidating sometimes. There are a lot of vendors hoping to win your business, a lot of items you might’ve never seen before, and a lot of information to absorb. Through my own experience and discussions with farmers/vendors, I’ve compiled a list of questions you can and should ask next time you’re at the farmers market! If you go regularly, you’ll begin to build relationships with some of the farmers/vendors, and you won’t necessarily have to keep asking these questions. I’ve found farmers that I trust, and I buy from them almost every week! That whole “know your farmer, know your food” mantra is definitely true. And you never know… you might just make some new friends.
1. Where is your farm/workshop/kitchen located?
If buying local is important to you (and presumably it is if you’re at a local farmers market), this is a great question to ask. Typically, items are considered “local” if they are produced within 100-150 miles. You can also learn a lot about your state/regional geography by asking this question (nerd alert). Whenever I hear that farmers have driven a long way (sometimes more than 2 hours), I like to follow it up with something like, “wow, I’m glad you’re here!”
2. Can I visit your farm?
I, for one, really love visiting farms, and I highly recommend doing so if you get the chance. It’s a really rewarding experience to see exactly where and how your food is grown. However, even if you have no desire to visit a farm, this is still a good question to ask. If a farmer hesitates or refuses to allow you to visit (without a good reason, of course), I’d move on to another vendor. They should have nothing to hide!
3. Did you grow/make/raise this?
Some farmers markets are “producers only” markets that don’t allow resale (aka middlemen), but often the general public isn’t aware of these policies. So ask the vendor if they grew/made their items. There are some dishonest people who buy wholesale items and resell them as if they were their own, which is what you want to avoid. A “no” answer to this question isn’t always bad, though. There are certainly trustworthy vendors who have farm hands, assistants, or friends that help out at market.
4. What kind of growing practices do you use?
There’s more to food than a black-white conversation about organically vs. conventionally grown food. Some vendors are certified USDA organic, but for a lot of farmers, that certification process is too expensive and takes too long. If they aren’t certified organic, ask about what types of fertilizers or pest management systems they use. In Georgia, for example, it’s nearly impossible to grow peaches organically because of the climate and humidity. You can, however, find producers that use more responsible systems and don’t just spray everything “just in case.” For meat and dairy producers, be sure to ask about the feed the animals are given and the animals’ access to the outdoors.
5. Do you have any certifications?
There’s a lot of overlap with the last question, and the farmer may offer an answer to this question in response to the previous one. For farmers that grow organically, but don’t have a USDA certification there are other certifications they can receive. A common one is “certified naturally grown,” which means the farming practices were reviewed by other farmers instead of the government. Stay tuned for an upcoming post on farmers market terminology (like organic, biodynamic, free range, etc.) and what the heck it means.
6. What is this?
If you see an item that’s unfamiliar (chances are you will), ask about it! Farmers are the experts, after all. I’ve had a farmer rattle off all 14 varieties of tomatoes he was growing and tell me the characteristics of each one. Don’t be afraid to ask things like, “what’s the difference between mustard greens and arugula?” or “how is this different from the squash I buy in the store?” You never know when you might discover a new favorite, and I always love gleaning some of the vendors’ wisdom.
7. How can I cook this?
Now that you know what an item is, what in the world do you do with it? Again, ask the farmer! They usually have at least some idea of how to prepare different items. You could also run into someone at a farmer’s stand like me, who butts in and gives suggestions. Be sure to ask about how to use the greens attached to root vegetables, like carrot tops (great for pesto), beet greens (related to swiss chard), or turnip greens (braise them). Get the low down on different cuts of meat. Grass-fed beef is leaner and behaves a little differently than grain-fed, and some cuts of meat need to be cooked a long time to to break down the connective tissue and avoid being tough.
8. How should I store this?
Don’t risk ruining your farmers market finds with improper storage; ask how to keep them the freshest! Did you know that basil turns brown if it’s stored at a temperature lower than 40°F? Or that tomatoes should be left at room temperature? I also recommend asking how long different items should last so that you can prioritize which things to eat first. Farmers/vendors usually have great advice on how to ripen fruit, how to thaw meat, or how to wrap produce in the fridge.
9. What items are coming soon?
One of my favorite parts about eating seasonally is the anticipation I have of each season. Ask a farmer/vendor what to expect in the coming weeks (or when a specific item is in season), so you can make sure not to miss your favorites! Lots of factors–like the last/first frost, rainfall, and animal life cycles–can affect when things appear at market.
10. Do you offer a CSA program?
CSA stands for “community supported agriculture,” and many farmers have CSA programs that allow you to basically buy a share of a farm and receive goods in exchange for your loyalty. If you’re a regular farmers market shopper, CSA’s can be a great way to save some money and support your local farmers at the same time. If you find a farmer you like and trust, ask whether they offer a CSA (sign-ups are often early spring and mid-summer). Some require an upfront payment, while others have a small membership fee, but they’re almost always a better deal than buying items individually.
*As always, try to ask these questions or any others in as kind and non-judgmental way as possible. Farmers are people, too, and they don’t want to feel like they’re being interrogated or criticized. Last spring I asked a farmer if I could visit his farm, and a few weeks ago I went to his wedding (that’s the love birds in the photo above). You just never know!