I often get asked the question: “How can I know for sure if the produce sold at farmers’ markets is really organic, safely grown and healthy?” This is a very valid question especially since most farmers’ markets allow just about any vendor to set up shop. Most of us tend to equate farmers’ markets and locally-grown food with clean, healthy and nutrient-dense food. And in most cases, that would be correct. But not everything sold in farmers’ markets is organic or represented in an honest manner. Farmers’ markets have become very popular and “green” so much so that many are being co-opted by wholesalers, retailers, and farmers who may or may not be local and not so committed to those safe growing practices that we desire. The good news is that there are some excellent questions that you can ask which can help you to make a good decision about were to put your food dollars.
“How can I know for sure if the produce sold at farmers’ markets is really organic, safely grown and healthy?”
Top Ten Questions to Ask Vendor’s at Farmers’ Markets
1. “Who grew this food?” “Where was the food grown?” “Did you grow this food yourself?” ” To find the real thing, look for “producer-only” markets, meaning that the farmers at the market grew the food they’re selling on their own farms, explains Bill Duesing, president of the Northeast Organic Farming Association. You can find out if your favorite farmers’ markets are producer-only by contacting the director or market coordinator.
2. “Is your produce certified organic?” “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 it’s all 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,” indicates Don Franczyk, executive director of Baystate Organic Certifiers, third-party inspectors that certify farms under the USDA’s National Organic Program. Of course, some farmers may be truly practicing organic farming but opt out of the certification program. Certification is nice, but it would not be a deal-breaker for me. According to one farmer: There are some 38 non-organic ingredients that can be legally included in certified organic food. If you visit the your local farmers’ markets weekly, most likely a relationship will be developed with certain vendors. This is not only important, but wise as long as you remember that local does not always equal organic.
3. “If it is not certified organic, under what circumstances was it grown?” Questioning growing circumstances is a must. Consider the term “no-spray.” Franczyk also states: “There are no regulatory requirements for ‘no-spray’ or ‘chemical-free’ programs. The terms are meaningless.” Some farmers may completely spray a field with chemical pesticides to kill pests and then plant their crops. If “no-spray” is being advertised, ask for explanation of what is meant by using this term.
4. “Do you possess other types of certifications?” While again, this is not a deal-breaker for me personally, it is nice to know if the farmer/vendor has 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 Bill Duesing, president of the Northeast Organic Farming Association. 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.
5. “Can I visit your farm?” It is my opinion that this is the most important question a consumer can ask. If there is hesitation in the answer given or the answer is “no”, I would suggest not buying from that particular vendor. If the answer is “yes”, I highly suggest visiting the farm during the spring and fall.
6. “Do you know what OMRI means?” Founded in 1997, the Organic Materials Review Institute (OMRI) provides organic certifiers, growers, manufacturers, and suppliers an independent review of products intended for use in certified organic production, handling, and processing. OMRI is a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization. When companies apply, OMRI reviews their products against the National Organic Standards. Acceptable products are OMRI Listed® and appear on the OMRI Products List. OMRI also provides subscribers and certifiers guidance on the acceptability of various material inputs in general under the National Organic Program. Anyone farming in a truly organic manner—certified or not—should know what this means.
7. “How do you control weeds for your crops?” Organic farmers use all types of methods to suppress weeds but generally don’t require 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.
8. “How are bugs and pests controlled?” 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. Bugs are only bad in processed foods. 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.
9. “Ask what types of seeds are used?” Specifically ask vendors at your farmers’ markets if the seeds are Monsanto backed or sold by a Monsanto-backed company. Click here for a list of heritage, conventional and some organic sources. Certified organic seed varieties are, by definition, GMO-free. The Organic Seed Alliance maintains a list of Sources of Organic Seeds. Other sources: De Dell Seeds Organic and Non-GMO corn seed and Turtletree Seed Biodynamic seed. Certified organic growers are not allowed to have GMO’s in their seeds.
10. “Do you pot up transplants with compost, reuse and recycle?” (Look for worn-looking hands and a green, rough thumb as well as having a few bug chew holes in their produce.) While this may seem trivial and a bit tongue-n-cheek, most farmers look like…farmers. Taking the time to notice little things may provide you with a good amount of information.
Currently commercialized GM crops in the U.S. include soy (94%), cotton (90%), canola (90%), sugar beets (95%), corn (88%), Hawaiian papaya (more than 50%), zucchini and yellow squash (over 24,000 acres). (Number in parentheses represents the estimated percent that is genetically modified.) Blue corn cross-pollinates with current GM corn varieties. And now, with the sugar beet growers going GM, there is the possibility of cross-pollination into other beet varieties and near relatives, such as chard. All but soy cross-pollinates. It is unlikely that other seed varieties, whether organic or not are GM, though contamination may occur by cross pollination or other means from experiment and sometimes publicly undisclosed GM test plots throughout the nation.
How do organic farmers fertilize crops and control pests, diseases, and weeds? – Organic farmers build healthy soils by nourishing the living component of the soil, the microbial inhabitants that release, transform, and transfer nutrients. Soil organic matter contributes to good soil structure and water-holding capacity. Organic farmers feed soil biota and build soil structure and water-holding capacity. Organic farmers build soil organic matter with cover crops, compost, and biologically based soil amendments. These produce healthy plants that are better able to resist disease and insect predation. Organic farmers’ primary strategy in controlling pests and diseases is prevention through good plant nutrition and management. Organic farmers use cover crops and sophisticated crop rotations to manage the field ecology, effectively disrupting habitat for weeds, insects, and disease organisms. Weeds are controlled through crop rotation, mechanical tillage, and hand-weeding, as well as through cover crops, mulches, flame weeding, and other management methods. Organic farmers rely on a diverse population of soil organisms, beneficial insects, and birds to keep pests in check. When pest populations get out of balance, growers implement a variety of strategies such as the use of insect predators, mating disruption, traps and barriers. Under the National Organic Program Rule, growers are required to use sanitation and cultural practices first before they can resort to applying a material to control a weed, pest or disease problem. Use of these materials in organic production is regulated, strictly monitored, and documented. As a last resort, certain botanical or other non-synthetic pesticides may be applied.
Choosing to shop at your local farmers’ markets provides a way in which you can support local farmers as well as the ability to purchase organically grown produce. Once you determine your favorite local farmers’ markets, it will take you no time to get to know the farmers and hopefully their farming practices. Never be afraid to ask questions, but please do so in a kind and non-offensive way. When we support our local farmers, we are supporting healthy real food, our community, and the health of our own family.