by Diana Rodgers, RD
US Wellness Meats is an awesome source for great meat, but we also highly encourage you to visit your local farmer’s market as well. But before you buy directly from a local farmer, it’s always a good idea to ask a few questions. As someone with experience on both sides of the booth, both as a farmer and as a concerned customer, I’d like to share some great ways to engage with your food producer, while finding out some key info that will help you decide whether or not they’re actually running a good operation.
1. Can I visit the farm?
You can tell a lot from visiting a farm. Usually from the minute you step out of your car, you’ll be able to tell how well the farm is run. Are the fields full of weeds? Are the animals healthy looking? Do they have enough room? Are the tools away and machines in good repair? Are the workers happy? No matter how many questions you ask a farmer, seeing the farm first hand is really the best way to tell if a farm is good fit for you. Don’t be surprised if your farmer has specific visiting hours or only a couple of open houses a year. Some farms are more set up for visitors than others.
2. What variety is this _______?
A farmer who actually grew the crop will know what variety it is. There’s a chance that they sent someone else to the market to sell the produce, and maybe that person doesn’t know. Another good question would be, “When was this picked?”
3. How is the season going? What’s coming up next?
These are also fantastic questions to engage a farmer into a conversation. The ones who actually are growing their own produce will be very articulate about weather conditions and will know what crops will be at the market next week.
4. Is the farm organic? Why or why not?
Farmers may not be able to call themselves organic without being certified, which can be a headache of paperwork and costly for small producers. Even if they aren’t advertising organic, they could be using sustainable growing practices though. Ask how they handle pests and disease.
5. What do the animals eat?
If they do feed their animals grain, is it organic and soy-free? If not, why not? It can be really hard for farmers to get their hands on bulk organic, soy free grain, but the more questions they get, the more they will bug their suppliers for it, and the more likely they will be to get it. Herbivores like sheep, goats and cows should be mostly on pasture, while chickens and pigs are ok with some supplemental grain.
6. Where do the animals live?
The answer should be something about how they live outside and are rotationally grazed. Follow up with, “How often are they rotated”. Herbivores and chickens that are on the same patch of grass each day are not going to be as healthy as those who are moved often. Follow up by asking what breeds they keep on the farm, when they slaughter, where the animals are slaughtered, etc.
7. How did you get corn so early?
If you see a farmer who is selling corn or tomatoes in June in Maine, there is something not right. Although some growers may start in a greenhouse, others are just going to the public market or ordering in to “make a splash” at the market. Most farmers will generally have the same items, unless they are a specialty grower (like if they specialize in Asian Greens). The ones that have a crop much earlier than the others most likely purchased that from out of state. Look behind their table for produce boxes indicating New Jersey blueberries at a market in Michigan.
8. Tell me about your farm crew, who else works with you?
Are they employing migrant workers or do they run an apprentice program teaching young people how to farm. This can give you insight into the quality of the working conditions.
9. Can I volunteer?
This is a loaded question. On our farm, we don’t just accept any volunteer because you never know who is going to turn into a liability and ruin your crops, plus it takes time to train people. Maybe they’ve got a big sweet potato harvest coming up and could use your help. Are you a great cook? Maybe you could come prepare lunch for the farm crew one day. Are you great with computers? Maybe the farmer could use a hand with their website. We barter with people all the time for services in exchange for produce.
10. Do you have more of that delicious (fill in the blank) ?
Let the farmer know how much you loved that zucchini from last week, or how the lettuce was the most delicious salad you’ve ever had. Farming pays crap, is really hard work, and standing around at a farmers market is exhausting. It’s hot, people are nickel and diming you, and it’s just a very long, tiring day. Be nice and show gratitude.
About The Author:
Diana Rodgers is a “real food” Licensed Registered Dietician Nutritionist, and Nutritional Therapy Practitioner living on a working organic farm west of Boston. She hosts the Sustainable Dish podast and authors her Sustainable Dish blog.
Diana will be a featured speaker at this year’s Grassfed Exchange September 27 – 29, in Albany, NY.