Questions you won't hear at farmers’ markets (but should) - The Packer

Questions you won't hear at farmers’ markets (but should)

06/12/2013 03:23:00 PM
Tom Karst

Tom KarstIt is a nice try, but I don’t think any consumer I know has the inclination to ask growers/vendors at farmers’ markets about their food safety practices.

The Alliance for Food and Farming recently published a slightly over-the-top list of possible questions that could be asked at farmers’ markets.

Here are some questions that are suggested by the alliance:

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.

The consumer who asks these questions may be looked at by the overall-adorned vendor as an alien creature. “Nobody’s ever asked me what kind of fertilizers I use,” he might reply in a country drawl. “Or what livestock is raised on my farm.” “Or if I test my water.” True, these questions are pertinent enough for even a minimalist picture of the food safety practices of a small local farm. The guy shouldn’t be shocked, but he will be.

The alliance is asking a young mom/ NPR listener to be skeptical about one of the few people in this world she thought she could trust completely. It is hard enough for patrons of farmers to shop their vendors for price; how much more difficult is grading these folksy growers on their food safety practices?

Rather than doubting the good-earth farming practices of this humble, halo-wearing local grower, our young heroine may just decide to stay home and eat ice cream.

But wait, the alliance has other suggested questions:

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!).

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Alyssa H.    
Exeter  |  June, 13, 2013 at 01:20 PM

Unfortunately, this release will likely see little pick up by the general media. These are valid points regarding Farmer's Markets and some of the issues that go unchecked, but the approach is futile to get the point across to those who, like you say, are out for a feel-good experience. A more effective approach would have been to acknowledge, even tout, the positives about farmer's markets and then move on to advise of the issues compared to food sold at retail. The release does a lot of fear-mongering, which the its nemesis EWG is infamous for and exacerbated the perceived divide between organic and conventionally grown. The goal is to encourage consumption of all fruits and vegetables, not paint ourselves in a corner as supporting one over the other...

Alliance for Food and Farming    
Watsonville  |  June, 14, 2013 at 03:14 PM

As a clarification, this was a blog posted on our website, not a press release. But what you outlined above is exactly what we did - we clearly stated that shopping at farmers' markets can be a pleasurable and enjoyable experience and it can also be a great way to learn more about farming firsthand. Then we did go on to "advise of the issues compared to food sold at retail." The purpose of the blog was to point out ways that consumers can help themselves determine which vendors may be preferable to purchase their fruits and veggies from? How is this fear-mongering? It may be worth reading the actual blog post at

john pandol    
California  |  June, 13, 2013 at 05:29 PM

I vote for Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Phoenix to be our farmers market czar...snif out the undocumented farmers and those posers pretending to be farmers. Shoppers ask produce managers and clerks all kinds of production oriented questions and seem to expect them to know the origin, production practices, seasonality, storage and culinary use of 400 produce items in the department. It would an interesting survey to develop a battery of questions, including some trick questions, and test produce clerks, real farmers, farmers market types, produce people up and down the supply chain. A few journalists, activities and bloggers too. What temperature do you ship honeydews at. How do get new grape plants from seedless grapes? Why is it OK to top ice broccoli but not mist it? How should fresh ginger best be prepared for inclusion in a stir fry or suate? What is bitter bit on an apple and is it OK to eat? What is the difference between using genetic modification technics and genetic markers in hybridization in developing new cultivars and how is this different than genetic mutation? Define pesticide residue tolerations: discuss how they are determined and used.

Alex G    
California  |  June, 14, 2013 at 05:56 PM

Nice attitude Alliance. You need to check yourself. Alyssa has some good points and instead of brushing them aside you would would best be served by addressing them directly and with a respectful tone. Not sure you are representing the industry well here.

New York, NY  |  June, 17, 2013 at 10:03 AM

I am a bit confused by your message, Mr. Karst. You seem to agree that such questions, as posed by The Alliance, are a good idea. On that point, you and I are in agreement. In my capacity as both a victim of foodborne illness and food policy advocate at the local and national levels, I have learned that asking questions is a critical component to consumer education. However, you seem to confuse this message with the notion that farmer's, in their country drawl, would be UNABLE to answer these questions of process. In my discussions with farmers, it seems that they are far more knowledgeable about their practices than you imply. As consumers, we might not always like the farmer's response, but that doesn't mean they are incapable of responding. If we don't like the answers, we have to work to change the policies and practices. However, it doesn't mean that we don't ask. We can change expectations and norms on both sides of the table if we have the conversation.

Tom K    
Lenexa  |  June, 17, 2013 at 10:13 AM

My first read of the Alliance blog post was that it offered too many questions for patrons to ask farmers. Is water tested, how do you keep animals out of the field, etc.. Perhaps an open ended question like "How do you take take of food safety issues on your farm?" would be more realistic. I don't dispute the need to know, but the approach to the issue must be more in the context of a friendly conversation at the farmers market, not a a checklist of practices. Tom K

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