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!).

 

Again, it is a tall order to ask a consumer to quiz a grower about their organic certification. “Yes, I’m certified organic, ma’am. “ Not good enough, sorry! Where are your documents?

More from the alliance:

If a vendor makes claims about being “pesticide free,” consumers should ask how they control pests and diseases. Since both organic and conventional farmers use pesticides when other pest and disease control strategies fail, a claim of “pesticide free” needs explanation. If a vendor can’t adequately explain how pests and diseases are controlled, it may be wise to move on. A consumer should also be aware that if a vendor states that he/she is “certified pesticide free” that no such certification exists.

At this point, our beleaguered farmers’ market vendor is wondering how much squash and tomatoes our inquisitive shopper will purchase. “Just how do you control the leaf hopper, sir?” the young mom probed. This sale better be worth more than a couple of bucks, he is thinking.

The alliance concludes:

3) Part of the fun of shopping at a farmers’ markets is meeting the people who are actually growing the food. Unfortunately, there have been incidents where vendors purchase produce from another source and then sell them as their own. (One such case was associated with a recent e.coli outbreak at a farmers’ market.) So, ask general questions about the farm: how long have they been farming; how many acres do they have; where is the farm located; when were the fruits and veggies harvested? By just asking a few polite questions, consumers will quickly see if the vendor legitimately grew the food that they are selling. And, consumers may learn some interesting farming facts as well, which will add to the shopping experience.

I might flip/flop the order of these questions. Start out with number three. “How long have you been farming?” is probably the question that these vendors get asked more than any other. It is a conversation lid-lifter. But tread lightly on “How many acres do you have?”; that’s a breach of etiquette for any size of grower.

In my view the point of the alliance’s “suggested questions” is to show the context of those small vendors compared with commercial shippers, who have to endure these questions and many more. If our farmer’s market inquiry resembles a Good Agricultural Practices audit that these local growers never had, all the better; it kills two birds with one stone.

The alliance writes:

These suggested questions are quite similar to those asked by local grocery stores and restaurants of the farmers who supply their fruits and vegetables. Most stores require water testing, documentation of fertilizers used, organic certification documentation, documentation of worker safety and hygiene standards, etc. to protect their consumers and ensure they receive the safest foods possible. Most stores also mandate that conventional and organic farms are regularly audited to ensure compliance with food safety standards. Farmers who sell to local grocery stores and restaurants are also subject to stringent government laws and regulations regarding any pesticide usage which are verified through enforcement measures and federal and state product sampling programs. Vendors selling at farmers’ markets are not subject to the same scrutiny by any buying entity or the government, therefore it is up to the consumers themselves to ask these questions and learn more about how the food is produced.

Buying from farmers’ markets can be an enjoyable and satisfying experience. But adopting a bit of a “buyer beware” attitude is recommended – after all, your family is going to eat this food! So ask a few questions – real farmers will enthusiastically and happily answer them. If they don’t or can’t, it might be wise to find another vendor.

Read, learn, choose, but eat more organic and conventional fruits and veggies for improved health.

 

Consumers who go to a farmers market are on a feel-good field trip, and don’t want to entertain any notions that their trip is in vain. They have the scantest concern about food safety, though they should. The only thing the consumer wants the vendor to deliver is a really fine, overpriced tomato. A backdrop of a beat-up pickup truck and a straw hat might sweeten the deal.

But I have to admit it might be painfully funny – and more than a little revealing – to see these questions asked and see real farmers “enthusiastically and happily” answer them.



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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 safefruitsandveggies.com.

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.

Lauren    
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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