Supporting local farmers and sustainable agriculture while saving money, eating healthier, and making new friends? What other reasons do you need for shopping your local farmer’s market?
It’s no wonder farmers’ markets have exploded in popularity. However, with the popularity comes the increased likelihood of problems. While the vast majority of farmers’ markets are completely honest and reliable operations, there’s always the chance that a vendor or two may try to take advantage of consumers.
While not likely, it does happen from time to time. So, if you want to make sure you’re buying your produce right, here are 3 of the biggest things to look out for at your local farmer’s market.
1. Where Is the Produce Actually Coming From?
Yes, the whole idea behind a farmer’s market is local growers selling their produce. And that is usually the case. But with the growing popularity of these weekend sales, there’s always the chance that some of the produce isn’t exactly local.
If you’re seeing fresh berries in Montana in the middle of winter—yeah, right. It’s very unlikely those were grown here. But it isn’t always so obvious.
Fortunately, there are simple steps you can take to inform yourself. Here are a few tips to help identify whether or not the produce is locally grown:
Know what’s in season
As you know, certain fruits and vegetables mature at different times of the year, and buying them accordingly from your farmer’s market improves the odds that they are local. To help inform your buying decisions, check out this seasonal produce guide from the USDA.
Note brand-name containers
You might notice some vendors at your local farmer’s market using name-brand produce boxes. That isn’t necessarily nefarious. Many vendors will save any produce boxes they can get their hands on because they’re sturdy and convenient for transporting their fruits and vegetables. Unless you’re seeing something like pineapples, for example, being sold from a Dole pineapple box, it’s probably nothing to worry about.
Talk to the vendors
You can satisfy your curiosities without putting the vendor on trial. Conversation and curiosity are expected at a farmer’s market, so feel free to ask where the farms are located, what methods are used for growing produce, etc. If the vendor is confused or vague in their responses, they might be selling produce bought from distributors.
Talk to volunteer staff
Chances are, your local farmer’s market will have volunteers on hand to answer questions. Ask if the market is a producer-only operation. Any legit farmer’s market will require vendors to be local producers. As a bonus, they may also know who has the sweetest peppers.
2. Is the Produce Really Organic?
When buying fruits and vegetables from the grocery store, it’s simple to verify whether or not the produce is organic by checking the PLU sticker. If the code is 5 digits, the produce is organic. Produce that hasn’t been certified organic will bear a 4-digit PLU code.
Not everything you find at your farmer’s market is going to be organic. And that’s fine. But when we see organic claims, how do we know they are legit?
We’d hope to trust the grower’s sign that reads “Organic Broccoli,” but if you have your doubts, ask to see their certification. The USDA requires that any vendor advertising their produce as organic must attain certification from an accredited agency. Vendors must keep copies of their organic certifications available.
Check out this searchable tool for finding the organic certification agencies in your state that are recognized by the USDA.
Growers who sell less than $5,000 in produce annually aren’t required to certify their foods organic. You can certainly ask about their farming methods. Or you can ask the veteran shoppers at your local farmer’s market—they’ll likely know which vendors are selling organic and which are not.
In fact, veteran shoppers are probably more reliable than certifications. Seriously. USDA oversight of organic certification hasn’t exactly been comforting. Some agricultural watchdog groups have been battling the USDA for years over their failure to enforce organic standards.
3. How Safe Are These Homemade Foods?
All those incredible-looking breads, pies, jams… do we really know the quality of the ingredients or even the conditions of the kitchens in which they were made? No, not really.
A list of ingredients could mean anything. Labels claiming vegan, gluten-free, organic, all-natural, nut-free… it’s difficult to say just how trustworthy they are, even if the producer wholeheartedly believes they’ve met the standards.
But the greater mystery is how the food was prepared. What were the conditions of the kitchen? Was it certified? Is there a risk for cross-contamination with other prepared foods from that kitchen?
There’s probably nothing to worry about in most cases. That zucchini bread for sale at the farmer’s market is likely as legit as any loaf you would bake yourself. But who knows for sure?
The best thing to do when buying prepared foods from a farmer’s market is to make decisions based on the vendor’s reputation. Strike up a conversation with the lady who just bought the jar of apple butter. Has she bought it before? Does she know the vendor?
Participation Is Key When Shopping Farmers’ Markets
As you can see by now, much of your farmer’s market shopping success will depend on your willingness to participate in the event’s community, networking with the buyers and sellers, and making decisions based on trusted sources of information.
Remember, however, that nearly all farmer’s markets are on the up-and-up. To turn a profit, these organizers and vendors rely heavily on building trust within the communities they serve. And when that is lost, so is the potential for their incomes.
But what about you? We’d love to hear any advice you might have for successfully shopping your local farmer’s market. Share your tips with us in the comments below and help others learn from your experiences.