Note: I chose to highlight my favourite Knoxville, TN farmer in these pictures. The Colvin Family is wonderful, and they are great to chat with. You can find them online at Colvin Family Farm. Locally, they participate in a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) and at the East TN FARM Markets. If you’re in the area and need a local farmer, check them out!
The farmers market. An abundant bounty of colors, fragrances, and textures. The tables burst with sensory stimulation, and you go forth with desire.
But what now? If you’re looking to consume in a safe, organic, and sustaining way, there are some questions you need to ask.
1. Do You Grow Organically?
Nine out of ten times, the answer will be yes. Nine out of those ten times, the farmer really believes they grow organically. It’s not that they’re dishonest, though occasionally that is the case, it’s simply that they don’t know the lingo. They believe that by not using Roundup, they are indeed growing organically. What many farmers don’t realize is that Roundup is not the only chemical application that negates the word organic.
I’ve found this out the hard way. A conversation has gone something like this:
Me: “Do you grow using organic methods?”
Me: “What do you use for pest control?”
Them: “Sevin dust.”
Me: “Ohhhh. Sevin dust is hardly organic. Thank you for your time.”
I walk away. Yes, I tell the farmers what they don’t want to hear. I’m not one to keep my mouth shut, especially when consumers are being duped, whether intentional or not. Rather than asking if they grow organically, there are a couple alternate questions you can ask instead: What type of pest control do you use? How do you handle pest control?
These questions both require more than a yes or no response. An open-ended question leads to a thoughtful answer and a deeper conversation. Many times, one can gauge another person’s honesty when they have to get wordier.
‘Certified Organic’ and ‘Organic Practice’ are not the same thing!
My favorite farming family where I live grows organically. They have an open door policy, and I know others who participate in their CSA’s. They’re not certified organic. I’m OK with that, and here’s why.
First off, the cost of acquiring organic certification is huge. We’re talking a couple thousands dollars for the original certification, and then a couple of thousand more annually for re-certification. On top of that, it’s a pain in the rear end. The government is constantly breathing down their necks.
In order to bring quality products to the consumer at an affordable cost, they need to be able to afford to grow produce themselves to offer it affordably. They need to spend their time working the farm, not the paperwork.
So, while getting a certificate in organic farming is great for extremely large businesses, it is not (typically) a good thing for small family farms or for the consumers, like you and me, if we want quality, local produce at an affordable price.
2. Do you rotate your plots and crops?
The answer to this question will help you evaluate the farmer’s honesty in answering the first question. By rotating crops, the farmer confuses bugs. For example, if I grow summer squash in Plot A this year, next year the squash beetle bugs will think the squash are still there. Their eggs have usually already been laid in Plot A, but I will actually be planting summer squash in plot B, with tomatoes in plot A instead. What this means for the farmer is less intensive pest control methods, because the farmer stays one step ahead of the pests.
Another benefit to rotating the fields and crops is the nutrient level. One example is corn and beans. Corn depletes the soil of nitrogen. Beans renew the nitrogen source. If you use rotating plots and crops, you use less fertilizer. Many fertilizers are commercial, and are hardly organic.
Which leads to our next question.
3. How do you fertilize your crops?
Once you find out how crops are fertilized, then you can begin to ask more in-depth questions. For example, if they respond that they’re using composted manure, you’ll want to find out how they source that. If they’re sourcing manure from cows that are not fed organically or treated humanely, it defeats the purpose of buying a product you’re comfortable calling organic and sustaining. Make sure that the fertilizer is truly natural and also comes from organic practice sources.
4. Are Your Products Local?
As previously stated, I like to avoid yes or no questions, so some alternatives to this question are:
“How far is your farm from *insert your town here*?”
“What city and state are your veggies grown in?”
“How far do you and your produce travel to arrive here in *insert your town here*?”
Almost nothing drives me more bonkers than arriving at a farmers market, giddy for a good haul, and seeing stickers on the produce emblazoned with “Product of Mexico” or “Shipped From Canada.” When shopping local, as in the case of farmers markets, you are doing no one any favors by purchasing products produced outside of the country. If you’re truly into locavorism, you want to keep your range within 150 miles.
If you’re like me, you shop farmers markets for freshness as a top priority. Produce shipped from afar is picked while still unripened, hardly at their peak of flavor. This is exactly why store-bought tomatoes taste like cardboard. Want a tasty party in your mouth? Buy produce locally and in season.
5. Do You Grow From Heirloom, Organic, or Hybrid Seeds?
Heirloom seed has not been tainted by genetically modified organisms. Likewise, certified organic seed is also free of GMO’s. Hybrid seeds are very often genetically modified.
The primary concern here is to get into a meaningful discussion with your farmers. You really want to get to know them and their products, and if all you focus on are yes or no questions, you’ll only gather superficial information. Open-ended questions are much more effective!
Occasionally, with the right farmer, you can indeed ask a yes or no question, and they’ll open right up. A great farmer is one that gives total disclosure. (S)he wants to tell you what is so great about their produce. However, if you don’t have that right farmer, yes or no questions need to be avoided. You don’t want to find out after it’s too late that *that* farmer was the wrong farmer.
Last but not least, talk to the locals. Talk to those who are also at the farmers market. Find web groups, such as Facebook, Yahoo, Craigslist, Eat Local, EatWild, and your local classifieds. You may find you can build relationships with others that have lived in your area longer, or that have more knowledge and expertise on these topics. You may find out some dark, dirty secrets that some farmers don’t want you to know.
That’s how I found out that I shouldn’t just be asking about organic growing practices. I found a local that said “Hey, ya know, they just don’t understand.”
And he was right.