The One Question You Should Be Asking at the Farmer’s Market

Farmers Market Stand3What questions do you ask the farmers at the farmer’s market? Here’s how mine used to go:

  • Me: Are your vegetables organic?
  • Farmer: No, sorry.
  • Me: That’s too bad.
  • Farmer: It’s really expensive to get certified, you know.
  • Me: Ok, well what pesticides do you use, exactly?

The conversation quickly goes over my head. By now I’m also getting dirty looks for holding up the line. Sheesh, all I wanted to know is if these sweet potatoes are worth the slightly higher price compared to those at the neighboring stand. Isn’t there an easier way to differentiate the quality of the products at the different stands? Why yes, there is a better question. And one whose answer you can judge in 5 seconds or less.

Now keep in mind that some farm stand cashiers aren’t farmers themselves. So you want to make sure you speak with the right person. Typically you can tell who that person is, though. They are usually the most humbly dressed and are sporting a tan and some dirt under their fingernails.

And now, the question: “How do you fertilize?” Here’s why this matters to me more than whether a farm’s products are organic.

Organic no longer means what it used to. Sure, some fruits and vegetables labeled organic are more nutritious and flavorful than their conventional counterparts but I’ve come to learn that plenty of non-organic food is actually much more nutrient-dense and flavorful than similar certified organic foods. That’s thanks to years of successful lobbying by corporate-backed special interest groups to lower the production standards for organics by permitting the use of controversial chemicals and processes. For instance, consider the stories about the use of antibiotics in organic apples & pears and toxic fumigants in organic strawberries.  The myriad of other synthetic chemicals that get negotiated in for inclusion in organics are among the dirty little secrets of the organic food industry. And I’m not even talking about Organic fraud, in which foods that are labeled as organic just aren’t.

The other problem is the high cost of acquiring organic certification, which is most prohibitive for small producers. Yet those small producers are exactly who I want to support because their products are often the best.

Some farmers – typically the larger and pricier ones – give you a hint about their production methods by displaying signs that use code words that indicate organic, such as biodynamic or ecoganic. This way, they don’t get in trouble with the authorities since those words aren’t regulated like the word organic is. But in my experience, most farmers are not that good at marketing. My favorite among the vendors at a local market in Arlington, VA is a dinky little stand with just one guy, 2 small tables and only 3-5 different products per week. There’s no fancy signage – in fact, I can’t even recall the name of the farm. And the prices are surprisingly low, though he often sells out in the first hour or two. But his vegetables have the best flavor. Ask him how he fertilizes and watch him light up.

Lighting up – over fertilization!? 

natural-fertilizerYes, it happens, but only when the farmer is proud of their approach and touched that a buyer cares enough to ask. Typically they begin by talking about soil amendments, like compost and mineral amendments, kelp, fish meal, bone meal, greensand, manure, the list goes on and on. If you give them more time, they might get into related topics, like cover crops, tillage practices, length of time the land has been tended this way, crop/animal rotation, etc. Of course that doesn’t necessarily guarantee that they’re not using pesticides, but what it tells me is that the farmer is conscientious enough to nourish the soil and feed his crops the best possible food, so I’m willing to bet these farmers are similarly conscientious about how they handle weeds, fungus and pests.

How do conventional farmers answer this question? Let’s start with the body language – scrunched eyebrows, tilted head, a couple of blinks of the eyes just to make sure they really heard your question right. And then it’s usually followed by an answer like one of these:

  • You mean what’s the N-P-K composition?
  • 10-10-10, if that’s what you mean?
  • Well, you know, we use an all-purpose fertilizer.
  • Gosh now, let me see if I can remember the brand.
  • Well…that’s a question we don’t get asked much.
  • Um…we use a drip based system (this one was my favorite!)

Given the troubling initial body language, I almost don’t even have to hear the answer. Those first few seconds tell me a lot – then an answer like one of these above completes the picture with all I need to know.

Now I’m not suggesting you not ask about pesticides or organic certification. You absolutely should if that’s important to you. But on that blistery cold morning when you’ve forgotten your hat and gloves and want to quickly assess that new stand you haven’t seen before, why not give it a try? Then let me know what you find out.