Tutorial Tuesday #2–Asking Questions at the Market

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Welcome to what I hope will become Tutorial Tuesday! These short tutorials are designed to answer questions I get from readers about shopping at the farmer’s market and changing where our household groceries come from.

This tutorial is all about how to approach farmers/vendors at the market. We’ll go over what questions you can ask to help you find out where the fruits, vegetables, meat and dairy come from, how they are grown and what the farm’s protocols look like (protocol in this sense refers to the rules the farm uses when handling food–or what will become your food).

Asking people questions about the food they grow/raise and are selling themselves can seem a little intimidating. If you’re like me, you don’t want to seem rude or act as though you’re interrogating a suspect on CSI. You don’t want to be “THAT girl,” (or “THAT dude”), right?

Well, take a deep breath, pour yourself a cup of coffee and relax. ‘Cause the farmer’s market is a big ol’ happy place and people are genuinely glad to see you! In fact, farmer’s markets are some of the most social places I’ve been outside of food truck rodeos. If you are a rather…focused…shopper, this chattiness might make you uncomfortable, but it is part of the fun and really, it’s nice to see people actually talking and enjoying each other’s company. You can always head to your nearest grocery store self-checkout line later if you need some anonymity.

Here are some tips for being a proactive (but not rude-y) shopper. Let’s start with three things I have learned about farmers:

  1. Farmers Are Glad to See You. Farmers are not at the market to stand around and wait until their break time. There is no time clock to be punched. They are there to sell the products of their farms–something they are very proud of. And guess what? They actually PAY to be at the market so you can get your fresh veggies. I only know one grumpy farmer/vendor and even he’s grown on me some. Ninety nine percent of the farmers at the market are going to go all out to make you happy. ‘Cause if you’re not happy, they are going home with produce in their truck and that is not happy either.
  2. Farmers Are Proud of How They Run Their Farms. Asking a farmer, “What do you have that is pesticide-free?” or “Is your farm organic?” are perfectly fair and expected questions. If a farmer is not certified organic, they will tell you. And if the ARE, you will probably see a sign somewhere letting you know. Same with asking questions about antibiotics/growth hormones and meat. If they use them, they will tell you (and tell you why), but they won’t be put off by a question. In fact…
  3. Farmers LOVE Questions. Have you ever asked questions in the produce area of your local grocery store only to have the teenage “produce specialist” shrug or say “I don’t know…I don’t cook”. I hate that. Put that child to work stocking the Pop Tart aisle. The farmers I know absolutely love to answer questions about their produce and they often have lots of recipe ideas (even if they don’t cook)–and they will want to hear yours as well!

So what questions should you ask? Here are some terrific questions to ask at the market. These are printable handouts from The Sustainable Table, a truly wonderful resource! Whatever questions you ask, if you are friendly, you will get friendly right back.

Questions to ask a farmer (general).

Questions to ask produce farmers.

Questions to ask a poultry farmer.

Questions to ask a hog farmer.

Questions to ask a dairy farmer.

Questions to ask a beef farmer.

My recommendation is to pick two or three questions to ask each vendor in a given farmer’s market visit (unless you like looking like Mike Wallace of 60 Minutes). If you are at the market with your family, have each person (including the children) pick one question to ask each farmer they meet. Most children like to have a job and it gives them a fun, if somewhat scripted, way to interact with farmers as people (and one question is easy to remember). Teaching them to be proactive shoppers gives you parenting bonus points–and your results will make for lots of fun conversation on the way home!

I hope this tutorial has been helpful. Let me know! What else would you like to know about?

Next week’s tutorial will focus on the practical–how to manage your weekly menu when you’re not sure what you’ll find at the market.

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