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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What is “Sustainable” Food?

the farmer in love - il contadino innamorato

the farmer in love – il contadino innamorato (Photo credit: Uberto)

So the first letter in “SOLE Food Kitchen” is “S” for Sustainable. But what in the world does that mean?

The word “sustainability” is probably this year’s most overused buzzword. It must be the trendy replacement for “green”. Everyone from businesses to teachers are trying to be “sustainable” in what they do and how they do it. Or, at least, they say they are. Who knows what they are doing in practice. In the case of many large food corporations, what they are really doing is “greenwashing” existing practices by using a word that bears no resemblance to reality. But that’s my peeve for the day.

More farmers are using the “sustainable agriculture” term, but what exactly does that mean? And how will I know if they are really “sustainable” or just using the jargon as a marketing tool? I found myself getting a little muddled on the subject, so I started doing some research to clarify the issues for myself. And here is what I found.

Sustainable agriculture is “farming that provides a secure living for farm families; maintains the natural environment and resources; supports the rural community; and offers respect and fair treatment to all involved, from farm workers to consumers to the animals raised for food.” (www.sustainabletable.org)

While sustainable agriculture includes organic food production, it is a larger philosophy that promotes living wages for farmers and farm workers, healthy environments for humans and animals on the farm, caring for the land so it is not depleted of its richness and fertility, and reducing the carbon foot print of our food by encouraging consumers to buy as local as possible. Unlike the term “organic,” there is no certification for a farmer to be “sustainable.”

So, how do I know if a farmer is using sustainable agricultural practices or not? The Sustainable Table initiative offers loads of resources to help consumers, including lists of questions to ask farmers, produce managers, even grocery store workers. This is a great resource for anyone wanting to learn more about sustainable agriculture. It is offered by the Grace Communications Foundation, a non-profit group dedicated to highlighting the connections between food, water and energy. Here is the link to their question sheets:http://www.sustainabletable.org/shop/questions/

Would a farmer lie about being sustainable? I can’t say “no”, but my guess is that the vast majority of farmers will be pretty upfront about how they grow their crops or raise their animals. The questions certainly help since they are very specific. If you get wishy-washy answers or defensive responses, keep moving!

We have found this strategy of coming prepared with a few questions that we ask every farmer to be very helpful in both understanding how farms work and also opening up a conversation with farmers we don’t know. I hope you find it useful as well!

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