It’s the last day of our Farmers Market series, and I hope you’ve been inspired to find some farmers you can buy some (or all!) of your produce from. I know I’ve enjoyed visiting different places around our area, and I’ve made some new friends. I’m excited to keep trying new local produce throughout our growing season!
What’s your biggest hurdle to shopping local?
Mine (besides the distance to get to the markets) is that I never know what to say to the farmers.
“Hi! Do you use pesticides?” *blank stare from farmer* Not really a great pickup line, is it? :)
Even after several weeks of shopping at a few different markets, I still clam up when it comes to talking to the people behind the tables. Half the time I just end up paying for the food and leaving, which defeats part of the purpose behind these local markets–knowing the person behind the food you’re eating.
So I asked a few farmers and some more experienced market shoppers for tips: what kinds of things do they like to hear? What kinds of things tick them off? What questions get people talking?
And boy, oh boy, do I have a good list to share with you!
-Kids are great conversation starters :) I can bring up the foods he enjoys, or maybe the farmer has a suggestion for something he might like to try.
-”What’s your farm’s specialty?”
-”What do you grow that’s particularly unique?”
-”Tell me about your farm.”
-”What made you want to be a farmer?”
-Start out by complimenting their product
-”Tell me about your farming practices” (or even ask point-blank “Are you a conventional grower?” — if you’re brave enough!)
-Ask whether or not the produce is theirs (some markets re-sell stuff from larger companies)
-”Oh, by the way, are these sprayed, or can I eat them right now?” (only after you’ve paid for it, of course!)
-”Please tell me about your herd/animals…”
-If a meat farmer, what type of cattle he raises and why he thinks their meat is best.
-”How many cows/chickens/pigs/turkeys/goats/______ do you keep?”
About specific products
Hint: look for the Certified Organic banner or the Certified Naturally Grown logo, and you won’t need to ask as many questions :)
-”What do you feed your hens?”
-”Are they pastured?”
-”What do they eat?” (Grass-fed and pasture raised? Grain-finished? Any grain at all? For chickens, they ought to have access to bugs and stuff.)
-”Do you vaccinate or use antibiotics?”
-”If given antibiotics, how long before that cow can be slaughtered for the market?”
-”Where is the meat processed? IS it USDA-inspected?”
-What kind of herd he has (Jersey is great but Holstein or crosses are fine)
-”How many does you milk?
-”Do you milk once a day or twice a day?
-”Tell me about how the milk is processed.” I.e., how it’s handled from being taken from the cow until you get it. Look for — the cows are milked and it all goes into the cooling tank immediately (larger operations) or the cows are milked mechanically and the milk goes into a stainless steel milk can and that is immediately bottled and submerged into ice water to bring the temp down as rapidly as possible to avoid rampant bacterial growth. (Bacteria in milk multiplies about 10 fold every 10 minutes if kept over 38 degrees.) In the case of the smaller operations, milk should be packaged with a half hour of coming from the cow and refrigerated immediately. In larger operations, there is usually a large milk tank that is kept at the correct temp for storing milk.
-”Do you use antibiotics? (If so, how does he know when it’s ok to start milking the cow again? Does he test before putting her back in the miking rotation?)
-Does he have milk tested periodically for bacteria counts? When was the last time and what were test results?
-Are cows grass-fed/out on pasture all day? How much grain (and what kind–GMO and soy-free?) are the cows given each day?
And what should you not ask?
Here are four questions one particular farmer hates to hear. They’re pretty funny :)
And be super careful about asking for a lower price: “Most farmers work countless hours. Most price what they believe is fair based on time and effort that has been spent on growing, harvesting, and transporting to market.”
Maybe the broccoli that’s $5 a head is grown without any pesticides and the farmer was out at the crack of dawn picking worms off by hand to avoid spraying it down. You don’t know how much work went into that particular item, so don’t think you should choose its price! :)
My personal experience with price: once I saw a bag of lettuce that looked delicious. I asked the price, willing to pay more than my usual lettuce budget. I think it was 5 bucks–even more than I was expecting, but I didn’t want to back out. So I just paid it.
And let me tell you–that thing was crammed full of lettuce! Between the amount and the quality of the lettuce (fresh, crisp, and almost sweet), it was totally worth that price.
Lesson learned :)
Practice Makes Perfect
The main vibe I’m picking up from these suggestions is that if you show a genuine interest in the farmer and his product (not just in paying the lowest price), you’re likely to have a nice conversation, make a new friend, learn something, and be well on your way to “getting to know your farmer.” By making a friend first, you won’t feel quite so out of place asking the more “nosy” questions about specific farming practices.
And don’t expect to learn everything at your first visit. I don’t know this for sure, but I bet repeat customers are one reason farmers love going to markets :) Go again and ask a new question the next time!
(Thanks to Natasha, Maryanne, Debra, and Anna for their ideas and input! Tons of great advice from these ladies!)
Now it’s your turn: what’s your go-to conversation starter at a farmers market? Were these tips helpful? :)