All Farmers Markets Are Not Created Equal

Farmers’ markets are hot business nowadays. The number of markets shot up 17 percent last year, and in a recent survey from Mintel market researchers, 52 percent of people said it’s more important to buy local produce than organic, which will likely drive the growth even more. And that’s great—if you’re more concerned about where your food comes from than how it was grown.

People tend to equate farmers’ markets and “local” food with clean, wholesome food. That’s true in many cases—but not all of them. Farmers’ markets have become so popular that they’re being co-opted by wholesalers, retailers, and farmers who may be local but not so committed to a sustainable food system.

If you’re looking for farmers’ markets that sell the kind of healthy, down-on-the-farm food most of us equate with farming, arm yourself with this info to ward off farmers’ market tricks.

All farmers’ markets sell local food?

Fact: There are two types of market models: real farmers’ markets and “farm markets” where buyers resell produce they bought at wholesale markets. The produce is usually not local and often comes from faraway states or other countries.

For a while, some grocery stores were even selling their own produce in their parking lots and calling those “farmers’ markets.” To find the real thing, look for “producer-only” markets, meaning that the farmers at the market grew the food they’re selling on their own farms, explains Bill Duesing, president of the Northeast Organic Farming Association. Find out if your favorite market is producer-only by asking the director or market coordinator. And use your own judgment: If your local market is selling watermelons in May, they’re probably not local!

Local = organic?

Fact: Don’t assume that just because a farmer shows up at a small market, his or her produce is pesticide-free. Under the USDA’s National Organic Program, farmers who market their product as “organic” must become certified by a USDA-accredited third party and keep very detailed records regarding their farming practices.

There is an exception: If growers earn less than $5,000 a year, they can legally market their produce as organic, provided they keep records to prove they are organic. They just don’t have to go through the certifying process.??There are some farmers who do use legitimate organic growing practices but choose not to enter the certification process, but technically, they’re not allowed (legally) to say their produce is organic. Bottom line: If a farmer is marketing food as organic, ask if he or she is certified by the USDA. If the answer is no, ask how weeds and insects are controlled (more about that coming up).

“No spray” is the same as organic?

Fact: Farmers’ markets are as subject to greenwashing as any grocery store is. Absent organic certification, there’s no way to know what terms like no-spray, chemical-free, natural, or grown using organic methods actually mean.

There are no regulatory requirements for ‘no-spray’ or ‘chemical-free’ programs. “The terms are meaningless,” says Don Franczyk, executive director of Baystate Organic Certifiers, third-party inspectors that certify farms under the USDA’s National Organic Program. In fact, some farmers may completely spray a field with chemical pesticides to kill pests and then plant their crops.

Since the produce itself isn’t directly sprayed with chemicals, some less-than-up-front farmers may advertise this produce as “no spray.” Ask any farmer advertising “no spray” produce what he or she means by the term.

Food from the farmers’ market is so clean, you can eat it right there?

Fact: Before you polish off that entire quart of cherry tomatoes on the ride home, think of all the people who may have picked over them before you got there. Dirty hands = dirty produce. And although it may be free of pesticide residues, it could still harbor dirt and other bacteria that aren’t good for you.

Get your produce home, then clean it with this cheap and effective produce spray: In a spray bottle, mix 1 tablespoon lemon juice, 2 tablespoons distilled white vinegar, and 1 cup cold tap water. Shake well to mix it up, spray on your produce, and rinse before eating.

Bugs on your food are bad?

Fact: Bugs in processed foods are bad. On farms, that’s a totally different story. Biodiversity is a major part of organic farming. Farmers who install wildlife corridors and pollinator plantings, including meadows, will attract beneficial inspects into the field to prey on pests that like to eat crops, and that means they can use fewer pesticides, whether organic or synthetic.

So if you see a worm in your apple, cut him out and be thankful you’re getting truly organic, local food!

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