Food For Thought: Don’t Be Fooled – Stay Educated About Your Food Purchases – Last updated March 22, 2017
As Spring gets underway, roadside produce stands and farmers markets will be booming with customer traffic. These can offer excellent opportunities to purchase local, healthy food while also helping the local economy, local farmers and other food producers, but sometimes these venues are not what they appear. So, depending on your priorities when it comes to food, don’t be afraid to keep the vendors honest by asking the right questions about how and where the food and flowers they are selling were grown.
Are you talking to the farmer/producer/owner?
Before asking any questions, make sure you are talking to the actual farmer or producer of the products. During a visit to a local farmer’s market, we were talking with somebody working a booth billed as a family farm. They insisted they had grown the beautiful, perfect, yellow and not yet in season squash that was laid out basket upon basket on their display table. We couldn’t figure out how they had gotten their first squash in so early, so we kept asking questions so that maybe we could pick up some tips from them. Turns out the person we were asking was a neighbor who was merely helping work the booth. Eventually, the real farmer overheard our conversation and stepped in to clarify that these were squash they purchased by the case from wholesalers. Be sure you know who you are talking with when you start asking questions, and don’t believe the answers unless it really is the grower to whom you are talking. We’ve yet to find a genuine farmer who will flat out lie about what they are selling, although we’ve heard of this type of thing in other parts of the country and with other food products locally.
Is organic or beyond organic important to you?
If so, ask the sellers how their produce and flowers were grown. Certified organic or not, were the crops sprayed with synthetic fertilizers, insecticides, fungicides, and the like? If you ask if the crops were grown “conventionally” and they vendor answers yes (or worse, they don’t know), then they are not organic.
Who grew the crops for sale? Is knowing the grower important to you?
Right before we started commercially growing produce almost 13 years ago, Laurie stopped one day at a new country roadside produce stand. The lady there had a large table and a beautiful display of a bounty of fresh vegetables and fruits. Turns out she had purchased them from a wholesaler at a large nearby farmers market and was simply reselling them. She had no connection to the farms or farmers who grew these crops – neither did the wholesalers from whom she bought them. It wasn’t clear where these crops were grown. How can we know how they were grown if we don’t know even where or by whom they were grown?
And even in the case of the farmer selling their own crops, it doesn’t mean they are growing all they are selling. While we no longer sell food from other local, like-minded farmers, we once did that occasionally. We made no secret of that. In fact, we were proud to help out other local organic farmers. And we consistently and clearly labelled the farm of origin. Prior to that, we went to extra effort to get to know the other growers and how they grow their food so that we knew we were selling the healthiest food around, grown in a way we respect. But on a visit to a local farmers market a few seasons ago, we learned that over half of what one of the vendors was selling was brought in from parts unknown, the ubiquitous “East Texas”. It all made a beautiful market display, but the seller made no effort to disclose the fact they didn’t grow a lot of what they were selling until questioned point blank about it.
Several seasons ago, we visited a local farmer’s market on their opening weekend to see if the situation had changed since last we visited this particular market two seasons prior. This is a summary of what we experienced on that visit. There were approximately twenty vendors, of which six were produce vendors. Of those six, two were growing everything they sold. The other four had grown 1-3 crops themselves of the approximately 20-25 different types of produce for sale at their booth. At the time, this market was noted in a Dallas newspaper article for emphasizing vendors be actual farmers. While these were actual farmers, they weren’t by & large selling their own crops yet because their crops were not ready. So, in order to have produce for the market, they had to buy from wholesalers. These farmers did freely identify which crops they grew and which they bought when asked. That is the key here —- “when asked”. So, just because an actual farmer is selling it doesn’t mean it is locally grown, that they grew it, or that they know anything about the farm on which it was grown. But, and this cannot be over-emphasized, you have to ask.
Here’s a couple of tips to help you sort it out:
Real growers can tell you the name of the variety they planted.
Produce boxes under the table may or may not indicate that the grower did not grow the crop. Some local farms are large enough that they do wholesale themselves. So they would have produce boxes for their crops. But if the produce boxes are stamped “Product of Mexico” or something similar, then you might ask more questions! If knowing the grower is important to you, be sure to ask some questions.
Is eating food grown locally important to you?
If so, ask before you buy about where the crops were grown. In particular, fruit crops are more likely to be trucked in from South Texas or California. If the display isn’t labeled, ask the seller where the crop was grown. Most likely, if the crop was bought from a reseller, you can buy the exact same thing at your local grocery store. And by doing that, ironically, you might be spending your money more locally than buying from a vendor who doesn’t live in your area. As we mentioned above, early in the season, local farmers will buy from wholesale in order to have a good offering at their booth. So, just because the farmers are local, doesn’t mean the food is!
Is it important to you to support local growers and producers?
There are far too few local food producers to meet the demand for local food. However, if like us it is important to you to support those local producers, consider making it a point to buy from those who actually make the effort to come to the market with their own products. Getting ready for and working a farmers market is hard work and makes for a long, often hot, Saturday. Instead of buying that jar of honey that a soap maker is selling on behalf of their beekeeper friend who is not there, so they can have more stuff for sale in their booth, consider walking down to the next booth and buying from the person who actually tends the hives themselves.
Is the farmers market you’re attending a grower/producer-only market? Are resellers allowed? Does the market management have any rules regarding vendors, and if so, what are they?
There is a lot of “greenwashing” going on nationwide with respect to local food production. This is occurring in just about all aspects, including plant-based farming, animal-based farming, cheese production, honey production, and all value-added food production of which you can think. It continues to worsen as the local food movement and organic food industry becomes more popular and prevalent. It’s even happening in states that have laws about who can sell at farmer’s markets, California being one example. Here is an article discussing just that from NPR from 3 years ago <http://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt…> . Here is another from 2015 <https://www.outsideonline.com/19307…> . All you need to do is Google for “farmers market fraud”, and you’ll see hundreds of links.
Here in Texas, we don’t have such legislation. While there are a few local farmer’s markets that require the seller to sell what they grow and only what they grow, by and large the vast majority not only do not require grower-only vendors, but they flat out don’t care. These market managers freely admit that their primary goal is to fill up booths and get foot traffic for the market, whatever the means. And of the few local “grower only” markets, only some of those do actual due diligence to vet their vendors.
While we do not participate in farmer’s markets, we know people who do, and the grapevine says that both Fort Worth and Good Local Markets do good jobs of making sure their “growers” or producers really do grow and/or produce all of their products they bring to market.
Where is the farm, and are tours allowed?
Any real farmer is going to be 100% transparent with their customer about what they are growing, how they are growing it, and the location of the farm. We don’t publish the physical locations of Barking Cat Farm, not because we’re trying to hide anything, but because when we did we had too many people just show up unannounced wanting to buy or take a tour. We cannot have the general public at our Certified Texas Floral Nursery location, as it is at our house, and our HOA would not be happy with us. We’re happy to have visitors at the main farm in Hunt County, but not just random droppers-by. We do regularly have farm events, dinners, tours, classes, workshops, and the list goes on. We welcome visitors at those times. And if you want to do a tour with a group (think Master Gardeners, local school kids, Boy Scouts, Ladies Who Lunch club, a group of your friends, Red Hat Ladies, your group of friends you meet for coffee every morning, you’re all welcome!), there are links on our web site and Facebook farm page where you can inquire about such organized visits. We are happy to spend time showing you what we’ve done, discussing with what we started, our approaches, and for goodness sakes all of our misfires. We have nothing to hide, and all the real farmers we’ve met over the years share this transparency and willingness to share what they do and what they know.
Having said that, if a self-titled farmer is hesitant to share details of how they grow or is unwilling to let you visit their farm where you can first-hand see their growing practices, this is a huge red flag that they may be trying to sell you stuff they didn’t grow. And if they say you are willing to come out, but you don’t know what to look for to decide if they are a genuine farmer, grab your local avid backyard gardening buddy or a bonafide local farmer like us for the visit. We’ll gladly help you!
Is all the produce of a particular crop of uniform size and/or waxed and or perfect?
Any real farmer will tell you this is a dead giveaway that a seller is not growing what’s on their table if all of those <insert your favorite in-season produce crop> are exactly the same size and shape, waxed, and/or flawless. All three of these indicate the crop was produced on a large, mono-cropping farm and harvested with giant harvesting machinery If the “farmer” you are buying from freely admits they grow hundreds of acres of tomatoes or corn or whatever, then okay. If it’s somebody purporting to be a local small-acreage farm, then they are not being truthful about that perfect and uniformly-sized crop. If we get two of anything that are flawless and the exact same size and shape, it’s an accident, people! Seriously, if supporting local, small farmers is important, this is an important observation to make.
Be an educated shopper and don’t hesitate to ask questions about the things that are important to you!