Greengrocer selling organic fresh agricultural product at farmer market

by Brian Shilhavy
Editor, Health Impact News

With the fall season in full swing and harvest season upon us, most states feature farmer’s markets where it is possible to purchase fresh food directly from the farm, while cutting out the middlemen that are typically involved in getting food to the consumer.

However, just being in a farmer’s market does not guarantee that the vendor is selling healthy food. Large farms that supply the same commodity-based food that you find in grocery stores will often have stands in farmer’s markets as well.

Fraud and deception can be just as common in farmer’s markets as it is in chain grocery stores, but often consumers let their guard down simply because the illusion is that food at farmer’s markets is healthier.

And with the erosion of national standards to obtain USDA organic certification, simply being certified organic is not enough to ensure you are buying clean food.

In fact, the costs of maintaining USDA organic certification may be prohibitive for the smaller-scale farmers, where today the healthiest food might be from these smaller-scale farmers who do not have organic certification.

Asking the right questions, and if possible visiting the actual farm, is the best way to find the healthiest foods at farmer’s markets.

The Cornucopia Institute has produced a consumer guide with intelligent questions one can ask when visiting farmer’s markets that can be found here.

Questions to ask include:

“Who grew this food?” Producer-only farmers markets feature vendors who sell items which they themselves produced. Other market models allow vendors to resell produce they bought wholesale.

“What is in season right now?” Some farmers may be selling produce that is not local, while others use hoop houses or heated greenhouses to bring produce to market out of season.

“If not certified, how was it grown?” Claims of “no-spray,” “chemical-free,” “natural,” or “grown using organic methods” are subjective. Synthetic fertilizers, agrichemicals, and spraying of field borders are possible. Learn about management of soil fertility and weed, disease, and pest controls.

“Do you use OMRI-approved products? If not, what do you use?” Organic Materials Review Institute products are authorized for use under the National Organic Program’s standards.

“How do you control pests?” Biodiversity, wildlife corridors, beneficial insects, proper spacing, and crop rotations all minimize pests. Organic-approved pest control products are available; ask for product names and see if they are OMRI-listed.

“How is disease managed?” Fertile soil, rich in organic matter, managed using crop rotations, cover crops, and composted animal manures will resist diseases. Organic-approved fungicide used can be checked for OMRI listing.

“How do you control weeds?” Organic farmers will tolerate some amount of weed pressure, as long as their crop’s yield is not threatened. Organic strategies used to control weeds include using cover crops, mulching, cultivation (tilling), and/or hand weeding, in smaller operations.

“How is livestock managed?” Organic standards require access to the outdoors/pasture and prohibit confinement. Mobile coops for chickens and, for cattle, one cow or less per acre are good standards. Non-organic grain is likely GMO and contaminated with agrichemical residues.

“How is animal health managed?” Organic production relies on disease prevention and bans most veterinary medicines and antibiotics. Many non-certified farmers are not knowledgeable as to which alternative therapeutic approaches are acceptable under the National Organic Standards.

“How do you manage parasites?” Maintaining a closed herd, quarantining sick animals, and sanitization measures minimize exposure to disease and parasites. Sustainable stocking rates, intensive rotational grazing, and the use of multispecies grazing are helpful practices to help break the life cycles of internal parasites. Parasiticides allowed in organic production are on the National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances.

“What is the origin of the livestock?” Were the animals managed organically from the last third of gestation and born on the farm, or were they purchased from an auction, a practice not allowed under the organic standards?

“Can I visit your farm?” Visiting a farm is one of the primary ways to verify that the farm is operating with integrity and meets organic standards. Some farms even offer “work for produce” exchanges, which is a great way to become more intimately familiar with your farmer’s practices.

Get the full guide here.