Kitchen Stewardship | A Baby Steps Approach to Balanced Nutrition

10 Questions to Ask Your Farmer

July 1st, 2010 · 16 Comments · Uncategorized

farmer's market local food Joel Salatin’s said it. Michael Pollan has probably said it. Countless bloggers, locavores, and whole foods enthusiasts have said it.

Get to know your farmer.

Well. If the instructions were, “Pay your farmer what he’s worth,” or “Read the manual for your new car,” or “Follow the recipe exactly,” it would be easy to follow them. Know your farmer? Even as a social person, I hesitate. I’m not exactly sure where to start. And the introverts among us? They’re going to stop at “get” and add “out of that social situation, fast!”

I can’t rightly admit that I’ve done exceedingly well at getting to know the farmers at the market, but I do talk to them. I’ve learned to ask some questions, so I can at least achieve this goal:

Get to know your food.

I generally know if the food I purchase is…

  • local
  • organic
  • humanely raised
  • sustainably raised
  • grassfed
  • pastured and/or free range
  • “free” of X, Y and Z
  • sprayed
  • fertilized

go local Are you taking the Go Local! Challenge? Check out the Monday Mission on Farmer’s Markets this week.

To give you somewhere to start the next time you have the opportunity (which, by the way, won’t happen at a supermarket, I betcha…hint, hint), here are

10 Questions to ask a Farmer

To Get to Know Your Food…

Animal Products

1. What do the animals eat?
2. Where do the animals live?
3. Do you use any meds or hormones?

Fruits and Vegetables

4. How do you fertilize?
5. How do you manage pests and disease?

To Get to Know Your Farmer…

6. How was the growing season last year/this year?
7. How did you get into farming?
8. What crops are coming up next, seasonally? Are they growing on schedule? Any complications?
9. How do I store X unfamiliar food that I’m purchasing from you?
10. What’s your favorite way to prepare X (perhaps the same unfamiliar food from question 9)?

If you really want to give your best effort at getting to know your farmer, take Trina‘s advice: If you’ve purchased before and enjoyed, offer a compliment and share how you prepared the dish.

You can ask similar questions in restaurants and retails stores (butcher shops are one good example).  Tomorrow within my local resources page, you’ll get to see actual conversation I have had with farmers and resellers, just to inspire you to be able to do so yourself.

farmer's market local food sustainable

Bonus: What to Ask About Fish in a Restaurant

Where was the fish raised and how was it caught? (Find correct answers at Seafood Watch and download the regional pocket guide.) For salmon, a very common restaurant fare, wrong answers include Atlantic, farmed, and corn-fed. Good answers – THE good answer – is wild Alaskan salmon. Line-caught is best, but probably not necessary once you’re in Alaska. Line-caught somewhere else greatly increases the fish’s chances of being wild outside the fish farm.

What About the Answers?

Good point. I could give you 20 questions, or 40 questions, and you could ask them all day long at the Farmer’s Market, but if you don’t know what you’re looking for, your information gathering will leave something to be desired. If you’re trying to find produce, meat and eggs that are healthier for your family than what you often find in a conventional grocery store, if you’re seeking sustainability and close to organic, here are the “right” answers:

Animal Products

1. What do the animals eat?
Good answers: organic food, grass, including hay and alfalfa in winter (for
cows), bugs, grass, outside things
, as well as either local or organic grain
(f
or  chickens). Important follow-up:
Does the feed include corn and soy? If yes, are they genetically modified?
Bad answers: I don’t know, grain (for cows), corn and soy (for anything)
Okay answer: for cows, some “haylage” or “silage” would be a good
compromise for 100% grassfed, but be sure to ask about the corn and GMOs.
*Dropping the names Joel Salatin or Michael Pollan is generally a good sign!

2. Where do the animals live?
Good answers: outside regularly, on pasture
Bad answers: on cement, in cages, always inside

3. Do you use any meds or hormones?
Can you figure out the right answer to this one?

For more “good answers” and terms to understand, read about eggs and milk.

Fruits and Vegetables

4. How do you fertilize?
Good answers: organically, composted cow manure, sustainably, fish oil,
anything that sounds like it started with the earth or an animal. It’s great if
a farmer says, “Well, we’re not certified organic,” because they will
likely follow that up with the fact that they grow organically but can’t
afford  or don’t choose the certification. That nets you a safe, chemical-free
product without the extra cost.
Bad answers: “The normal way,” NPK fertilizer, any answer with
numbers in it

*I like to look for farmers willing to talk with me about their growing practices. If a grower or seller seems to brush me off and treats me like the kid who asked too many questions, they probably treat their vegetables with the same amount of care and research, which isn’t enough for me. Farmers taking the time and effort to research sustainable methods will generally want to share that with you.

5. How do you manage pests and disease?
Good answers: “Grown inside” or chemical free” “crop rotation” or “we don’t spray” are
probably some of the best answers, but “integrated pest management,” “we
spray as seldomly as possible,” “zero day to harvest rated sprays,” are also
on the right track.
Bad answers: “You have to spray X…” “The usual.”

It’s a great thing that one can often find nearly organic (and also “beyond organic”!) produce at a local farmer’s market. You can’t ask questions of your bulk conventional lettuce at the grocery store, so who knows if it’s safer than another? I like to get inexpensive produce that is not sprayed or grown with fewer pesticides, for example, when I figure I can’t always afford 100% organic. (I waxed poetic about how I love the Farmer’s Market once before.)

If you’re making an attempt at getting to know your farmer and your food, you’re bound to learn something and find produce you want to buy!

What do you like to ask your farmer? What answers are you looking for?

Bonus neat post: Getting the Most from your Farmer’s Market: 10 Tips from a Market Manager

If you’ve missed the rest of the organic gardening series from Rene of Budget Saving Mom, click here to catch up.

———————————————

I’d love to see more of you!  Sign up for a free email subscription or grab my reader feed. You can also follow me on Twitter, get KS for Kindle, or see my Facebook Fan Page.

If you missed the last Monday Mission, click here.

Kitchen Stewardship is dedicated to balancing God’s gifts of time, health, earth and money.  If you feel called to such a mission, read more at Mission, Method, and Mary and Martha Moments.

Photos by Marc Smith and Jill Clardy.

Also entered in Pennywise Platter Thursday and Fight Back Friday.

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16 Comments so far ↓

  • elaine

    Awesome information, Katie! I love going to local Farmer’s Markets but have been a little unsure how to get the information I was looking for (and what the “correct” answers would be!). I will feel much more confident this weekend. Thanks!

    [Reply to this comment]

  • Lenetta @ Nettacow

    I swear I’m not being snarky here!

    >3. Do you use any meds or hormones?
    >Can you figure out the right answer to this one?

    So what should a farmer do when an animal gets sick? Even in the best of conditions, I think it probably happens occasionally.
    .-= Lenetta @ Nettacow´s last blog ..Weekly Link Roundup – AGAIN Edition =-.

    [Reply to this comment]

    Patty Reply:

    My husband and I raise 100% Grass Finished beef in central Virginia. We follow the “Treat ‘em and Truck ‘em” protocol. If an animal gets sick and needs antibiotics, it gets treated, held the required withdrawal period (that’s the legally prescribed time it takes for the medicine to work through the animals system – usually a month or so – depending on the treatment) and sent into a commercial meat program. Once an animal is sick, it can’t meet our production requirements or our customers requirements. We always refer to these animals as “Someone else’s opportunity.

    [Reply to this comment]

    Naomi H Reply:

    But if an animal has been sick recently it shouldn’t be eaten soon. Animal sick last year is different than animal sick last month.

    I could be wrong, but I don’t think my parents have ever used meds on their cattle. Things like prolapsed uterus or birth gone wrong, but if a cow even has a broken bone it becomes dog food. The cows are pretty hardy – they are out in the open even in the mountain winter. I’ve heard of some farmers using ‘alternative’ meds with animals.

    [Reply to this comment]

    Katie Reply:

    Lenetta,
    I guess that’s the great thing about being able to have a conversation with a farmer instead of a plastic milk jug. The farmer can explain, “IF the cow gets sick, we…and then we pull the milk until she’s better.” At our farm, they’ve only had one case of mastitis in YEARS, and they treated her naturally, I believe, w/o antibiotics, much like I’d try to treat my kids’ ear infections unless they get too bad. They of course, pulled her milk.
    :) Katie

    [Reply to this comment]

  • sarah

    today i asked my favorite egg source at my local farmer’s market if the chickens get any access to grass, because i am under the impression that this has an effect on omega-3′s. the answer was no :( but they do get to scratch and get bugs from the dirt. but i wonder how many bugs will be in the dirt if there is no grass. i hope this means they are still better than store bought!

    sigh… i guess this means i should start looking around for another egg source. however, i am wondering if it is possible to find chickens with access to grass as i live in southern california, which is pretty much just desert.
    .-= sarah´s last blog ..wedding reception food and drink ideas part 5 =-.

    [Reply to this comment]

  • kara

    Great post, thanks! I often get the “you have to spray” when I asked about fruit. I have found a few fruit farmers who don’t spray but they are few and far between!
    .-= kara´s last blog ..Dandelion Fritters =-.

    [Reply to this comment]

  • thatgirl

    Thank you! Some of us introverts just need a good set of talking points to get started!
    .-= thatgirl´s last blog ..A Month of Pastured Chickens =-.

    [Reply to this comment]

  • sarah @ syrupandhoney

    Really helpful post! I get so nervous asking questions but I’m trying to push myself to do it. The more I practice, the more confident I get…What you have written here also helps too.

    I had a negative experience after working up the courage to ask my fishmonger questions, but I’ll keep trying!
    .-= sarah @ syrupandhoney´s last blog ..Breakfast Pizza with Kimchi- Bacon- and Egg =-.

    [Reply to this comment]

  • Lacie

    Thanks for this post! I took my family to visit a farm last weekend, as they have free range pork and chicken, and I wanted to see how the farm looked, and it was fantastic! We found the farm on localharvest.org. We ended up spending the whole day there, where my 6 year old got to help with the cows, feed the pigs and chickens, and eat raspberries straight from the bush. They served us a delicious lunch of ham that they had raised and butchered themselves. I am so happy we went to visit, as I now know that they love their animals and that they treat them very well. Happy pigs make delicious ham! I would encourage anyone to visit a local farm, and see what they do, it will be so worth it!
    .-= Lacie´s last blog ..I’ve got a garden- =-.

    [Reply to this comment]

  • Sara

    We have lots of vendors at our “farmer’s” market who are not farmers…they get their produce from the same place the grocery stores do. My first question is: who grew this?

    If (like last week) the answer was, “my dad grows everything on our farm” I am much more likely to further engage their business, and even head to their booth first next time I go. Local organic berries are impossible to find in my neck of the woods, but his berries were only sprayed once, to protect the blossoms – that sounded pretty good to me, so I bought a whole flat
    .-= Sara´s last blog ..On a Rainy June Afternoon =-.

    [Reply to this comment]

    Katie Reply:

    Sara,
    THAT is an excellent addition. I am so used to making sure I’m getting “homegrown” produce – most of our farmers have signage – that I forgot to put that on the list. Very good point! Thank you, Katie

    [Reply to this comment]

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  • Karin Uebbing

    Thanks for the wonderful write up on UFO. I didn’t know I was answering the questions right. I was just excited that someone was on the same page as me and seem to speak my language of how food should be produced, with passion. Because if you have passion that means you care and want to produce the best product you can to share with others. This farmer doesn’t do this to get rich but to have the satisfaction of sharing what I get the privilege of eating everyday with other people.

    [Reply to this comment]

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