How to Find True Organic Food at a Farmers’ Market

Not everything at farmers’ markets is organic or local. Make sure you ask the right questions.

By Leah Zerbe

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There’s something magical about a farmers’ market. Good food, good people, good vibes. It’s all good, right? Most likely it is, but if you’re looking for the gold standard for ecofriendly and nontoxic produce that benefits human health—local and organic—it pays to be a bit discerning.

Fortunately, with a handful of questions and a good eye, you can sort through the various claims made from farmers’ stands, and make sure you get what you think you’re paying for.

Here are the questions that will help you get the healthiest food for you and the planet.

“Who grew this food?”
First, it’s important for the ecoconscious consumer to understand that there are two types of market models, and one is anything but a true farmers’ market. In some venues that resemble farmers’ markets—and perhaps present themselves as such—buyers resell produce they bought wholesale. While this market may have a “local” feel, the produce may have been shipped in from faraway states or other countries. If it’s from outside the U.S., it may have been harvested in socially unjust working conditions, or may contain toxic pesticides banned for use in this country (both of which are things that many farmers’ market shoppers are specifically trying to avoid).

Conversely, in a producer-only farmers’ market, the vendors at the market actually grow the food that they’re selling, explains Bill Duesing, president of the Northeast Organic Farming Association. (Exception: Some state- and market-specific rules allow some farmers to sell a small amount of product from another farmer, or produce grown out of state, or baked goods containing ingredients that are not local.) If a market doesn’t explicitly identify itself as producer-only, you can find out by asking the sellers. “The local question is an easy one,” explains Duesing. “Ask the vendor, ‘Where was the food grown?’ or, ‘Did you grow this?’”

“Is this food certified organic?”
Confirming that a farmer’s wares were produced with chemical-free, organic methods can be quite easy if the farmer’s certified, but a little trickier if not.

Under the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (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. (If growers earn less than $5,000 a year, they still must keep records to prove they are organic but do not have to go through the certifying process.) “If someone is marketing their produce as organic, a consumer should ask to see a copy of their organic-certification certificate,” says Don Franczyk, executive director of Baystate Organic Certifiers, third-party inspectors that certify farms under the USDA’s National Organic Program.

“If it’s not certified, how was this food grown?”
There are some farmers who do use legitimate organic growing practices but choose not to enter the certification process (or, as mentioned above, are small enough to be exempt from certification). On the flip side, there are instances of greenwashing at farmers’ markets, too. Absent certification, there’s no one checking to see that a farmer’s “no-spray,” “chemical-free,” “natural,” or “grown using organic methods” claims are true. So your best bet is to talk to the seller, and ask open-ended questions about how the farmer controls weeds and other pests (more about that coming up).

“What do you mean by ‘no spray’?”
At different farmers’ market stands, you’re likely to see all sorts of claims regarding how the food is grown, chief among them being “no spray” or “spray free.” That sounds good in theory, since many environmentally conscious shoppers equate “spray” with chemical pesticide applications. But the truth is, there are a number or organic products farmers can spray that are nowhere near as damaging as chemical pesticides. These include things like seaweed or other plant-based materials, or organic pesticides developed from soil organisms. So if a farmer claims not to be spraying anything, ask what he or she is doing to keep pests under control.

Also, 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-upfront farmers may advertise this produce as “no spray.” Bottom line: If you see a vendor advertising “no spray,” ask questions. “There are no regulatory requirements for ‘no-spray’ or ‘chemical-free’ programs. The terms are meaningless,” adds Franczyk.

“What’s in season right now?”
Many consumers assume that produce at a local farmers’ market is local. But one way to spot an imposter is to know what’s in season before you head to the market. “If they have a whole lot of a lot of things that aren’t in season, they’re probably not local,” says Duesing. For instance, if a New York vendor is selling watermelons and sweet corn in early May, it should raise a red flag for a consumer who is looking for local organic food.

Check out Natural Resources Defense Council's Eat Local tool, where you can select your state to gauge when certain fruits and vegetables are in season.

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