Piggybacking on my post about buying real honey a couple of days ago, here's another scam of which we need to be aware. Yesterday I received my monthly copy of Mother Earth News magazine. In the 'news' section, there was a brief article titled "How to Ask the Right Questions at a Farmers Market." This is in response to the problem of greenwashing, which is unfortunately becoming more and more prevalent. I first heard about this only about six months ago, but it seems that it's now a common problem. And since I frequently encourage you to buy locally from Farmers Markets, I think it's important that you know there is a dark side.
Greenwashing: "Disinformation disseminated by an organization so as to present an environmentally responsible public image."
We are becoming smarter and more selective consumers, and this means that producers have to come up with new ways to get us to buy their products. It's now quite common at the local Farmers Market to 1) have vendors who are not farmers at all and have no affiliation with the farm, 2) have produce that is grown by large commercial and conventional farms re-sold under the guise of small and local, and 3) have produce with misleading labels.
It really stinks that we have to navigate the markets, once a safe space, with a more discriminating mind, but guess what? That's how much power your food dollar has. Never think that your everyday buying habits are not making change, because they are, so much so that the big companies have to figure out ever sneakier ways to trick you.
We'll talk about other options besides the Market too, but first, the Cornucopia Institute, a non-profit out of Wisconsin ("promoting economic justice for family scale farming"), has created a handy printable guide for you to take to the Market with you. It has a list of questions for you to ask the vendor, which will help you determine whether the food is really local, if it's in season, if it's organic. As I've often said here, if you talk to the farmer, you'll learn all you need to know, and this guide will help you to do that. Real farmers are so happy to answer your questions, so happy to talk about the work they are doing, because they are proud of it and proud of their product.
By the way, local small farmers often can't afford the official organic certification. Don't let that stop you from buying from them. Many of them limit the use of chemicals because it's simply a best practice; if you talk with them, they'll be happy to tell you about it.
Remember the seasons, too. If it's December and your local market has tomatoes, you should be suspicious. However if it's May and your local market has tomatoes, that farmer just might have a heated greenhouse and a very clever touch. You'll know if you talk to them. If you don't know what's in season right now (and how could you help but be confused when you can buy most produce any time of year in any big store?), there are lots of good guides for figuring that out. For instance, you could go to The Seasonable Food Guide and type in your state to find out what's in season during each month. It says that right now, in California, in early January, there are nearly 70 items I can buy that are in season. (Granted, when I type in Minnesota, there are only 14 choices. But still! 14! Pretty amazing in that climate. Some are stored items like sweet potatoes.)
Now I have a confession to make. I actually don't love shopping at Farmers Markets. Most of it has to do with a sort of impulse I feel about wanting to buy something from everyone. I get all weirded out by the vendors watching me look at their produce and then not buying something.I've been to countless markets and I nearly always feel it, especially in the dead of January when the offerings are small (as they should be!) and farmers are probably hurting. Going in there and asking questions of them makes me even more uncomfortable. It feels like asking them to prove themselves. But here's something I know is absolutely true: If I were selling my produce at the market and someone came up and started asking me questions, I'D BE DELIGHTED. I'd be so thrilled to talk about my farm and how I do things. Goodness why do you think I write this blog? Basically to brag about what we grow here! So if a vendor is reluctant to talk to you, well then, you're right to be suspicious.
However! If all of this just makes your skin crawl and you just can't do it, there is another option; you could connect directly with the farms in your area. CSA boxes are a great way to get the produce directly from the farm, delivered right to your door (sometimes there is a pick-up location). You simply sign up with the farm to receive a box of whatever they have growing every week, every two weeks, or every month. Sometimes they ask you to purchase a few months right up front - this is good for them because it gives them the resources they need to buy seed and supplies. It gives them a guaranteed income. And you get a box of great stuff on the regular.
I'll tell you what, it'll force you to cook what's in season, with new produce that you may never have cooked before. Many of the farms include recipes in their boxes so that you have some ideas to start with. It's a fun adventure! And since these CSA farms offer visits and tours, you'll be able to see firsthand the operation and have the confidence in knowing you're buying the good stuff. You can often even volunteer work time to lower the price of your subscription, which gives you the added benefit of learning what it takes to put food on your plate.
The amount of different things you can buy from subscription is huge - eggs, wine, dairy - I even bought my parents a fish subscription one year from a local Sacramento River Fish Farm. I think they'd tell you how fun it was to get different kinds of fish every month! As I've written about here before, we even had a meat subscription for a time from a local grassfed operation. It was great.
I just ordered more wheat from a local place near us in the Capay Valley, Full Belly Farm. They aren't really set up for that kind of thing, but I've developed a relationship with them over time and they are happy to send me wheat every six months or so. It just took one phone call that first time to set that up, and they've been so accommodating. We've also been there several times, to eat a fabulous Mother's Day dinner, to pick up organic straw, and just to visit the farm. They have an open door policy. That's the kind of transparency you want! Many, many family farms are doing CSA boxes now, and one great place to figure out who is in your area is Local Harvest. Just put in your zip code and find out what farms are near you!
I'm sorry that we all have to be so discriminating when it comes to our food, and not just at big supermarkets, but also at the small Farmers Market. But it's just one more step in making sure we are eating the very best produce available, and sending a message with our purchases, too.