How to Ask the Right Questions at a Farmers Market

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Photo by Getty Images/Philou73
Ask questions to avoid being taken in by greenwashed produce at farmers markets.

Though farmers markets have a reputation for selling locally and sustainably grown food, “greenwashing” is still common. Some sellers buy industrial produce at wholesale prices to pass off as homegrown, and unregulated terms, such as “natural” and “no-spray,” imply more than they mean. While purchasing only Certified Organic products avoids this problem, many farmers markets don’t have Certified Organic sellers.

To cut through the confusion, The Cornucopia Institute, a farm- and food-policy research group, has developed a comprehensive guide that equips shoppers to do a background check on vendors. The guide provides a list of key questions to ask vendors about their farming philosophies and daily practices, inspired by the questions asked by organic-certifying agents during their inspections. The questions are designed to unearth detailed information about market goods. Cornucopia hopes to educate shoppers on how to avoid farmers market fraud while also increasing their comfort level in discussing food directly with farmers.

The questions in the guide fall into three main categories: Where the food came from, how it was grown, and how it was raised. In one example, shoppers are encouraged to ask vendors how they control for pests, weeds, and disease, as well as what kinds of fertilizer they use. Sustainably minded shoppers should also ask about cover crops, hand-weeding, crop rotations, and other evidence that a farm is positively managing soil fertility. If a vendor struggles to answer these questions, Cornucopia suggests buying from a different booth.

Cornucopia’s guide also references appropriate questions for identifying sustainably raised meat, another food that’s assigned many obfuscating terms.

While small-scale farms are often passionate about sustainability, they frequently forgo the expense and burden of certification. Cornucopia hopes to provide tools to identify and financially support farmers who prioritize environmental sustainability at every level of the food industry.

View the full guide online, or get a printable pocket guide.