Farmer’s markets are full of USDA certified organic produce. But how do you know if the carrots at one booth are more nutritious than the carrots at another? Taste is’t always a reliable indicator of nutrition, and not all organic fruits and vegetables are the same. If buying produce with the highest level of nutrition is your goal, here are few questions to ask your local farmer.
Where is your farm located?
It’s best if the farm is within a fifty-mile radius of where you live.
How many acres is it?
A small farm is 10 acres or less.
Are you a division of a larger farm?
Organic food is becoming more popular and profitable and some of the large-scale conventional farmers have taken notice. Many large-scale farmers, eager to cash in on the demand, have started organic divisions. But beware, they may not be as committed to organic practices as small, local, and family-run organic farms. A philosophical commitment to organic farming coupled with years of experience can translate to healthier and more nutritious food.
When did you get your USDA organic certification?
It takes about three years to get USDA organic certification. If your farmer is in the process of getting certification or has received it very recently, they may be in organic farming just to catch a trend.
What agency certified you?
Most farmers will display their certification at the market. If you don’t see it, ask for the paperwork from their certifying agent. For example, in California it’s the California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF).
Do you spray non-synthetic pesticides or herbicides?
USDA certified organic farmers are allowed to use some forms of non-synthetic, organic pesticides. These pesticides are not always free of negative impacts—some may harm bees. If the farmer doesn’t spray, they are more likely to be aligned with the founding principles of organic farming.
They don’t have organic certification, but they say they don’t spray
Almost every vendor at the famers market will say they don’t spray (because why would you buy from them if they do?), but without independent third-party verification, there’s really no way to substantiate their claim. And that’s a problem. Support the USDA certified organic farmers who’ve gone the extra mile for you.
If they aren’t USDA certified organic, but you think they don’t spray
Ask how they deal with weeds and bugs. A few of the most common approaches include cover crops, compost, crop rotation, and hand weeding. Some farmers will plant hedgerows (rows of hedges to attract beneficial insects) and will even introduce predator species like song birds and bullfrogs to keep pests under control. The longer they’ve been at it, the more time a farmer has had to discover creative and effective solutions to avoid spraying chemicals on our food.
Can I visit your farm?
Farmers should be transparent; they grow food we put in our bodies. Ask if you can visit their farm. It’s a great education and may provide you with a better connection to your food and the real cost of producing it. Plus, it’s fun for kids.
Can I try a sample?
It seems so simple, but taste can tell you a lot. Are their carrots bland? Are their strawberries sweet? The tomatoes sold at most conventional grocery stores are completely lacking in flavor (and probably nutrients). When you taste a ripe, organic heirloom tomato, you realize why tomatoes are considered a fruit. So sweet! Ask your farmer if you can sample the food they’ve grown before you buy it. If it doesn’t excite you, try another vendor or another market.
How do you care for your soil?
This is a biggie. Organic farming isn’t just about spraying or not spraying; it’s also about caring for the soil. Excellent soil health can provide the best nutrients for the food you eat and ultimately your health. Ideally the farmer shouldn’t till the soil, but rather use organic compost, cover crops, crop rotation, and some soil enrichments. Ask what the farmer does to build up the organic matter in the soil. Produce should be full flavored, not tasteless or bland. If it is, it’s probably due to low mineral levels in the soil.
Do they grow something different than the usual suspects?
We are losing seed diversity because farmers often plant the easiest varieties to grow and transport. This doesn’t always translate to the best tasting or even the most nutritious produce. Why keep growing the Gala apple when the Sikkim apple (which is native to Nepal) has 100 times more phytonutrients? Did you know that there are more than 3,000 varieties of heirloom tomatoes? Let’s challenge our farmers to try something new. We want to keep discovering all these flavorful and unique varieties. Our health isn’t optimized when we eat the same foods day after day. Ask your local farmers to surprise you with something off the beaten path. If they sense a demand, they may take a risk and grow something new.
Do you use heirloom, heritage, native, or USDA certified organic seed?
This is where it all starts. Healthy seeds produce healthy plants. It’s important to keep biodiversity alive by using open-pollinated, non-GMO (genetically modified organism), and heirloom seeds. Want to learn more about the differences between these seeds? Check it out here.
If you buy organic eggs from the farmers market, ask what the chickens eat.
They should be allowed to graze outdoors and eat green plants, wild seeds, earthworms, and insects.
Do you mind if I use a refractometer?
If you really want to be a member of the food geeks association, pull out your refractometer and test your food. A refractometer measures the way light bends when it passes through plant sap, fruit juice, or vegetable juice. It renders what’s called a “brix” or “degrees brix” reading, which is the sum of the pounds of sucrose, fructose, vitamins, minerals, amino acids, proteins, and hormones in one hundred pounds of plant juice.
Take a garlic press with you to the farmers market and use it to extract juice for your brix reading. Put two or three drops of juice on the refractometer’s lens and point it toward the sun, then read the scale to get the brix reading. Typically, the higher the number, the more nutritious the food, but use this brix chart as a guide.
It may take some time to find farmers you trust, but once you do, you’ll be rewarded with higher levels of nutrition and flavor. And you’ll feel good about supporting farmers who care about your health and the health of the environment.
USDA – “What is Organic Certification?”
Bionutrient Food Association – “Brix”
New York Times – “Breeding the Nutrition Out of Our Food” Seeds n Such – “Apples-From Potent Medicine to Mild-Manered Clones”
Bionutrient Association – “Brix Chart“
Feature image by Glenn Dettwiler on Flickr at Creative Commons