RURAL ROUTES/Margot Ford McMillen

Buyer, Be Wary

Well, it's farmer's market time again and the living is easy. Here in mid-Missouri we've had a little rain, and our local producers have been relieved from a week or two of their relentless watering chores. So, there's a surplus at our local farm stands and weekly markets.

You already know all the good reasons to shop with your local farmers. You'll get fresher foods, which means that preparation is a breeze, and the foods stay fresh longer in the fridge. Besides that, your money stays out of corporate hands and supports caretakers of the land that will provide our food supply for generations.

Finally, buying at the farmer's market means that you can ask farmers how your food has been treated.

Or can you?

For years now, we've believed that shopping at the farmer's market is the way to ensure a sustainable food supply that supports social justice and the environment. So we've changed our longstanding grocery-store habits to include a couple of hours at the market.

Now it's time to put a finer point on it. How do we know the folks that sell at the farmer's market are really farmers? How do we know the veggies they sell have come from their place and not from the corporate fields?

Because of the shortage of farmers in several areas, many farmer's markets allow non-farmers to sell, acting as brokers for regional groups. So, the flannel-shirted guy selling watermelons out of the back of his truck may have picked up those melons from fields far away.

There are tip-offs, like the stand that sells out-of-season stuff. Some farmers-turned-truckers just drive south until they find produce. That's how you get watermelons in June when your local season really starts in August. Other vendors rely on the consumer's ignorance of farming and bring tropical fruits like bananas and oranges to the midwestern market or northern fruits like apples to the south. In fact, these Old McDonalds might have backed the truck to the same loading dock at the same warehouse that supplies Kroger's.

You can distinguish out-of-season produce at your market by becoming familiar with the growing season of your community. Your state's department of agriculture or university extension service can tell you what kinds of things are locally available and when they ripen. By eating in season, you can enjoy foods at the peak of nutrition and flavor.

But, sometimes it's hard to tell where stuff comes from. And, if we're voting with our dollars for good food and social justice, we want to know.

One word: Ask. Ask at least as many questions as you'd ask when picking out a major appliance or a car.

Farmer's markets usually have a manager who collects money for space rental, arranges special events, assigns spaces and so forth. Ask a vendor to point out the manager, then ask the manager for a copy of bylaws or a list of standards used by the market. Read it.

The best markets insist that producers sell only things raised on their own farms. This means the producers know every detail about how they've treated the food you buy. At first glance, the ban against selling your neighbor's stuff might seem ridiculous. For example, my kids sell at the farmer's markets, but even if I have a bumper crop of something, they've had a failure, and we've both used exactly the same methods, they cannot sell my stuff.

At our local markets, this rule is iron-clad, and those who break it are expelled. While this might be expensive and inconvenient for producers it is excellent for the consumer who wants the facts. With the actual hands-on farmer on site, you can be sure your questions will be answered. Meat vendors will be able to tell you every medicine or vaccination the animals received in their lifetime, and why. They can tell you where the animal was butchered and the make and model of the truck that hauled it.

Vegetable producers can explain whether they used any sprays, what the sprays were, and why. Organic producers will tell you how they use companion planting or cover crops to ward off disease and keep their soil healthy.

Which brings us to another market variable: organics.

Some farmer's markets impose an "organic only" standard on the vendors, but here again, you need to ask. Like other good words, "organic" can mean "healthy" and "raised with care." At the same time, the word has been manipulated to suit the requirements of large-scale producers. You can buy organic produce at many grocery stores, but organic means neither local nor fresh.

There are several certifying agencies in organic agriculture. Certifiers set standards and charge a fee for certification. They have inspectors that visit farms during the growing season. Some certifiers have committees that meet to review the work of the inspectors, make recommendations, and occasionally arrange surprise visits. The more involved the certifying agency is with the farmer, the higher the fee. As a result, the larger producers are likely to be certified.

This means the standards are somewhat skewed to suit the largest producers. Certifiers allow sludge from confined animal feeding operations, for example, without asking what's in the sludge. Is it full of antibiotics and hormones? Is it full of GMO by-products? Probably yes, but it can still be certified organic.

So, while organic certification is a sign that the producer is meeting some criteria, if the subject is really important to you, you must ask for a copy of the organic standards. And remember that there are good reasons for producers not to be certified. Small producers often set higher standards for themselves than the standards of the certifying agencies.

So, again, you absolutely need to ask. And, like when you buy a major appliance, you need to learn the vocabulary and you need to ask for specifics. To describe the differences between themselves and the large producers, small farmers have come up with a grab bag of words that leave consumers in the dark. I call our lamb-and-beef-production method "holistic" after Allan Savory's "Holistic Resource Management." A friend, using the same method, calls it "intensive." Another calls it "rotational grazing."

One farmer in our neighborhood calls her vegetable-raising system, using compost and cover crops, "biodynamic." Another calls it "traditional organic." Another says "sustainable." So, once again, it comes down to knowing your farmer. And asking.

Probably the most satisfactory way to insure that your veggies come from a caring local farmer is by buying directly from one farmer you trust. Sometimes called "relationship farming," these folks often arrange delivery or invite you to their farm to pick up the week's produce. Besides being able to see exactly how your food is raised, community-supported agriculture, provides you with understanding of how farming works.

A CSA -- short for "community-supported agriculture" -- in our neighborhood even helps parents looking for wholesome, instructive entertainment for the kids. A friendly collie meets the car and walks the family to the pick-up stand. There's a flower garden where kids can pick flowers, and patches of U-pick strawberries, beans and tomatoes. Over the season, CSA members see plants and animals grow. They develop friendships with other committed consumers, and learn from a farmer who can show you how his methods affect his land and guarantee the land will be there for the future.

The magic of relationship farming isn't lost on the corporate giants. A huge home supply box store is running a garden-center ad where the camera helicopters over a warehouse full of plants and zeros in on a long-haired worker with a spray wand in her hand. She looks like Ann, our neighbor. As earthy as a flower herself, she instructs us that "these came in today from a local grower." The camera pulls back to reveal a blur of color.

I checked it out by going to the box store and poking around. She wasn't there, and the origin of the plants wasn't noted on the tags.

The reality is that she's an actress, folks. Her words were written by a professional advertising writer. And the acres of plants? Not from any local grower I know.

Margot Ford McMillen farms and teaches English at a college in Fulton, Mo. Email: For more information on Community Sustainable Agriculture, contact the Robyn Van En Center/CSA Resources in the Northeast, c/oWilson College Center for Sustainable Living, 1015 Philadelphia Ave, Chambersburg PA 17201; phone 717-261-2880; e-mail; web:

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