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Seven Great Questions to Ask Your Farmer

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Most
farmers who work farmer’s markets and farms stands are proud of what
they produce.  And many want to tell just how they do it.

There’s the grass-fed beef farmer who firmly believes you don’t need
to use grain to finish beef cattle. Or another farmer, Dominic Palumbo, who collects
stinging nettles with gloves to provide greens early in the season.

Then again I never returned to the farm stand where the farmer
talked glowingly about the power of Roundup, a herbicide that’s toxic
to wildlife. I understand that it makes his job easier, but today there
are a multitude of great alternatives.

Be Curious and Polite

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Best not to turn the questions for farmers into an interrogation.
Show your curiosity.  Slow down. Listen and learn. Chat as you shop.
Other shoppers nearby might pick up a thing or two. If the market isn’t
too crowded, start slowly.

  1. “Beautiful day. So how’s the season been going for you this year?” If you live anywhere in the Northeast, the answer will be “very tough” or “a season to forget” -- the farm equivalent of fuggedaboudit. Better to start with “is there anything here you’re particularly proud of? Anything unusual?”
  2. “When did you pick this fruit or vegetable? Is it ready to eat today? How do I store it?” Chefs will tell you that berries picked after a heavy rain are worthless. This year’s peaches were particularly insipid for the same reason. Some items like winter squash can last for months if stored correctly.
  3. “Are you able to use organic or sustainable principles on the farm?” It’s so easy to ask “is this organic” but the fact is many farmers do not have the time and in some cases the money for organic certification. That doesn’t mean they don’t follow those very same principles on the farm.
  4. “Does this produce come from your farm?” Small farms can grow an amazing amount of food but it is unlikely that they will have fruit trees and kale growing on the same patch. But that’s okay if your farmer gets produce from growers they know. It’s very likely they can talk about their neighbors’ practices.
  5. “Do you use any synthetic products like pesticides or fungicides?” The correct answer for organic is no not ever. Dan Tawczynski of Taft Farms north of Great Barrington, Massachussets never sprays, but he still reserves the right to if his crop is in danger. Dan is as leery of chemicals as you would be. Well, actually, more so: He lives on his farm. Instead Dan employs “Integrated Pest Management (I.P.M.) where a farmer uses all of the means at his disposal in order to control a particular pest. IPM includes the extensive use of natural predators coupled with constant field scouting along with crop rotation and biological pest controls. Sprays can remain a part of an IPM program, but they are a last resort rather than the first line of defense”
  6. What was the animal fed?  Was the animal raised outside or indoors?  Was there supplemental food? If so, when was it provided? Was the grain GMO (genetically modified)? You may have a great chicken, heritage breed, raised outdoors -- but then the farmer uses GMO feed.
  7. At what point do you give your animals antibiotics?  Organic means never. In fact once an organically raised animal is given an antibiotic it is often sold to a non-organic farmer. But for many farmers the answer will be only when absolutely necessary to protect the animal. Lynn Mordas at Dashing Star Farm has greatly reduced deworming of her sheep through genetic selection, pasture rotation and by looking into her sheeps’ eyes.  Basically, Lynn will not let her sheep graze to where the grass is less than 2” high to minimize their contact with parasites. And the eyes? Well parasites create anemia, which leads to mucous around the eyes.

Knowing how your food is produced tends to become a topic of
conversation with friends and family. Learn to appreciate the richer
taste of farm-fresh eggs. You’ll try new vegetables, like that delicata
squash that you thought was for the mantle but really works better on
the plate. By asking questions you learn something new, show respect
for the farmer and make an invaluable connection to your food and local
community.

Resources: Fruits and vegetables with high levels of pesticides where organic or sustainable is a must-buy.

For insights into farming and food in America, visit Friend of the Farmer

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