Find out how local food growers keep their farms sustainable by asking these questions during your next market visit.
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Farmers' markets offer shoppers a wonderful opportunity to buy their produce, meats, and dairy products directly from the source. They also give farmers the chance to sell their carefully-raised and locally grown food items without dealing with a grocery store "middleman." For buyers with a strong interest in environmentally-friendly growing practices, farmers' markets allow them to gather first-hand information about whether or not these local farms are committed to sustainability.

If you're wondering which specific questions to ask farmers in order to get the strongest insight into a local farm's sustainability efforts, we're here to help with a list of eight useful queries to keep in mind, all recommended by farmers and sustainability experts:

Are Your Products Certified Organic?

The term "organic" gets tossed around very casually these days, but produce and animal products must meet a stringent set of criteria to receive official organic certification. In the United States, the USDA's organic requirements state that produce must be at least 95 percent free of chemical additives and livestock must be nourished by 100 percent organic feed, among other considerations.

Amber Stamm'ler, a nutritionist and the owner of Indigo Valley Farms in British Columbia, Canada, thinks that it's worthwhile for farmers' market shoppers to ask farmers about their organic certifications. She explains, "Certified Organic farmers must always use natural method, avoiding herbicides and taking the time to [spend] money and effort to use natural fertilizers, like compost or aged manure. Be sure to also ask about the size of the farm and what else the farmer grows. Very large mono-crop organic farms do exist, [but] this method of large-scale farming is not supportive of sustainable farming, as it depletes the soil of nutrients."

How Do You Fertilize Your Crops and Manage Pests?

The use of chemical ingredients to fertilize crops and ward off insects and other pests doesn't just disqualify produce from organic certification; it also increases a farm's carbon footprint and therefore reduces sustainability.

Sustainability manager Gina Mathias of the city of Takoma Park, MD insists that "a useful question that shoppers can ask at the farmers' market is how the farm manages for pest control and how they fertilize their crops. It's helpful to understand if the farm is using organic, biodynamic, and sustainable practices. Many small farmers do not seek official organic certification because of the expense and bureaucracy. But many small producers you will encounter at local farmers markets are using sustainable farming practices that meet or even exceed those organic standards. Customers do need to use caution, however, as some people will claim sustainable practices but still use toxic substances [to fertilize and ban pests]. [That's why] asking specific questions is helpful."

Containers of tomatoes
Credit: Jed Share / Kaoru Share / Getty Images

How Far Did the Food Have To Travel To Get Here?

Sustainability as a concept focuses on any and all efforts to keep the environment running and to avoid the depletion of natural resources. For that reason, farm-based sustainability initiatives don't end with the harvest. Dr. Erica Dodds, COO of the Foundation for Climate Restoration, encourages farmers' market shoppers to buy from farmers with farms in the same area as the market, as these local operations don't require long-haul travel and the CO2 emissions caused by such journeys.

"Thinking about food consumption from a carbon footprint standpoint can have a really big impact on the climate crisis. And the easiest place to start is by embracing foods that have the smallest carbon footprint," Dodds tells us. "When shopping at a farmer's market, ask: How far did that food have to travel to get to you? Buying produce and meat from your local farmers' market can drastically reduce your carbon footprint [for a few reasons. First of all,] the operations are smaller and the animals are treated much better. [Also], farmer's markets offer produce in season. This requires less energy to transport the food and less energy is used to power the greenhouses where the food is grown."

Brett Flashnick, owner of The FARM in Lexington, SC, also cautions against farmers' markets that allow vendors to resell produce grown at more distant farms. "If they allow resellers, attendees should consider that this food is likely not local and possibly not grown with sustainable methods. On average, food that is sold by a reseller travels over 1,000 miles from the point of production to the location that it is sold," says Flashnick. "Unlike direct-to-consumer farmers, resellers are not necessarily focused on food quality or sustainable farming practices. Many farmers' markets only allow vendors who produce food within a certain mileage radius to attend. Ask the market their definition of local and consider what local means to you. Many people are surprised that local doesn't always mean their city or town."

What Do You Do With Leftover Food?

All farms wind up with produce and animal products that they ultimately don't sell, and the way that they choose to handle their extras can shed valuable light on their sustainability commitment as a whole. "Food waste is a major problem, as decomposing food in landfills releases greenhouse gases that warm our atmosphere. Ask your local farmers what they do with their abundances that do not sell: Do they donate it to local food shelters? Repurpose it in some other way? Or do they compost it?" advises sustainability expert Stephanie Saferian, who hosts the Sustainable Minimalists podcast.

How Does Your Farm Coexist With Native Wildlife and Ecosystems?

Because sustainability emphasizes the maintenance of natural environments without undue interference, senior food campaigner Jennifer Molidor of the Center for Biological Diversity suggests asking farmers: "How does your farm coexist with native wildlife and ecosystems?" This information can help you understand the relationship between any particular farm and the land it occupies, which provides a strong foundation for the farm's overall philosophy about sustainability.

Are Your Animals Pasture-Raised and/or Grass-Fed?

Sustainability doesn't just apply to farm produce; meat and dairy products are also major parts of the farm ecosystem, and the way in which animals are raised and nourished informs a farm's ability to operate in a sustainable fashion.

If you're wondering whether a farmer has sustainability in mind when raising livestock, Jennifer Kaplan, a California-based instructor at the Culinary Institute of America whose classes focus on sustainable food systems, urges shoppers to ask farmers whether their animals are pasture-raised and/or grass-fed. "Pasture raising on grass is generally considered the most sustainable practice for animal products. This is because pasture-raised and grass-fed animals produce meat and dairy that is one, more nutritionally dense and contain less 'bad' fats, two, better for soil health, and three, generate fewer [greenhouse gases]," Kaplan tells us.

Who Works at the Farm?

Organic growing policies and short travel times seem like obvious topics for sustainability questions, but labor practices definitely contribute to a farm's long-term potential (and, by definition, to its sustainability). John Pabon, founder of Fulcrum Strategic Advisors, a sustainability-oriented risk management firm, advises shoppers to think beyond "water usage, farm-to-table transportation, traceability, and circularity" and to focus questions on "labor practices at the farm. Where do they get labor? What do the farm's environmental, health, and safety records [look like]?"

Do You Offer a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) Program?

Joining a community support agriculture program (also commonly referred to as a CSA) is a great method for supporting farmers in your area and the sustainability of local foodways. It's also an excellent strategy for getting the freshest possible produce into your kitchen. "Be sure to ask your farmer about their CSA program. This allows you as the customer to purchase nutritious food straight from the farm. In turn, if enough 'shares' are purchased, the farmer can continue to grow and harvest crops throughout the growing season. It is a win-win for everyone involved," states chef and sustainability expert Matt Kern of Heirloom in Lewes, DE.

How Can I Get Sustainability Information If The Farmer Is Busy?

If you've visited a farmers' market before, then you've likely noticed that the farmers in attendance have a lot to keep them occupied. They're interacting with guests, restocking their displays, and communicating to their staff members. With all of these tasks to complete, they might not have tons of free time to engage in thorough conversations about sustainability. If that's the case, then you'll be glad to know that there are other ways to gather sustainability intel about your favorite farm. These three ideas make a solid starting point:

Ask if They Have a Website or Social Media Platforms

In the year 2021, many farms who set up displays at farmers' markets also have active digital presences. Consider looking at their website and social media for information about the farm. Also don't be afraid to reach out, most of these farmers will probably be happy to have someone interested in their practices.

Andrew Whitney, executive chef and vice-president of Black Hawk Farms in Princeton, KY believes that visitors would be well-served to look up their favorite market vendors on Instagram, Facebook, or Twitter: "Most local farms try to share their story as much as possible. Social media is always a great first step."

Keep an Eye Out for Signage and Brochures, Especially With Certification Logos

Even if a farmers' market vendor doesn't have much of a digital footprint, they may opt to bring physical literature or signage enabling them to share their sustainability methods. "In the farmers markets in Takoma Park, producers will use signs that are posted in front of their booths with the practices they use, such as open-pasture, antibiotic- and hormone-free, humanely-raised chicken or beef," says Mathias. In some cases, the signs in front of a booth may display "certified organic" logos, which could save you a question or two. However, if the farm that piques your curiosity doesn't have pamphlets or signs readily available, feel free to ask the farmer whether they have any informational material that you can take with you.

Look Into Local Nonprofit Organizations Focused on Sustainability

In addition to large national nonprofit groups like the American Farm Bureau Federation (a helpful resource for sustainability information), many smaller regions of the United States host local organizations devoted to green agriculture and sustainable farming. "The best resource in Western North Carolina regarding local farms and sustainability is Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project (ASAP)," says Allison Smith, founding partner of Olivette Riverside Community and Farm in North Carolina, offering the perfect local example. Do a bit of online sleuthing to see if your area has a nonprofit dedicated to such pursuits.

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