Questions to Ask

We posted this on our farm’s Facebook page and it was well-received, so I decided to share it here too.

We’re thrilled to see the food movement taking hold in our community, and more and more people choosing fresh, local, chemical-free food for their families. When we started on this journey years ago it seemed few folks took us seriously. Now we see the beginnings of a robust and vibrant wave of change–which can revitalize our local economy and our community’s health. That is wonderful.

But unfortunately there are more and more unscrupulous people and companies trying to take advantage of the increasing demand for healthy and ethically-produced food. There are people trying to pass off chemically-produced produce as chemical-free, and trying to pass off imported food as locally-grown. People are getting duped and this threatens to undermine the things we’ve been trying to accomplish.

Here are some ways to help assure that you’re actually getting truly locally-grown chemical-free food.

1. Don’t be fooled by claims of “low spray” or “no spray.” “Low spray” (whatever else it is supposed to mean) still means poisons are being sprayed on the food. And some folks are saying “no spray” because they use only powdered pesticides. If a vendor is making these claims ask them directly “Do you use any pesticides?” Be especially suspicious if their produce looks perfect and is cheaper than the chemical-free vendors’ produce.

2. Ask the vendor if they grew the food themselves, and where their farm is. Some vendors buy produce in bulk from places like Dan Valley Foods and try to pass it off as home-grown. Some buy it from the Amish wholesale market and claim it was grown by “my Amish neighbors.” Someone who buys food from a wholesaler and resells it is a grocer, not a farmer. They cannot vouch for the quality of the food or the production practices, because they did not grow it.

3. When buying meat or eggs, ask the vendor what the animals were fed. We are what we eat and we are what we eat eats. It’s much cheaper to produce eggs and meat raising animals in confinement on GMO grains. Some are making bogus claims about “cage free” chickens or “grass fed” meat. Sometimes they’re just mimicking what they see the truly ethical farmers saying without any appreciation for what those terms mean. Ask them specifically how their animals are raised and what they eat.

4. Ask the vendor what type of fertilizer they use. Ask them if they use Roundup on their farm. Ask them if they put antibiotics in their animals’ feed. Keep in mind that farms are no longer legally allowed to say their produce is “organic” unless they have the USDA organic certification. Most sustainable farms can’t afford the expense and time necessary to get and keep that certification, so we’ve taken to using terms like “chemical-free” instead. Because that term is unregulated, it may not always mean what you think it means.

5. Ask who picked the food. On family farms the food is harvested by the farmers. On industrial farms it isn’t. Did the folks who picked the food love the land it grew on? If that matters to you, ask.

6. Sustainable farmers love what they do and are very happy to talk about their farms and their farming practices. If you ask questions of vendors and they are evasive or vague, be suspicious. Sustainable farmers also are happy to have visitors to the farm. If a farm doesn’t allow visitors, be suspicious.

7. If a vendor’s produce is all the same size and color, without any defects or blemishes, and is cheap, then be suspicious. Naturally-grown sustainable food doesn’t look perfect and it isn’t cheap to grow.

The best way to be sure you’re getting the kind of food you want is to get to know the farmers personally. If at all possible you shouldn’t buy food from people you don’t know and trust.

We want the food movement to survive and thrive here. There are now quite a few excellent ethical sustainable chemical-free farms in our community and more coming on board all the time. It is important that our community support those farms. For people who don’t care about the values of sustainable farming there will always be plenty of options. But for people who do, they deserve to get what they’re expecting and what they’re paying for.

It can be confusing trying to navigate all the competing claims about food these days. If anyone has any questions, we’re happy to try to answer them.

Thanks for being a part of the movement!

Bill and Cherie

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18 comments on “Questions to Ask

  1. It was very disheartening for me to discover that many of the vendors at the local farmer’s markets are not “organic” or chemical free, but they have no problem perpetuating that charade through vague language. Trying to pin them down is always interesting. I’ve walked away more than I’ve bought. Your customers are very blessed to have your ethics guiding you so thoughtfully.

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    • Bill says:

      My advice to people is to try to find a farmer they trust and then just stick with them. Chemical and industrial farmers/companies are trying to capture the market for ethically produced food. It is a serious threat to those of us trying to do things right. It’s important that the folks shopping for ethically produced food not fall for their lies and deceit. Thanks for being on the people who ask questions.

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  2. nebraskadave says:

    Bill, at this time of the year our roads are littered with roadside stands that sell everything imaginable from the garden. As you say though, they are many times just the retail seller of the produce and their product comes from many growers. They buy it from them and resell it from a busy traffic corner in the city. I believe in Nebraska that if you claim to be selling organic produce that a certification of such growing issued by the state has to be displayed on the stand in public view. Like you most don’t go through the certification process so the real organic growers are at a disadvantage with the knock off sellers. Unfortunately most people don’t care or understand the difference and have the belief that if they buy it from a roadside stand it has to be better than store bought. It makes them feel like they are doing a great favor to their health. I seriously doubt many want to know where it came from or whether pesticides were used. The phrase used here in Nebraska that brings folks to the roadside stand is ” Locally Home Grown.” In the average city and urban dweller’s mind that means better and healthier. Locally is a loosely used term. I know that some of the peaches come from other states because peaches can’t be grown in Nebraska with any consistency. Watermelons in July are not doable here. So locally grown means any where in the Midwest. Granted there is a high percentage of locally grown Nebraska produce which is a good thing for choices. Even Walmart gets on the bandwagon with locally grown sweet corn but it’s not chemical free because it’s just too perfect. Pumpkins is another Walmart locally grown item in season. It’s really difficult to know the history of locally grown food unless a direct conversation with the grower can be set up.

    Have a great chemical free food movement day

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    • Bill says:

      Yep, that’s exactly the kind of thing we’re seeing here too. And lots of people don’t know what grows here this time of year so they fall for the “local” or “home grown” claim even though it couldn’t possibly be true. And as you and I have discussed before, the biggest blemish-free produce is what consumers have come to prefer and it’s almost always soaked with chemicals and imported from who-knows-where.

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  3. ain't for city gals says:

    I have learned so much in the last couple of years! and especially in the last year from reading your blog! We just have to be our own advocates….learn from those we respect. I now believe nothing on any label in the grocery store and we are so lucky to have a small (5 vendors) farmers market that we know what they say is true. If it weren’t for them we would have to come back to VA for the summer!

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    • Bill says:

      Thanks for the kind words. It makes me happy to hear from people who have learned something useful from my ramblings and rants. You are lucky to have a good farmers market with vendors you can trust. Thanks for supporting them and helping keep the option of real local food available. We can’t survive without folks like you.

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  4. Great advice Bill and Cherie. Thanks. –Curt

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  5. avwalters says:

    Garden when you can. Know your farmer; know your food.

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  6. EllaDee says:

    For this reason, it takes me no time at all to get around the farmers markets – I’ve done my due diligence and patronise those For any supermarket shopping, I research via http://flavourcrusader.com/blog/ as my guide. Caveat emptor.

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  7. Tina Schell says:

    Excellent insight Bill. I wouldn’t have thought of a single one of these questions. At the Farmers’ Market I assume all the farmers are honest and ethical. Shame on me! Thanks for the suggestions.

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    • Bill says:

      Sadly Tina there are lots of shysters trying to take advantage of the hard work and ethics of those who are truly dedicated to this movement. They’re taking in a lot of people with their fraud. The same thing is happening at the grocery store.

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  8. Thank you for this. The most exacting farm markets have a significant application process with on-site inspections, but that’s not possible for most of them. And roadside stands operate without even those safeguards.

    On a side note. I might quibble a little with #6, about welcoming visitors to the farm. I’ve agreed many times over the years to have people come out for a visit. Almost always they bring children or grandchildren to see farm animals. I’m warm and friendly (often sweating and friendly) but I’ve got to say, these visits aren’t easy. That time is set aside and people are late, or don’t show up and want to reschedule. Once they’re here they stay much longer than I’d imagined. If I offer cool drinks all around (or God forbid, muffins, which I used to regularly do) they stay all afternoon. I encourage them to wear boots, bring some carrots if they want to feed cows, to pick up small children around our free ranging chickens. They rarely do any of these things. They complain about mud, smells, animals that get too close, animals that don’t get close enough. They pick flowers (the ones I planted, the ones I like blooming happily outdoors). Sometimes they’re critical about things well beyond their experience, like the woman who excoriated me for the electric fence that surrounds our pastures. Or they leave me afraid I’ll be sued, like the woman who tripped over a tractor rut and acted as if it was a trap set for her. People almost always need to use the bathroom—-“long drive!”—and then their kids want to ramble around the house, pet our dogs, jump on the couch. I enjoy talking to these visitors. I particularly like talking to children about animals and plants, looking always for wonder in their eyes. I think it’s important to reconnect urban folks with rural folks. But farm visits are work too.

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    • Bill says:

      You are spot on correct about farm visits. We learned early on that we can’t just have an open door policy, for the reasons you mention. So instead we offer farm tours on Thursday afternoons by appointment only. We host an open house every spring too. We remind parents to mind their children and we post a warning sign which protects farms conducting agritourism events from liability for injuries caused by things that are normal to farm life. We still get visitors who seem to think we’re a petting zoo, rather than a working farm. I could tell plenty of stories that I’m sure would sound familiar to you.

      My point is that we have nothing to hide and welcome our customers to come see. Compare that to industrial ag facilities where it is illegal to come on the premises and also illegal to photograph them.

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  9. It IS confusing, misleading and time-consuming to figure it all out. It is a sad state of affairs that we have to investigate and vet out our food on a daily basis. Most of your followers are savvy to all of this (more so now with this post!) but I can’t help but think about the all of the families that probably don’t have the time and so they fall prey to the marketing schemes.
    I had an idea about this not too long ago while chatting with a young woman about ethically grown food – I was kidding at the time, but in busy urban areas it would probably work. Anyhow, perhaps you’ve heard of a personal shopper, well this would be your ethical shopper. They would do all of the research and shop for products that are truly local, ethically, sustainable, humanely (animals and laborers) produced, etc… Not a complete solution, but for those people too busy but can afford it, it could help make even more people aware of what is going on with our food system.
    I am so glad to hear that the food movement is progressing in your community. Bit by bit, it all helps. You and Cherie are great role models for us [soon-to-be/wannabe/newbie] farmers. Thanks for all that you do.

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    • Bill says:

      Thanks for the kind words.

      I’m sure there would be a market for an ethical-shopper among the super busy. I was once in that world. I remember when a couple of women came to my office one day to pitch their services as “personal assistants.” They handled not only grocery shopping but also things like picking up dry cleaning and walking the dog. I remember thinking, may it never come to this, but also thinking how much I could use that kind of help.

      Having said that, I think there would be a strong market for what you’re suggesting. I wouldn’t be surprised if someone is already doing it.

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