Me and my family moved to Atlanta this past year which means new farms, farmers markets, grocery stores, haunts – everything! Finding “the good spots” isn’t always easy. And just because it’s sold at a farmers market doesn’t mean its automatically healthy or organic. It’s really about asking the right questions. Okay so here’s a quick rundown on how to shop a farmers market to ensure you are buying what you think you are buying.
Okay so this post is inspired by my first trip to Grant Park Farmers Market over the holiday weekend. Grant Park shares the same space as Zoo Atlanta and every Sunday morning they host a market. It’s cute, they had a ton of produce, handmade goods and local fare. Because it was my first time, I found myself asking a lot of questions. It’s so easy once you know everyone because you can just hit up the booths that are legit but starting from scratch takes some ground work.
1. Look for the word ORGANIC
Okay so first I send out my front lines and scan for the word “organic.” I mean, when you are looking at 20+ vendors, it’s hard to go and talk to every booth to see if they are legit – because TIME and because I usually have a 3-year-old with me. So this is the first thing I do. Granted, it may not always be fair but it’s efficient because usually if a farm is growing organically, they will advertise it. Plus I can always take more time on subsequent trips to get to know other vendors.
Growing organic is so important because it means that the fruit/veg has not been sprayed with pesticides + chemicals, grown in chemical fertilizers and is not sowed from GMO seed. The health argument aside, buying organic = less toxic chemicals, a cleaner water supply and supports diversity. And I’m all-in on that.
Examples of organic:
USDA Certified Organic – If you see that a vendor is ” USDA Certified Organic” fantastic that’s an easy one. CHECK.
Certified Naturally Grown -This is a good one too. This is a peer based certification where farms will go and review other farms to maintain certification. It’s USDA Certified Organic practices without the overhead. This costs a farm about $100 annually where USDA Certified Organic is around $500 – roughly speaking.
Grown using organic practices – This isn’t an official certification but consider the guy growing veg in his backyard who is coming to the market to sell. He’s not using toxic chemicals but he has no official certification. I literally talked to a farm called “A Crack In The Sidewalk Farmlet” over the weekend and they didn’t have a paper trail of growing organic but their veggies and foraged foods were clean for sure.
2. “Local” does not = organic
Don’t get me wrong – local is great for so many reasons. Local = less carbon footprint, fresher veggies, support for local business and puts tax dollars back into your own city. But the thing is, local does not = organic.
For example, I went to buy some Georgia peaches for the first time and I was so excited with dreams of peach puree popsicles, smoothies, cobbler and maybe even a peach + basil cocktail. I got to the local peach stand and asked if their peaches were grown organically and they said, “No, but we use minimal spraying.”
Needless to say; not my thing. The gross thing about spray is you can’t even wash it off. Orchards are sprayed so many times over the years that spray is in the soil and becomes part of the ecosystem – it’s the trees, the leaves, the fruit – it’s to the core. Now the answer to most of my problems in life is vinegar but sad to say, this is one thing vinegar can not fix.
Luckily I kept browsing and I saw a stand called Urban Sprout Farms. They are USDA Certified Organic and they happened to have a few peaches for sale! Score!
So I had my first Georgia peach and it was pretty good. It wasn’t as sweet as I had imagined but good. I’m no peach connoisseur so maybe I needed to wait a day or two for it to sweeten up more? Anyways…
3. BEEF + LAMB: Grass-fed does not = Grass-fed
Okay so we are seeing a lot of “grass-fed” beef at the markets these days. But there is a difference between “grass-fed” and “100% grass-fed.” Some farmers will pasture their cows but then grain feed them the last few weeks/months before slaughter to fatten them up. And some farms will 100% pasture their lamb while others also pasture but supplement with grains. Not saying this is bad, it just means more questions. Most grain feed these days is GMO corn + soy so I want to know if this is the case. So this is what I will tend to ask:
- Is your beef grass-fed?
- Do you grain finish your beef?
- What do you use for feed?
- Is it organic? And if not, is it non-GMO?
Best case, the cows are 100% grass-fed and no grain is introduced. If grain is introduced, best case is it’s a house-made, organically-grown grain mix from their own farm – but usually that is not the case. If it’s organic then great and if it’s not I like to know that at least it’s not GMO.
4. CHICKEN + PORK: Pastured + Organic
So it’s a little bit different with chicken + pork. Both need supplemental feed and won’t thrive on pasture alone. So it’s impossible to have 100% pastured chicken or 100% pastured pork. Chickens for example ideally get 25% of their diet from foraging on the land (green vegetation, bugs, worms, etc.) and 75% from grain feed. Pigs need roughly 50% feed + 50% pasture depending on the type of pig.
So when you see signs for pastured, free-range, cage-free, whatever…chicken or pork this is what I tend to ask:
- You pasture your chickens (pork)? Cool! What type of grain do you supplement with?
- Is it organic? If not, is it non-GMO?
- Pigs will often be fed food + veg scraps too so you can ask if those are organic/nonGMO too.
- Do you move the chickens daily?
For chickens, I also like to ask about HOW they pasture. Some farms will move chickens to a new pasture a couple of times a day which is A+ champ. It’s like the chickens get a fresh cooked dinner for ever meal – no leftovers! It doesn’t mean it’s bad if they don’t this is just an example of a farm going the extra mile.
I also like to ask about the coop. Chickens need a coop for shelter and they run their internal clocks by it. I like to know what their outdoor access looks like. Depending on the breed, some chickens will just stay indoors if they are not encouraged to go outside. Some farmers use small mobile coops that can be transferred from paddock to paddock, some even make their own – which is crazy dedication. Others will tell you they put feed on one side of the coop and water on the other to encourage chickens to move – which makes you wonder if they are ever getting outside? So I like to roll up my sleeves and chat with farmers about living conditions – get a feel for their passion and what they value.
For more on what to look for when buying chicken, check out my post: How To Buy Chicken: Reverse Label Reading – it’s a good one!
5. EGGS: Pastured + Organic
So eggs pose similar questions to buying chicken. Like chickens you want to know:
- Do you pasture your chickens?
- Do you supplement with organic feed? If not, is it non-GMO?
- Do you wash the eggs?
- Are they refrigerated?
Okay so the cool thing about eggs is if they are not washed, you can keep them out, unrefrigerated on the counter for a couple of weeks. Eggs naturally have a micro membrane coating on them called “bloom” that protects the egg from bacteria getting into it. But if they are washed (which most are) then they become porous and susceptible to bacteria. So if they are washed, you want them handed to you from a cooler or a refrigeration system of some sorts.
Farmers are your friends!
Okay so with that in mind, remember that farmers and farmers markets are our friends! They are nose to the grindstone, sweating, weeding, cultivating daily, working-their-ace-off farmers – and they are doing it for pennies – relatively speaking. By supporting these guys we are automatically not supporting big corp, conventional, GMO crops + cattle which is the big picture. So be nice and ask questions but most of all, be nice. And if you don’t understand what they are saying or wonder why, ask! Most farmers love what they do and want to share it with you.
One of the first farms I connected with here is Georgia is Lucky Leaf Farm and after our first or second chat, they invited me and the boys down to check out their farm and take a horsy ride – ride a horse? – go horse back riding? – however you say it. Listen, I’m a city girl just trying to get a slice of the organic country, cut me some slack!
What are some questions you ask at the farmers market?