"Are these eggs organic?" my customer asked.
"Well, they're not USDA certified, but these eggs are from Chef Sigi, he has a small flock of pastured hens..."
"Right, but are they organic, what do the chickens eat?"
"Ah, these are given a non-soy, non-GMO feed supplement when needed, but that's mostly in winter. Of course this time of year, they have the pasture, so whatever they find, plus table scraps and excess vegetables from the farm, and..."
"So they eat bugs."
"Uh...yeah, yeah, they eat bugs which is actually why Chef Sigi runs them through the garden regularly, for pest..."
She interupts me, again, to proudly state to her friend with her, "See, they're NOT organic, they could be eating anything in that pasture, and there's no way of knowing where those bugs come from. You really have to ask these kinds of questions to know what you're eating these days. Vitamin Cottage has certified organic eggs, and they're much cheaper than these."
This was an actual interaction from about two years ago when I was working in a small, all-organic, all local grocery store. And, she was right, you have to ask the right questions. But I was giving her the right answers and she was too blinded by a shiny official certification to hear them. (Now, all of what I'm about to say isn't about soapboxing, it's just some info, so please stay with me even if you hate hippies and are already rolling your eyes at this point.)
A lot of people are concerned about food these days, so organic is Thing. People may be concerned about huge corporate agribusinesses like Monsanto doing bad things, or about what they're putting into their bodies through their food, or about migrant workers, or about small family farmers...there's plenty of good reasons to be concerned about our food. And because of this concern, there's a lot of Things that have popped up on our food labels. When it comes to mass produced food, these Things usually mean jack squat.
"Cage free" is a Thing now. Word got out of the horrid conditions chickens are kept in, people didn't like that and wanted change, BOOM, cage free labels. Well.
"Cage free" means that the chickens must have access
to the outdoors. Whether or not the chickens actually go outdoors, or are even able to walk for that matter, is irrelevant; one tiny door in the side of a 3,000 square foot warehouse that holds 9,000 chickens is enough for that label. (Okay, maybe I'mma soapbox a little. Sue me.)
You know what my farmers have on their egg carton labels? The date from 2 weeks ago, marked through with a pen, and this week's date written in instead. You can path out a carton's journey over summer from the farm, to the customer, back to the farm when a customer returned the empty carton for the farm to reuse, with those marked off dates.
Ah, yeah. "My" farmers. I run a farmer's market. These aren't really my farmers; I don't own them, I don't employee them, I sure as hell don't wake up at dawn and work til sundown seven days a week with them. But they're still MY farmers, and I bust ass to support them every way I can, because they don't always get the support they need elsewhere.
I think for most people, when they hear the words "farmer's market" a certain image comes to mind. Heck, you can google image search it and there's the image. It's become part of the general collective of knowledge that if you're concerned about food, for whatever reason, then skip the grocery store altogether and shop at a farmers market. That is The Thing You Should Do. Because that's healthy, well-grown food, sold by small family farmers. This image might be a lie.
Just like with labels, when it comes to buying from a farmer's market, you have to ask the right questions. You have to do some homework. You have to look past shiny labels and look for the masking tape with a price written on it in Sharpie, the reused egg cartons, the scale that's seen better days but the farmer always rounds down for you anyway. So here's some tips for the next time you hit up your local farmer's market, from an inside (and very biased) source.-Show up early, real early, two hours early, and watch the farm stands unload and set up.
You may see a couple of folks hauling out pretty genericly marked bags, boxes and baskets of produce from the back of a dirty, worn-out pickup truck: this is probably a good sign.
And then you may see someone unloading cabbages that are still in the boxes that have your local grocery store's logo on them - individually wrapped in plastic, someone's taking them out of those boxes and plastic, and putting them out in a basket on a table. Or they're going through a basket of apples and peeling off the bar code stickers that say "Product of Mexico". Clearly a bad sign. In most places, any random person willing to do the work can show up at food distribution hubs and buy food wholesale, and then resell it anywhere they want. It is literally the exact same food that's at your local grocery store with the labels removed.-Talk to the person selling the food.I think that "asking about the food" is another part of the general collective knowledge of what to do at a farmer's market. But what questions do you ask? Get specific.
Ask the person selling the food if they are the person that grew the food. Some small family farms, or community farms, may have the luxury of affording a staff member to work the market, so it may not be The Farmer, herself, that day at market. But they better have been involved in growing that food, or you're just looking at a reseller.
Ask what they use for pest control against cabbage beetles. (Warning, mentioning cabbage beetles to a farmer might get you an
expletive filled tirade.) What about aphids? What about deer, coyotes, moles? What do they use against powdery mildew and early blight?
Do they use rotational grazing if they raise livestock? Do they follow biodynamic practices?
How many people work on the farm, where do these workers come from, are they migrant workers?
If they're certified organic, ask them why they wanted the certification. If not, ask them why not. (Again, be prepared for possible tirades concerning the USDA.) What variety is the vegetable they're selling, is it an heirloom? Where do they buy their seed? Do they save seed?
A small family farmer will answer these questions for you. I mean, okay, not if you sound like you're grilling them, but if you open up a dialogue with them, they're happy to tell you what they do.
Gonna chase a rabbit here for a minute.
There is a misconception that organic food tastes better and/or is more nutritious than a conventional counterpart. This is the biggest piece of total bunk that has ever been bunked, until you start talking about varieties. Flavor in produce, and some studies point to nutritional content as well, is all about variety. The varieties that are widely grown by huge agribusinesses, organic and conventional both, are chosen for traits like...how well they store, how well they survive shipment, uniform size and shape, disease resistance...see "flavor" anywhere in that list? Nah, flavor is a foot note. Heirloom is slowly becoming another Thing, but it actually has merit when you're talking about flavor.
Go to a farmer's market in late summer. Look for the tomatoes. Cherokee Purple, Amish Paste, Nebraska Wedding, Kentucky Beefsteak, Green Zebra...tasting these tomatoes will CHANGE YOUR LIFE.-Learn when what you want is in season.
If you live in Florida or Southern California, then your availability by season, and variety of produce available locally grown, is phenomenal. But for the rest of us, local, small farm grown food comes and goes and if you want something specific, you gotta know when to find it. Fall is the harvest season, so the bulk of produce availability is going to be in late August and September. This is definitely the time to shop markets if you want to can or otherwise preserve foods, you can find great deals from farmers who have too much of something. There are some specifics that pop up at other times, though. Asparagus is a very early summer crop, you need to start looking for that in May. Spinach and most lettuce varities don't do well in the heat, so they're early and late season, but not easy to find in the hottest months. This is a great link for this type of thing: http://www.nrdc.org/health/foodmiles/fullyear.asp?state=40. You can also look up your state's Agricultural Extension Office.
Knowing your area's seasonality can also help avoid non-local food shipped in from wherever. Tomatoes in June? They may be from a greenhouse, but are more likely from Florida. Avocados are a tropical plant, the trees cannot survive temps below 20 degrees, so how cold are your winters? Corn on the 4th of July? Dollars to donuts that's from Mexico.-Ask if you can visit the farm.
If you ask someone if you can visit their farm and they give you the runaround or flat out say no, this is a red flag. This is a red flag with klaxons ringing and a giant glowing neon sign saying DON'T BUY THIS FOOD. Small family farms want
you to come see what they do. They may tell you that you can visit, but they're too busy to show you around, and that's God's own truth, farmers are the busiest people I know. But, they want you to experience their world. They want you to be more connected to the food you eat, because they are. They want you to know how hard they work, for so little reward, under so much risk.
They'll introduce you to their chickens, which are running around in pastures and maybe getting into the cucumbers and having to be chased out. And they might just sell you a dozen eggs with these big, firm yolks that are bright, deep orange, that are as organic as they come.