Supporting a heavily plant-based sustainable agricultural system is one of the more important things you can do to positively impact land-use change and climate change. The growing market for local direct-market food production is evidence that many of us have chosen to act on this imperative. Unfortunately, however, a growing number of businesses are learning to exploit a market interest in local, small-scale, sustainable agriculture by pretending to be so. As I pointed out two days ago, this exploitation comes in a number of forms.
So, how do you avoid being "fooled?" Farmers Market Tip #1 was to learn to know the seasons. Today I'd like to suggest that you rely on long-term relationships to develop needed trust.
Farmers Market Tip #2: Know Your Farm and Your Farmer
If you want to know something about the farm where your food comes from, you will need to develop a relationship that goes beyond the transfer of goods at the market. Today many farmers recognize the importance of this relationship for their profitability, but also for the health of your relationship with the land that sustains you. Does your farmer permit visits to the farm, do they have farm festivals, work days, a community supported agriculture program (CSA) that includes constant communication, do the farm owners attend the market or do they send someone else?
If your farm does not offer any of the above relationship building opportunities you really have to wonder what it is they are hiding. Perhaps this is an indication that the farm is actually hundreds of miles away. Perhaps it tells you that they are exploiting not only you but their farm workers as well. Perhaps it tells you that your business isn't really that important to them. I don't know what it means. What I do know is that honest business people who are real and honest with their customers don't have a need to fear transparency.
Once you manage a visit to your farm or farms, ask probing questions and keep your eyes open. If I were searching for a good farm I would be looking for three things. First, who is working on the farm and if these folks live on the farm what do their housing conditions look like? Second, where do they store farm inputs (fertilizers, composts, herbicides, pesticides) and what are the names of the chemicals in that storage space? Third, what sorts of machinery are they using on the farm. This one is a bit hard if you don't know much about farming, but the size and type of machinery can tell you a great deal about farming practices. Although an oversimplification, you are typically looking for smaller rather than larger pieces of machinery.
I know this is asking an awful lot of a consumer. It is hard to find the time to purchase direct from a farmer much less find the time to go out and visit their farm. I will offer a few alternatives in my coming posts, but really building trust in your farmer is just like every other relationship. It takes time, proximity, and effort on the part of all involved. Their may be shortcuts, but the very best way to know the person at the market isn't exploiting your desire to do right is to get to know them!
Vincent M. Smith