Many of us who shop at farmers' markets or use CSAs do so because we care about where our food comes from. We want food that reflects our values of doing the most good and least harm. So it's important that we seek out information about how our food is produced.
Farmers tend to take their work personally, so we don't want to just start battering them with questions. It's important that we first get to know them, to be friendly and polite; to engage them in conversation. We can always begin with questions about what a type of produce is, or how to prepare it, or how they got into farming and how long they've been doing it.
When you're ready to delve deeper, start with a general question that shows you're sincerely interested, while also respectful of their time, such as: “Do you have a minute to answer a question? I’m really interested in finding out more about how your food is grown." Then you can graduate to the specifics:
- "How do you grow your produce?" (or "How is this made/produced?") You don't want to put them on the defensive with a more pointed question like "Do you use pesticides?" Let them tell you about the process, and you can always ask follow-up questions to get the information you want. You may find, for example, that the farmer follows organic practices but isn't certified due to the cost; or, that they're transitioning to organic practices. You can use tools like the certified organic definitions and the Dirty Dozen/Clean 15 shopper's guide to pesticides in produce to help you know what to ask.
- "Where is your produce grown and how is it transported?" This question is useful especially if you're concerned about eating local and tracking your food's carbon footprint.
- "What sort of labor practices do you employ at your farm?" Many of us may not have given much thought to how workers on these smaller farms are treated, but small and/or organic doesn't mean the workers are treated or paid fairly. Asking about the farm's labor practices shows farmers you care about more than just the food itself. And some small farms are working toward "domestic fair trade" certification. Use standards like these to find out what kinds of labor practices you'll want to know about.
- "Tell me about how the animals on your farm are raised & treated." If you eat animals and their products but are looking for less cruel choices, ask specific questions to find out if your definitions match those of the farmer. Be sure to ask what happens to baby animals and to the males who are born to egg-laying hens and dairy cows.
- "What happens to the animals once they leave your farm?" Many animals raised on smaller farms are still transported and slaughtered under the same conditions as animals raised in factory farms. Ask specific, polite questions to find out more about the details of how the animals are transported & killed.
- "What does that mean?" You want to make sure that you clearly understand the farmers' practices, so ask follow-up questions when you're not sure what they mean. For example, if the say "mostly organic" or "no spray," what does that mean? If they say the animals are raised "humanely" what is their definition of that?
- "What can you tell me about...." This is a useful conversation-starter to find out more about how something is made, where the ingredients come from, etc., and applies to everything from produce to baked goods to home-canning or specialty products.
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