Questions to ask at a farmers market

The ultimate benefit of a trip to the local farmers market is buying a box of inexpensive, eco-friendly, non-toxic, locally grown produce t to take home. But with no labels to check like you do at the supermarket, how are you supposed to know for sure that the produce is organic?

Many of those claiming to sell organic produce are not “certified organic” thus offer no guarantees as to how clean the food is. Many of these farmers though offer high quality, chemical free produce but simply can’t afford the expensive “organic” certification.

So how do you get the cleanest food possible at a farmers market whilst getting a bang for your buck? These questions to ask at a farmers market will ensure you get good quality organic produce, whether it’s certified organic or not.


Who grew this food?

For food to be sold at a farmers market, it should be coming from those who have truly grown the food on their own farms. You can cross check this with the vendor and/or market organizer.

Is this food certified organic? If not how was it grown?

“Certified Organic” produce in Australia is verified as truly organic by a formal certification program. It ensures that when you see organic on a label or sign, that is what you are indeed buying. Always check, but certified organic produce is generally easy to pick at the markets as it tends to be sold at the the more expensive stalls.

Some farmers however offer truly organic produce but cannot afford or choose not to spend the money on the certification – so technically, it is possible to buy organic produce without it.  The key is to having the vendor answer all of the questions below to your satisfaction. The produce should always be chemical/ pesticide/ hormone/ antibiotics /spray free and locally grown.

What do you mean by ‘no spray’?

If a farmer claims that his produce hasn’t been sprayed you should ask him what he is doing to control pests in his crops. Most people assume “sprayed” means sprayed with chemical pesticides. This isn’t always the case, with some organic farmers using organic, plant-based material sprays, sometimes even made from seaweeds.

You should also check if the field from which the produce was harvested was spray free and if not what it was sprayed with, then do your own research to determine if it is toxic or not. .

How do you control weeds with your crops?

Organic crops don’t need to be completely weed free as the soils are generally of a higher quality when compared to non-organic crops. Organic farmers will generally use methods such as hand weeding, cover crops, cultivation and mulching to control any weeds that need controlling.

How are pests controlled with your crops?

Organic crops actually benefit from biodiversity, thus organic farmers use techniques to attract beneficial insects (into the fields) that eat pests that may eat crops. If the farmer admits to using pest control products, make sure to him ask him or her if it is made from organic ingredients and whether this is certified or not. Then again do your research to determine if you think it is toxic or not.

What type of seeds do you use?

Ask if the seeds are organic. Technically, if they are they’re also meant to be non-hybrid and GMO free. It is particularly worth asking if the seeds are backed by Monsanto (now known under the brand name of Bayer who acquired them) or a Monsanto backed company. If this is the case (highly unlikely), do the environment a favour and shop somewhere else.

What’s in season right now?

Local farmers should be selling you local produce. One way of gaging whether they are or not is by seeing if their produce is in season or not. For example, if they are selling mangoes or cherries in the winter,  or brussel sprouts or spinach in the summer, the odds are they aren’t selling locally grown organic produce. Read here for a list of Australian seasonal fruits and vegetables.

Can I visit your farm?

Farmers that have nothing to hide will be happy to have you visit the farm so you can witness how they do things. If they are open to having you swing past, it’s a good sign they are trustworthy. This is especially useful when looking to buy produce from local non-certified organic producers.


Do you feed your livestock with organic feed? What is it made from? If not, what do you use?

Livestock should be fed 100% organic feed, free of chemicals, antibiotics, hormones and GM foods. Organic feed should also never contain ground animal parts (such as chicken carcass which is common). Herbivores (such as cattle) that are fed other animals may develop bovine spongiform encephalopathy, a shocking disease that can be passed down from cow to human. Though it’s rare, once contracted this fatal disease is known as Creutzfeld-Jakob disease and there is currently no known cure.

Do you use hormones or antibiotics with your livestock?

Organic, locally raised livestock should be hormone free. Hormones are administered to non-organic livestock to promote fast rates of production. Hormone residues in meat products have been shown by science to disrupt the consumers own hormone balance and to be harmful to human health.

Antibiotics should also never be used in the husbandry of organic livestock. They are administered to the animal not only to prevent infections but to promote growth and feed efficacy. Unfortunately Australia is behind the times and unlike many other countries has not banned this practice that may potentially cause food contamination and/or increased antibiotic resistance in humans (hence the rise in the modern super bugs).

Do you provide the livestock with access to outdoors? Are they pasture based, free range or confined?

Unfortunately again in Australia, there is no single standard for free range or organic livestock products and anyone can use the terms. The key again is to asking the right questions and using your six sense to discern whether the farmer is trust worthy or not.

All organic meats should come from animals that have led a quality of life in the outdoors, fed with a healthy organic diet and that have never been force fed.

With red meats, you want to always make sure the animals were grass fed (on fields that were free from chemicals and pesticides etc) and that they had free access to the outdoors.

With poultry products and eggs, ensure the chickens were free range –  housed in a shed but given access to roam in an outdoor area.

Lastly, if you have a heart and an appetite for meat, the ethical thing to do is to also make sure the animal was killed in a humane way. Slow killing methods are prohibited with organic livestock in abattoirs (unlike their poor non-organic counterparts).

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