10 questions to ask a farmer before becoming a customer
With the popularity of “local foods,” some farmers might not be as honest as others. Here’s how to find the right farmer for you and avoid a farm scam
Delightfully, the local food and farm-to-table movement attracts many wonderful farmers and producers who work hard to make a great product available. Sadly, farm scams exist too as there are a few dishonest types who want to make a buck deceiving people that their product is organic or that they are producing something that they are, in fact, outsourcing. How do you tell the difference between the honest producers and the ones who are pulling the wool over your eyes? There really is no replacement for going out to the farm, but for those of you who are unable to make it, or who want to learn what questions to ask your farmer, I have made a list to help you.
I have worked with farmers for over 15 years. In addition to running my own buying club where I source from local farms, I work on policy, legislation and court cases involving food and farmers. This puts me in close contact with hundreds of farmers from all kinds of backgrounds and who offer a variety of products. While there are many differences I’ve noticed among a variety of farms, there are a few things in common: They all work hard. They all love what they do. And most of them are struggling. I encourage you to be gentle and understanding. Most farmers will not have anything to do with a farm scam. But the ones who are, ruin it for the great farmers and the consumers searching for real food and real honesty.
The following questions will give you the tools to look beyond the pretty farmers market stand or farm store and to give you a glimpse of the farm (or understand quickly if you are not talking to a scammer). This guide is a starting point. Come up with your own questions as you build relationships with your local producers.
When I talk to farmers, these are the questions I ask. And, more importantly, I am looking for honesty. I’d rather support a farmer who is not organic and trying to become so (and who is honest about it), then a farmer who pretends they are organic. And this happens more than you might think. So ask these questions. Then listen.
- Can you please tell me about your farm?
This question, and answer, might tell you all you need to know. Some farmers brag about not being organic or boast about their use of GMO-based animal feed and/or might talk about how great non-organic fertilizer is. When I encounter these farmers, I know I am getting honesty because these are not popular practices for local and small-scale sales. I thank them for their honesty. Like many in the local food movement, I prefer to support farmers that practice rotational grazing, and organic-based agriculture but I will never know what’s important to me, unless a farmer is being honest with me. I admire and respect a farmer’s honesty when the answers risk not being “popular.”
Some farms operate with chemicals, fertilizers, etc., but try to represent themselves as organic. These are the tricky ones. As they try to answer this question, ask follow up questions that piqué your interest. Ultimately, you want to know if they are being transparent or not. If you think they are not, move on. If you think they are, then you get to decide whether or not to support them based on your values and what you are looking for.
- Do you spray?
This is a great question for a vegetable or fruit farmer. Ask them if they spray, and if yes, what they spray with. Some will say they use integrated pest management (IPM) and don’t spray much. For some fruits, especially in humid climates, they spray fungicides but that’s it. In most parts of the US, growing fruit without chemical inputs is extremely difficult and a serious gamble. If you want the purest you can get, be prepared for blemishes and small fruit. I always listen carefully to what these farmers tell me because I can learn a lot from them about my own garden. If they are not forthcoming with more information, maybe follow up with asking what they spray and if they spray everything. Often root vegetables go unsprayed and unfertilized while the more fragile fruits or veggies do get sprayed. Remember, this is how they make their livelihood and if light spraying is the difference between no income due to crop failure, and having an income for that year, they are going to spray. These questions are not here so we can judge the farmers, but so we can seriously weed out the dishonest ones and find the right fit for our needs.
- Can you tell me how the animals are raised?
When buying meat, eggs, and dairy, this is an important question to ask. Toxins collect in the fats, so when we are eating animal fats, it is super important to know how those animals are raised. If they are fed conventional grain with GMOs, their fats will be higher in toxins. I firmly believe that animals deserve a good life. I only want to support farms where animals are treated kindly. So I listen for information about how they are kept and cared for, how long babies stay with the mommas and what happens if an animals gets sick. I also like to find out if any animals are bred on the farm. Almost always chickens and turkeys are bought as chicks and raised on the farm. Sometimes, the farmers who sell them do not raise animals. Frequently, calves and pigs are bought at auction and then fattened and slaughtered. Some farmers buy animals at auction, graze them for two weeks and then sell them as grassfed/organic without ever disclosing that they did not raise the animals. The more you can find out about how the animals are raised, the more you will know about the farming operation.
For dairy/beef, you want to ask if they are pastured and grassfed and allow the farmer to answer that. Ask if they are fed grain and if yes, what kind. With chickens and pigs and goats, ask what they are fed. These animals naturally have a much more diverse diet. They need some grains. Ask what is in their rations and what they get for protein. Ask if they are outdoors and, if yes, how do they handle predators.
- Do you sell anywhere other than the market/coop/stand, etc?
It’s always a good idea to find out a little more about other places farmers sell. Many farmers markets have certain standards the farmers have to meet. If you find out where else they sell, you might know the standards for that market already. A producer-only market means that farmers have to produce what they are selling, and they cannot buy boxes of produce at the auction (yes, it happens) and then resell as theirs at that market. But, this means you’ll need to research the market and the market managers. You might be pleasantly surprised by the answers you get to this—you might find out the farm is part of a local buying club or has a delivery location right near you. Or maybe they source to a restaurant, café, or retail store near you. While I always advocate buying direct so the farmer gets the full retail price, it might be good to have an additional location in case you need to get something last minute but want to support that same farm.
- What kind of animals do you have?
Finding out about animals is important. Diversity on a farm is vital and it will tell you a lot about a farmer’s philosophy. If they only have one kind of livestock, they are likely not diverse and not integrating various types of growing. However, it is good if they can describe it to you and give clarity. Maybe they just started or maybe they grow chickens on their farm and the neighbor has pigs and cows and they rotate. It’s important to find out what types of food they are producing. Farmers might answer this question with giving you specific breeds. That’s fine too. More detail is good and understanding why they are doing what they are doing will give you insight into whether or not they have what you need. If they don’t have what you are looking for, but you like the way they answer other questions, ask them if they have any recommendations for the types of food you are looking for. You’ll be sure to get good insight.
- Are you organic?
This is a tricky one. There are farmers who are certified organic and farmers who practice organic or beyond organic standards. There is even another certification called “Certified Naturally Grown.” Recently, the “Certified Organic” label has come under scrutiny and has not measured up to what consumers want so many producers turn to “Certified Naturally Grown” to offer an alternative. There are often strong disagreements within the agricultural community about farmers calling themselves organic if they are not certified. For the purpose of this article, you will need to find the best way possible to ask farmers if they are organic and then listen to their response. Sometimes you will want to ask if they are certified. Other times, you will ask if they practice organics. And ask for additional information. The farmers who say they practice organic and actually do, will likely have a lot to say and will want to engage about it. If they don’t, you might be better off buying somewhere else. Ultimately, it is up to you to decide what kind of farms you want to support and then ask the right questions to come to your decision.
- What do the animals eat? Or What do you feed the animals?
Too often I talk with farmers who say they pasture raise their animals, leading customers to believe the animals are exclusively grass fed or pastured when, in reality, they are getting generous amounts of conventional grain. Conventional grain means lots of GMOs. GMOs means lots of glyphosate and other chemicals that are known to cause damage and destroy soils. That’s not what I want to be eating or feeding to my children. It’s also not the kind of agriculture I want to support. If the farmer is not forthcoming with details on what they are feeding their animals, find another farmer. Transparency and honesty are so important here. If they talk abut feeding “grain” go ahead and ask what grain and if it is conventional or organic or locally produced etc. They should be happy to talk about it and, if they are not, that means there are things they don’t want to share. I’d rather buy bacon from a farmer who is not feeding 100% organic but who is honest about it, than from a farmer who lies to me or tries to deceive me about what they are feeding their animals.
- Do you compost?
Finding out about the compost might not seem like something obvious, but it can tell you a lot about a farm. If they are active in soil regeneration, including composting, that says a lot about the effort they are putting into their operation. Even if a farmer says no, they don’t compost, that doesn’t necessarily mean they are not restoring topsoil. Maybe they are spreading manure or practicing other ways of building topsoil or putting carbon back into the soil. Ask them, and then be sure to listen to their answer. You’ll learn a lot.
- How long have you been farming, why do you choose to be a farmer and what led you into farming?
This is a great question for any farmer anytime, anywhere. There is a reason they are a farmer. They probably love it and will give you their life story here. This is a great opportunity to listen carefully and possibly find out about your next best friend and the person who produces the food that will feed your family. Be careful though, because after this question, you might find yourself looking up farm properties or reading about how to become a farmer. This question is vital to understanding your farmer. Sure, you can support any farm or farmer without knowing what drives them, but you’ll understand so much more about them and what they are committed to if you take the time to listen here.
- What is your greatest challenge in farming?
This question, and the scope of this question, will depend on so many variables. If you are speaking to a single-family operation without employees, they are going to have substantially different challenges than a larger farm that has the capacity to hire employees. Right up there with “Why do you choose to be a farmer?” you are going to hear some heartfelt answers. All of this will guide you to find the farm or farmer that is the perfect fit for you and your family. It will lead you in the right direction for meeting your specific needs and for you to support the farm(ers) that most closely match your ideals and your necessities.
Again, this guide is meant to help you build relationships with local producers so you can figure out who might be scamming and then decide for yourself what farms and farming practices you want to support. There are millions of people and families searching for local sources of food and there are as many different needs as there are people. Hopefully, you can use this guide to find the perfect fit for you. If you are primarily looking for vegetables, fruits and herbs, some of these questions don’t apply, but the others sure do.
Good luck and let us know in the comments if there are other important questions you ask.
Wherever you are in your personal journey toward clean living and local food, thank you for joining me in mine. I look forward to sharing it with you.