Farmers' market survival guide

Mar 3, 2010 at 2:24 p.m. ET

In a world of mass produced junk food, you’ve decided to make a stand. You’re going to eat as much local, seasonal, organic, nutrient-rich produce as you possibly can. Forgo bagged salad greens. Forget frozen. Throw the cans away. And avoid the supermarket shelves unless straits are truly dire. You’re headed for your local farmers market! But before you start filling up your eco-friendly produce bags, beware that not all farmers' market finds are local, organic or green-friendly buys. To help you make the healthiest, most eco-friendly choices, here’s our farmers' market survival guide.

Young woman at Farmer's Market

Buyer beware at the farmers' market

If frequenting your local farmers' market is on your food buying agenda, good for you! The farmers' market is a great place to pick up excellent herbs, fruits, vegetables and other artisan goods.

There's only one problem: Just because you're at a farmers' market does not mean that the food is local, pesticide-free, organic or grown using sustainable practices. To find which produce does meet these standards, you're going to have to do some digging. This means asking questions. Maybe lots of questions. But if these health-promoting green standards are important to you, the inquiries are worth it – and you'll feel better about your farmers' market buys.

Farmers are proud of their wares

You'll find that most farmers' market produce isn't labeled according to FDA standards (and if it is, that's a dead giveaway the seller likely had nothing to do with raising it), so you'll never know which produce is grown with which practices without actually talking to the farmers. That may sound rude or intimidating, but fear not.

As long as you don't go out and play muckraking investigative reporter (or member of the Inquisition!), the vast majority of farmers you meet at the market are going to be willing to talk about how they grew their crops. For the most part, farmers are proud of the labor that goes into producing their food and many farmers want to share stories about their farming practices.

Ask the right questions

However, the question always arises: What do you ask and what do you look for in an answer? There are many questions you can ask, but a good place to start is "Did you grow the food yourself?" If the farmer says "yes," it's your turn to ask how they grew it. Most farmers will talk about their practices; it's your job to listen for details. If the farmer shows a good understanding of his growing methods, and if his practices are in line with your beliefs, you can feel good about buying his food.

In some cases, farmers may buy their wares from someone else. If a farmer indicates he bought his goods from a warehouse, move on. If it was another farmer, inquire about that farmer's business and growing practices. The best answer is something along the lines of "I bought it from my friend whose farm I have seen and he supports [a particular] growing practice." If you agree with the practice, it's probably a safe buy.

Don't ever feel pressured to buy

Just because you have a 10-minute conversation with a vendor does not mean you have to buy something, especially if you aren't comfortable with the farmer's business. Also, if you feel any of the people at the market are hiding something, or belittling practices that you believe in, by all means move along. Ultimately, you have to know what is important to you (local food, organic growing practices, etc.) and to buy accordingly. Vote with your dollar and support the farmers who grow in the ways in which you believe.

Buy wisely

Asking questions is a great way to learn more about the produce and farmers in your community, but there is always a danger in all these questions. For instance, you might get to talking with a sweet old farming couple and find they remind you of your grandparents. Then you end up bringing home two boxes of overripe white peaches to a mystified spouse and end up freezing peaches all day. Then again, there are probably worse fates.

To find your local farmers market, check or your city's website.

More on organic foods and farmers' markets