02 October 2010

Farmers markets for friend and faux

Local farm markets are eco-friendly on several fronts. They generally use less pesticide, so they are less polluting. They bring food to consumers over tens or hundred of miles, not thousands — that decreases the carbon impact of shipping produce from other states and continents. Indie farmers are more likely to grow heirloom varieties, not monocultures bred for transport and consistency of appearance over taste — that increases biodiversity and resistance to plant disease.

More to the point, customer awareness of these issues is rising, and consumer demand for organic produce is on the rise. So, attracted to the higher prices that organics can now demand, farmers' markets are on the upswing. And so are con artists hoping to cash in on the trend.

NBC News' LA team took a look at farmers markets recently, and found that some farm market vendors are buying wholesale non-organic produce and reselling it as "organic." In some cases, the "farm" in question were just fields of weeds. NBC offered three tips for identifying true farmers at your local market:
  • Try to get to know a few vendors really well. Ask where their farm is located, how long they've been farming, how they handle pest and disease issues. See if they're listed on sites like LocalHarvest -- not all farmers are, but it doesn't hurt to check. Ask them the specific variety of whatever produce they're selling. If they really grew it, they should be able to tell you that those are 'Emerite' filet beans, not just "green beans."
  • Look over the display. Really look. This is a great tip from Homegrown Evolution. Are all of the tomatoes the exact same shape and size? Do the apples have that waxy supermarket look? Are the cucumbers all perfectly uniform? Are they selling "local" watermelon in Detroit during the first week of May? If so, they probably went to the warehouse club and bought produce to sell at a premium at the farmer's market. Steer clear.
  • Know what's in season! If you see watermelon in April or peppers in December in Minnesota or Michigan, chances are good that they have not been grown locally. While some farmers have large heated greenhouses to grow produce year-round, not all do, and it pays to ask questions if the vendor is displaying a lot of out-of-season produce.
And here's another sign that there's a buck to be made selling faux organic produce: Supermarkets are setting up "Farmers Markets" in their parking lots!

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