Farmers' Markets: 5 Tips to Help You Determine Whether You're Buying from a Sustainable Farm

Farmers' markets are a fantastic way for farmers to sell their goods directly to consumers with no go-between. Likewise, you can deal face-to-face with local growers offering healthy, sustainable food – good for you, the environment, and society. Unfortunately, not every grower is equally committed to these goals. Here are five ways to help you determine if the food you are about to buy has been sustainably produced. 

Look for "Certified Organic" on Marketing Materials or Signs

Farm produce and livestock must meet stringent guidelines to be certified organic. For instance, the USDA requires that produce be 95% free of chemicals, including fertilization, herbicides, and pesticides. In addition, livestock must subsist on 100% organic feed and meet specific standards for treatment to garner the official certification.  

Unfortunately, organic certification does not guarantee that a farm is sustainable. For example, some certified farms are large and practice monocropping, which depletes the soil. Ask an organic farmer what else they sell and how large their farm is. If they grow a variety of organic crops, they are very likely to use sustainable practices.  

Ask How They Fertilize Crops And Manage Pests

Chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides pose a health risk, pollute the environment, and preclude organic certification. However, many farmers don't bother getting certified for financial or other reasons. This decision does not mean they follow unsustainable practices.  

They may use natural fertilizers like manure and compost. Furthermore, many natural pest control methods work in harmony with nature to prevent crop destruction. As a rule, procedures that fertilize produce, protect crops, and integrate the farm with the surrounding ecosystem are sustainable.  

Not All Local Farmers Sell Local Products

Many farmers' markets have rules governing which farmers are eligible to sell their produce. Sometimes, a market will require that farms be within a specific geographical radius of the market or that no resellers are allowed. Co2 emissions are a huge factor in the current global food system, so any market that only sources local produce will prevent emissions from long-distance transportation. If your market doesn't have strict rules, ask the farmers where they are located or if they are reselling products from another farm.

Local market fruit stock
Ask How They Treat and Feed Their Livestock

Animal products also play a role in sustainability. Integrating livestock with crops can improve the quality of produce, meat, and dairy. Unfortunately, many farms provide livestock feed that is inappropriate for the animal. For example, corn and grain are difficult for cows to digest and can lead to gastric distress, substantially increased emissions, and lower quality. Cattle, fowl, and other pasture-raised or grass-fed livestock end up as more nutritious food and emit fewer greenhouse gasses due to their healthier lifestyle.

Look Into Their Labor Practices

Sustainability is not just about food and the environment. It is about equity. A farm that does not actively enforce a safe, healthy, diverse, and equitable work environment for its employees is, by definition, not sustainable. Fair wages are crucial for local economies because they allow workers to raise their families in safe and healthy conditions. Moreover, farmers should be transparent about and accountable for how they treat their employees.

Harvesting tomatoes
Key Marketing Takeaways
  • Do Your Digging – Farmers' markets are busy, and you might not always be able to speak directly to the farmer. Instead, try to find their website, social media, or informational pamphlets you can take home. Then, when you find a local farm that fits the bill, keep going back to them and doing your best to support them in the community.
  • Join Local Organizations – Most parts of the country have at least one non-profit organization that helps drive commerce between small farms and the public. In addition, some provide excellent guidance and information about area farms that follow sustainable practices. This is also a perfect way of showing support by volunteering your time or money for locally-focused sustainability initiatives.
  • Take the Initiative – Many farmers' markets operate composting services, allowing you to bring scraps for composting instead of throwing them out. Furthermore, mobile technology has made it easy for vendors to offer gift certificates or coupons; some are good market-wide. Consider supporting the whole market or specific farms by giving gift cards to friends and family.