Finding the Best Food at Farmers’ Markets

Finding the Best Food at Farmers’ Markets
By Craig Volland, Ag Committee Chair

Introduction. This is the first of a continuing series on Healthy Food and Farms, a new campaign of the Kansas Chapter. The Sierra Club recently issued our national policy on Food and Agriculture: How does one put this rather lengthy document into practice in Kansas and in your community?

The availability of healthy and environmentally benign food varies widely in our towns and cities. Locally grown food quality ranges from certified organic produce, to produce grown with some sustainable methods to items grown with synthetic chemical pesticides and fertilizers. Animal products vary from free range, pasture-raised meat and eggs to products from animals crammed into cruel and environmentally destructive animal factories, called CAFOs. We are suggesting in this article ways to find the very best food at farmers markets.

Farmers markets are at or near the peak of supply of fruits and vegetables at the moment. However, organic and conventional producers are usually both represented at farmers markets in Kansas towns and cities, and they employ a wide range of growing practices.

Know Your Farmer. The best approach is to know your farmer, even visit her or his farm. Here are some questions to ask when buying produce:

1. Do you grow all of the food products you sell?
2. Is your produce organically grown? How do you define organic?
3. Do you use any synthetic pesticides (insecticides, herbicides & fungicides), or chemical fertilizers?
4. If you don’t usually use pesticides, will you use them as a last resort?
5. When did you pick your produce? Is it ready to eat today?
6. How do you wash and store your products? Do you have a clean water supply?
7. How do you cool your produce? (Sweat leads to rot.)

Farm Visits:

1. Do you welcome visitors to your farm?
2. How do I arrange a farm visit?

Select That Ugly Fruit. Tree fruits are harder to grow organically. That’s because a tree is fixed in one spot and cannot be rotated among fields to discourage pests that take up permanent residence nearby. Pesticides are also used to prevent external damage to the skin because shoppers like shiny, unblemished fruit. Some fruit is even coated with wax by large producers.

Ironically, the presence of blemishes on fruit is a great way to tell if it was grown without the use of chemicals. I tell farmers I love their ugly fruit! At home it may be necessary to cut away insect damage. But that’s a small price to pay given that conventional fruit typically carries the highest level of pesticide residues.

Also pick smaller fruit. Fruit is sold by the pound, so typical corporate-think leads to the development of larger, heavier fruit. Huge, perfect-looking apples, peaches and pears quite often lack the intensity of flavor we so enjoy in traditional varieties. The same goes for some berries, especially blackberries. A recent book, The Dorito Effect*, covers this phenomenon of how industrial scale agriculture has greatly increased the yield of all kinds of crops to increase profits. But in the final analysis all they added was water and carbohydrates. The flavor and nutrients were diluted.

Buying eggs and meat at farmers’ markets. The vast majority of products from CAFOs are sold through grocery stores, often under misleading labeling. Even some certified organic labels on eggs and dairy conceal industrial practices. That will be the subject of a future article. However one still needs to be careful to ensure that eggs and meat at farmers markets come from animals raised with the highest standards.

The most important things to ask a vendor are (1) were the animals raised in pasture or given regular access to outdoors, and (2) did you raise the animals yourself? Free-range farm animals rarely need antibiotics, but you should ask whether the cows, in the case of beef or dairy, were given synthetic hormones. Sourcing sustainably produced dairy products is complicated and will also be the subject of a future article.

Grass fed & finished beef is environmentally superior to grain finished due to the high energy & pesticide inputs to corn and soybeans, especially the genetically engineered variety typically available from feed mills in Kansas. Bison are always pastured, though they may be fed some grain.

Find Those Great Farmers. If you know of farmers and farmers markets in your area that are doing it right, let us know. We will try to spread the word. In particular, let us know if you have visited the farmers you admire. Contact Craig Volland at


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