Should I Only Buy Organic When at the Farmers' Market?

I would love to buy fresh, homegrown farmers' market produce, but I worry about the substances the grower uses to protect plants from pests and fertilizer. Not all farmers' markets have certified organic produce (especially here in the South). Am I being overly cautious or foolish about this?

Wendy Gordon responds:

Being cautious is a good thing, though being informed is even better. There are about 15,000 to 20,000 certified organic farms in the United States, according to Ronnie Cummins, founder and director of the Organic Consumers Association. Cummins estimates that at least that number and possibly more are practicing organic standards but aren't certified. The ones who aren't certified tend to be smaller and sell their products seasonally and locally. About 40 percent to 60 percent of all farmers' market growers are organic, the Organic Trade Association estimates; this means that roughly half of the growers at your local farmers’ market are not. And yet, many of these farms could certainly qualify.

That's why NRDC’s Simple Steps team urges you to get to know the growers at your farmers' market and ask them about their farming methods, how they treat their animals, and when and why they may use pesticides. Knowing how a farmer tends his farm, how he cares for its health and the healthfulness of the food he is selling you, should be as important to you as the care and concern your doctor shows for your well-being.

What to Ask About Fruits and Vegetables

1. Have you grown this produce yourself?

Farmers don't have control over vegetables and fruits from neighboring farms.

2. Are you trying to grow organically?

If you get a flat-out no, there is probably no need to continue questioning. If you hear that a farmer is trying, you should ask more detailed questions. Many farmers will say that getting certified costs too much. Ask them if they were aware that the government has subsidy programs to make the process less expensive. And see if it’s been their experience that the organic growers they know get more money for they crops.

3. What practices do you use to control pests, diseases and weeds on your farm? What do you use to rejuvenate soil to keep it healthy and fertile?

If you hear some of the following statements, you'll know that the farmer is paying attention to these issues and trying to make positive changes:

  • They are encouraging wildlife population by using bat houses, owl houses, bees and other beneficial insects to control pests.
  • They are diversifying the crops that they grow.
  • They are planting flowers and using complimentary crops. If some crops, for example, are next to each other it can help control bugs.
  • They are rotating crops, not planting the same thing in the same place each year.
  • They hand-hoe weeds.
  • They use cover crops, such as buckwheat or alfalfa, in the off season to put minerals back into the soil.
  • They plant clover to help build fertility.
  • To control pests, weeds and diseases, they use only substances made from other plants or minerals.
  • They use over-the-counter imports only when they have a real problem, and then they refrain from harvesting for three or four days.

What to Ask About Meat, Chicken and Eggs

1. What was the animal fed?

You want to hear things like cracked corn for chickens; pasture and hay for beef and dairy, perhaps supplemented in winter with whole grain or whole corn. You don’t want to hear that they just get feed from the grain mill. You also want to know that they’re purchasing feed with no animal by-products.

It’s best to choose 100 percent grass-fed meat and poultry. Grass-fed animal products have been shown to be higher in beta carotene (vtamin A), conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) and omega-3 fatty acids, which are important in reducing cholesterol, diabetes, cancer, high blood pressure and other life-threatening diseases. In addition, the risk of infection by E. coli in these products is virtually eliminated. To learn more about why it is important to choose grass-fed meat, click here.

2. Were growth hormones used?

Two-thirds of the beef cattle raised in the United States are given growth hormones. Although meat products contain only trace amounts of hormones, agricultural runoff of hormones and antibiotics has been found to threaten the reproductive capabilities of fish in U.S. waterways.

If the meat sold at your farmers’ market is not certified organic, look to see if it bears one of these other labels: Certified Humane Raised and Handled, Food Alliance Certified, Animal Welfare Approved or American Grassfed Association. These programs do not allow the use of growth hormones.

As for dairy products, if you can't buy certified organic milk, yogurt or cheese, try to buy those labeled "rBGH-Free." Recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone (rBGH) is a drug injected into cows to make them produce 10 to 20 percent more milk. But in order to increase production, rBGH elevates levels of insulin-like growth factor-1 (IGF-1), which can cause cell division and tumor growth and may cause breast and prostate cancer. Furthermore, cows treated with rBGH have higher rates of infected or inflamed udders, which must be treated with antibiotics. Overuse of antibiotics has led to a rise in antibiotic-resistant bacteria.


3. Were antibiotics routinely given?


Conventional cattle receive heavy doses of antibiotics in the food they eat and as treatment when they get sick. Animals raised on industrial farms receive on average up to 30 times as much antibiotics as people do, some to treat or prevent infections but others to make them grow faster. Such overuse of antibiotics has contributed to a rise in drug-resistant bacteria in humans. Much more virulent strains of bacteria, such as E. coli 0157:H7, have developed resistance to antibiotics.

If the meat is not certified organic, look for one of these other certifications, which allow antibiotics to be given only to sick animals: Certified Humane Raised and Handled, Food Alliance Certified, Animal Welfare Approved and American Grassfed Association. If the meat is not certified by any program, ask the farmer whether antibiotics are used, and if so, when and why.


4. Were the animals confined?


Don't be fooled by "free-range." The USDA defines this term only for chickens, not eggs or beef, and access to the outdoors can be as little as five minutes per day. Ask whether hens are caged. Do they go outside, and do they have enough room to take dirt baths and get grass? Eggs will lack omega-3 unless the chickens that lay them get to peck the dirt.

To learn more about what food labels you can trust, use the Simple Steps Label Lookup, (also available as of November 2009 on your iPhone).

So go, grab your shopping bags and head out to the farmers’ market, confident that by getting to know the farmers better and finding out about the techniques they use, you will be buying locally produced food that is not only fresh but healthy and safe, too.


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