After seventeen years of selling at farmers’ markets, I’ve heard nearly every question under the sun.

When were these tomatoes picked? (Answer: Usually within 24 hours of market).

How long will strawberries be in season? (Answer: Depending on your climate zone, from early April through June).

How long will these peaches be in season? Not long enough!

Fresh peaches… the season is so short!

How many eggs do your chickens lay each day? (Answer: 0.78… or 5.5 eggs per week… or 286 each year).

Markets are a wonderful place to interact with genuine farmers, giving us the opportunity to ask important questions that can’t be answered at our nearby grocery store. It’s one of the best parts about shopping at your local market each weekend.

A few years back, I wrote a (mostly) humorous post called “4 Questions To Never Ask At Farmers’ Market”. Within days, it had more than 100k views, which got me thinking. For a place where questions are expected to be answered, customers still wanted to know the right sorts of questions to ask. So, while every question is a great question—except for those 4 listed in my prior post, haha—here’s an insider’s list that you can ask at any market in the country.

5) How long will this last?

How long will these freshly picked carrots last? Hmm, bet your farmer knows!

How long will these freshly picked carrots last? Hmm, bet your farmer knows!

One of the best reasons to shop at a farmers’ market is because the food is so incredibly fresh. Picked, harvested or prepared within a day or so—if not even sooner—of market, if you want produce that’s any fresher, then you’ll probably have to grow it yourself.

But we live in a food culture where obsession with expiration dates, sell-by stamps, and “Discard After” reminders borders on the neurotic. (As a quick aside, did you know that most “Sell By” stamps are only manufacturer suggestions, and don’t necessarily indicate that the food has gone ‘bad’?).  Farmers’ markets are the perfect place to get a clear answer, one that comes straight from the producer.

4) What’s the best way to cook this?

When customers in Santa Fe ask vegetable farmer Matt Romero how to cook his organic produce, he’s quick with a response: “Give me any vegetable. If I can’t cook it with olive oil and salt, then it can’t be cooked!”

Want tips on how to grill the perfect grass-fed steak? Head to your local farmers’ market. How about fun ways to sizzle zucchini fritters? Or crunchy eggplant sandwiches? Or sautéed sweet potato greens? Walk through any farmers’ market, and you’ll quickly discover the possibilities are endless.

Farmers are our original food experts. It’s a fact that I learned as I traveled the country last summer, assembling a cookbook of favorite recipes from the farmers themselves. So, don’t hesitate to inquire about how to prepare these foods. Ask your favorite farmer what’s cooking!

3) Will you tell me about your production methods?

Q: "How often do you check your cows?" A: "Every time I look out my window!"

Question: “How often do you check your cows?” Answer: “Every time I look out my window!”

Consider this: 96% of our food is sold at grocery stores, handled by staffers who never set foot on a farm, much less actually know where the produce comes from. As such, unless we shop at a farmers’ market, join a CSA, or grow it ourselves, chances are we never have an inkling as to who actually grows our food. Not surprisingly, this farmer-consumer disconnect can have major consequences, including this recent Whole Foods imbroglio.

So, come to market with any questions you might have! And here’s an insider tip: Pick your moment. Try to choose a time when the farmer doesn’t have a long line of customers, unless your question is very short. Markets are often when the farmer makes her entire weekly income, and complicated questions can take up a lot of sales time. Ask during a slower moment, and you’ll find you’ll get a more thorough answer.

2) Is all of this raised on your farm?

Pick your timing... Don't be the guy who turns around after 10 minutes and says, "Oh, was there a LINE behind me?" :)

Pick your timing… Don’t be the guy who turns around after 10 minutes and says, “Oh, was there a LINE behind me?” 🙂

This might seem like a no-brainer. After all, this is a farmers’ market, right? That’s true of the markets I attend in Washington, DC, which are called “Producer-Only” markets, meaning the only products for sale must be grown on the farmers’ land.

But every market is different. Some allow for buying-in of produce for resale, either from neighboring farms or directly off the wholesale market. The bottom line is this: Don’t assume that the products were raised on the farm. Instead, simply ask.

1) Can I come see your farm?

This is probably the most important question you can ask a farmer, and in nearly all cases, the answer should be a resounding “Yes”.

Why is this one so important? Because it reinforces what farmers’ markets are all about: Trust, transparency, and true freshness. It’s these qualities that define the key, fundamental differences between farmers’ markets and grocery stores.

It might seem like you're heading out into left field, but for a farmer, it's all part of the job.

It might seem like you’re heading out into left field, but for a farmer, it’s all part of the job.

Please note, however, the careful phrasing of the above question! It’s not “Can I come tour your farm?”, and it’s certainly not “Can I show up whenever it’s convenient to me, and walk around wherever I like?” Most importantly, it’s not the following, dreaded by farmers far and wide:

“If I come out, will you drop what you’re doing and show me around the place?”

Consider your own job. If you were asked to interrupt your daily workflow to give someone a tour, would you ever get anything done? Of course not. Farmers are no different. But should you be able to stop by—especially after giving your farmer advance notice—and see the actual farm? Absolutely. Chances are, you’ll even go home with a fresh watermelon, pumpkin or dozen brown eggs as a souvenir.

Check out my books, all about food, farming & living the good life!

Growing Tomorrow (with 50 recipes!) is NOW AVAILABLE, and Gaining Ground is a New York Times bestseller.


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