April is nearly here. Roadside stands that close for the winter will be back up. The Farmers' Markets will be re-opening. As the public's interest in local and healthy food has increased, so has the number of venues in which millenials, hipsters, foodies (and even a lot of regular people like you and me :-) can buy and sell products.
But, beware. Increased interest in sourcing food outside the florescent glow of a supermarket has turned the roadside and community market stands into the Wild West. And there is no Wyatt Earp to keep the peace (or peas for that matter....).
Before I entered this world, I thought it was an idyllic place of farmers growing their wares and selling the fruits of their own land and own labor to the public. Little did I know that the plots and oddities that exist could rival a Russian fake news story. So, for your assistance, I have created two navigation aids. TODAY: A market and roadside-stand dictionary. THE FOLLOWING BLOG WILL BE: an insider's guide to buying from roadside stands or farmer's markets.
Your Farmers' Market and Roadside stand DICTIONARY:
FARMER: A farmer GREW or PRODUCED what they are providing. Don't judge a book by its cover. Sure, a farmer might look like this:
But farmers might also look like this:
A farmer will be able to tell you EXACTLY what they feed their animals. He will be able to tell you where to find the website for their feed source, the amount of protein in each ration, how much they feed, how often they feed. She will be happy to show you or post online-photos of their feed bags and processes. Your farmer can tell you if their feed source grows and mills the feed or is just a mill. They know whether the feed ingredients are local, from the U.S. or imported.
A farmer will be able to tell you where they source the seeds they use to grow their fruits and veg. They will tell you EXACTLY what is in the ground now and what will be ready in the future. They can tell you how and if they irrigate, whether they use poly-tunnels, what they use for pest control and why they choose to use it or choose not to use it.
A farmer will WELCOME the chance to discuss processes and delight in your interest in their work. They won't be offended or put-off by your attention to detail and questions because they have nothing to hide and can answer ANY question about EXACTLY WHAT they do and WHY they do it. You can double check all their answers online and they pan-out. If they can't answer a question and don't know where to find an answer, they probably aren't a farmer, they're probably a seller.
SELLER: A seller is someone who is selling you something. MANY (oh my word, SOOOOO many!) of the roadside stands are really "sellers."
The reason many of them open in April and close in October is because that is the season for the auction at Harrisonburg frequented by sellers in our region. This large weekly auction sells Virginia-grown products from the producers (farmers) to re-sellers. The reason some stands close up in October is because their source for products also dries up. Anything from melons to pumpkins to flowers can be bought in bulk, then resold elsewhere. More on this later. And again, you can't tell by LOOKING at a "farmer's" market stand or a roadside stand if it's a farmer or seller. Only due diligence and a questioning mind will reveal the truth.
You imagine a seller looks like this: But a seller can also look like this:
A place where stuff is sold by people to other people.
Seriously, that's all you know for sure. This place can be as honest and producer-driven as shopping on the streets of Walnut Grove (you know, the town from Little House on the Prairie;-) or as lawless as Tombstone. It depends on the person selling, the market manager, and the investigative mind of the customer.
Some cities require producers to show proof of claims when selling at farmers' markets. They need to be able to produce proof of paid sales tax and the last few months of feed bags (or receipts for them) to any customer or market manager when selling. People who make things from purchased products (crafts, for example) need to show proof of purchase for the goods turned into other goods (yarn receipts, bead receipts, etc.).
Some local markets do a better job of policing than others. Most do the best they can, but it's a lot of work to be the Wyatt Earp of the farmer's market world, so be the savvy buyer, be the aware buyer (be curious, ask questions, be informed). In fact, one local organization dedicated to promoting the sales of regional farm products told me that they have had problems in the past with re-sellers pretending to be the producers and that it's a continual problem. Another market allows producers to have additional items that are resale (not produced by the vendor) at their booth as long as they are labelled, but that falls to the honesty of the vendor. So the best thing is to just ask a million questions, you'll be glad you did!
LOCAL: Local means somewhere on planet Earth.
This word has NO definition anymore. If the melon you just bought was grown on the Eastern Shore, driven to Harrisonburg for sale, purchased and driven to Charlottesville and re-sold next to the road by a racetrack by someone who looks like a farmer -- is it local? Yes, no, maybe? Local just means the seller says it is, but local is different for everyone. If someone can't tell you the zip code that the product was grown, then assume it's not a normal person's definition of local.
BEYOND ORGANIC: Not fed organic.
If it was fed organic or grown without herbicides and pesticides, they would have said it. Organic non-gmo feed costs about THREE TIMES more than the highest quality non-gmo feed -- if a farmer is buying the good stuff, they're gonna tell you.
According to fans and visitors to his farm, the most famous Virginia farmer claims he "can't source organic supplemental feed in the Shenandoah Valley" -- and that is why he chooses not to use organic feed. He spins a tale of feeding cheaper feed in order to save the environment from the fuel consumption.
Hmmmmm.... Waynesboro has the mecca for organic feed and some of us use it. It just costs money, something NO farmer is a fan of parting with. However, some farmers see spending on organic as leverage toward a better, healthier product while supporting other organic farmers and practices. Some farmers see money spent on pesticide-free and herbicide-free feed as a waste of profit. Only an HONEST conversation will reveal the information you need to make an informed decision based on your own desires.
NON-GMO: All the traditional chemicals and pesticides you want, including neonicotonoids (bee killers).
I am continually shocked at the amount of people that think non-gmo is somehow "healthier." It is better LONGTERM for the PLANET and the human race as a whole, but for the individual -- it means you're still consuming all the chemicals. The SEED isn't genetically modified, but the plant is farmed in the exact same way all the cheapest feeds are. In fact, "non-gmo" has probably approached the point of being a non-label as even many of the cheaper feeds use only non-gmo grains now. There is dwindling demand for modified seeds in feed (outside of soy) so even many of the lowest quality feeds are using non-gmo. A farmer telling you "I feed non-gmo but not organic" is almost like saying "I use feed. Whatever hits my price point."
NON-GMO ORGANIC: The SEED isn't genetically modified, and it is grown without any pesticides, herbicides, neonicotonoids or human excrement.
Farmers growing certified organic feed are required to show proof of soil improvement and sustainability. It's the "money" feed and anyone feeding it will be able to prove it. Also, certified organic feed is ALWAYS non-gmo. The opposite is NEVER true.
HOME-GROWN or HOME-MADE: This means someone made it somewhere.
That's it. You have to ASK if they grew the fruit in that home-made jelly themselves, ask if they baked that bread or if it was from a machine. And you have to question your farmer and decide if you TRUST your farmer.
FREE RANGE: This means nothing anymore (officially or otherwise) and deserves a post of its own as to the ridiculousness of it. People THINK free range looks like this:
and it DOES (AT JOLLY FOLLY FARM). Those are OUR big, beautiful, happy ladies.
But by definition, free range can also look like this: a barn as long as they have some sort of access (even head-holes count) to the outside. This is one of the least shocking photos I could find. These chickens are free range:
PASTURED or PASTURE-RAISED: This is also meaningless, both in the store and in the roadside stands and farmer's markets. You think it looks like this:
And it DOES look like the above at Jolly Folly Farm -- just you like you think it would -- free roamin' chickens with access to pasture as they wish. Literally, they're roaming in a pasture. There's even horses.
But frequently it is this: 75 chickens in a 10 foot by 12 foot cage dragged across pasture with the chickens in it. This is the system used by Virginia's most famous farmer. When you buy his "pastured" meat in your local Charlottesville store (it's sold across the state in many retail locations) this is how it was raised.
There are reasons for raising chickens this way, and whether they're good or bad is up to the consumer -- there is no perfect solution to any real-world issue, but the point is that most (if not all) words you will encounter at the market or roadside stand have no meaning unless you have armed yourself with knowledge of your farmer and the processes.
Which us leads us to my favorite, for last:
CHICKEN TRACTOR: That is what is pictured above. Although it doesn't really apply to markets unless you're buying meat, I had to include it because this is a dictionary and I really love that phrase: "chicken tractor!" You imagine a hen cruising around on a John Deere. The above is considered the holy grail of chicken tractors and people love to sing the praises of them, without ever seeing a chicken in a natural environment or seeing an actual chicken tractor loaded with birds. Again, that's 75 chickens in a 10 foot by 12 foot metal cage in the Virginia heat.
That's probably why they call it a "chicken tractor" and not "mobile confinement" which would be a more apt but not palatable "feel-good" name. I highlight it here because I love the phrase, but the reality is that it's a cage for chickens which restricts a selected group of them to a specific patch of grass.
This increases the speed at which they meet market weight by reducing their movement, flight and running (chickens LOVE to run, and yes, it's not pretty, but they like to fly a bit -- that burns calories and the "chicken tractor" puts an end to that). It also reduces feed costs by having them eat grass and bugs (which they love) while they also fertilize and aerate the soil with their droppings and scratching. Good for the land, good for the farmer, not so great for the chicken who, by nature, wants to run, flip-flop-fly and forage at will to grab the tastiest grasshoppers anywhere in the yard (not just the ones that happen across the 10x12 foot cage in the pasture).
Different farmers make different choices for different reasons and each should be allowed to do so -- but I included this here because I, myself, benefited from educating myself on the definition of "chicken tractor." I had heard how great they were, and thought that when we started farming that I'd like one. But then I got to know the natural instincts of a chicken and decided it wasn't humane, so it wasn't for me (and definitely not for my hens). Like anything, I can appreciate the appeal of them to many folks, but just they're not my cup of tea.
NEXT POST: A useful map to smart shopping at roadside stands and farmer's markets or any products from "your local farm."