I've said it before and I'll say it again. I don't have a dog in the organic vs. traditional fight. I also don't have a problem with roadside sellers who aren't farmers or those at farmer's markets and roadsides who farm some of their stuff and are just re-sellers for other things.
I DO have a problem with mis-representation. I have a problem with grocery stores selling "pastured" eggs to customers who don't know that doesn't mean the chickens had real access to real pasture.
I'm confused by customers buying "cage free" eggs thinking those are more humane when in reality it's just a million chickens crammed in a ventilated barn where they eat, poop and cannibalize each other without ever seeing the sun.
I'm baffled by "organic-only" people buying organic eggs, without understanding many of the creatures making those organic foods are caged cruelly and fed on organic pellets in the same way many chickens (and other animals) have been raised industrially since the 70s.
Every single one of us CAN and SHOULD buy whatever product we feel meets OUR OWN needs best -- but the problem lies in labeling, assumptions and the lack of understanding of what the product REALLY is.
I was once a classroom teacher, where I had to explain to 5th graders that no, carrots aren't made by the grocery store and they don't grow on trees. I was flabbergasted that they thought money was MADE made inside an ATM and that the machine would just give you whatever you wanted. So, you can see why I am not only passionate about the pursuit of the perfect egg, I'm passionate about education and eggucation.
Therefore, I feel it's my obligation ;-) to provide, without further ado, a map and insider's guide to navigating these mined waters of farmer's markets and roadside stands.
First, you need to know, the word "farm stand" is so generic. I know a lot of folks who buy from a stand by Foxfield Races. Some know exactly what they're getting, some don't.
Therein lies the problem: when people compare one type of farmstand to another roadside stand without educating themselves on the difference. The same with CSAs. (that's Community Supported Agriculture -- the fruit and veg delivery box scheme). Many folks subscribe to them without verifying 100 percent comes from the actual farm and that they aren't actually just paying for a wholesale fruit/veg delivery service. That creates a problem when people assume all CSAs are the same, because it puts the farmer relying on seasonality and their own crops pitted against a CSA who supplements with auction produce to fill out their baskets. It's not a fair comparison -- it's like comparing a manufactured quilt to the one grandma made.
For us, it's not a problem, if consumers are savvy. Jolly Folly Farm, as a strictly self-producing farm, isn't in competition with re-sellers of any sort. We couldn't be. Because we are a small family farm and only sell what we personally produce, we won't have 10 kinds of fruit or veg available at once. We won't have repackaged bulk spices or candy because if we don't make or grow it ourselves, we don't sell it. We are, wholly, passionately, completely dedicated to the art of the egg, the health and happiness of our flock, and the stewardship of any acres we are fortunate enough to farm.
It also means we aren't in competition with Whole Foods or any store -- they offer a product we don't and can't. I can't sell you a dozen eggs at 9:30 p.m. on a Monday. I can't sell you artisan cheese or laundry soap. I'm glad places like Whole Foods exist to fill a need that small farmers like us can't.
You should also know we don't have anything against the fruit and veg auction. This is an excellent way for stores and vendors to get Virginia items to re-sell. It's a great place. The only problem is when sellers PRETEND to be growers or fail to inform folks that they are sellers, NOT actual producers. Honest sellers aren't bad, they're great! They drive to the Harrisonburg auction to buy melons from the eastern shore and sell them here. Customers get a Virginia melon, instead of one that guzzled diesel coming from out west (good!) and a small businessman gets a profit (good). The only problem is when they say they are a "local farm stand" (bad). WHOSE farm? From WHERE?
So, here are some tips from your local farmer who has "seen behind the curtain" of this far-from-idyllic world.
Things to keep in mind as you browse the roadside stand or wander the market stalls:
1. WHEN YOU THINK: Wow! there is a lot of variety here from this stand!
ASK THEM: What of this did YOU grow? Where is your farm? What do you have growing right now? What will be coming on next week?
REASON: If you look at a farmer's stand and you find yourself thinking "how did she get green beans AND broccoli in at the same time?" or "I could never get this many things to grow at once in my back yard" the chances are, that person standing behind the display of sweet potatoes, lettuces and tomatoes didn't either. Look at a harvest schedule for those crops. Unless this farmer maintains an elaborate greenhouse system, it's impossible to have all those crops on your stand if you grew them yourself. Most likely, you are looking at a re-seller, not a farmer.
2. WHEN YOU THINK: Wow! those (eggs, steaks, sausages, etc.) are cheaper than the others I've seen at stands!
ASK: What is the name of your feed? Do you have a bag I can see or do you post it online? Is it certified organic? How many hens do you have? Do you butcher your meat yourself or take it to a USDA certified facility? When were these eggs laid? When was this steer slaughtered? How do you know the date? Do you have pictures of your hens? Photos of your cattle in the pasture? How much space do they have?
REASON: It costs money to process meat at a USDA facility, or, if the producer does their own butchering, it costs money to have USDA certification at their own farm. If chickens are taking in the herbicides and pesticides, it can be passed through into the egg, and it costs money to feed forage free from those contaminants. As for butchered products, the jury is still out on whether the herbicides and pesticides pass into non-organ meat. For some folks, that doesn't matter, and they're only interested in price. But if the process of production matters to you, know that if an egg or cut of meat is substantially cheaper than other farm stand or market sellers, that means the process is cheaper. Either cheap food, confined space, or the eggs have been stockpiled over time and may be multiple weeks old (still perfectly safe to eat, but just not comparable to products that are ACTUALLY farm-fresh within the last few days).
3. WHEN YOU THINK: How can they get so much squash to grow when I can't? Why do their tomatoes look like the ones in the grocery store when the ones in my garden have small cracks at the top?
ASK: Do you pick these yourself from your own farm? How long does that take?
Follow-up question if they grew them themselves: What chemicals do you use, and when do you apply them?
REASON: Virginia is filled with passionate gardeners and you probably know one. If your neighbor, who has been growing tomatoes for 30 years and dousing them in the standard chemicals can't get one to come out looking perfect, then no small farmer can, either. They are either using the industry-grade chemicals like the ones necessary to produce the grocery-store tomatoes, or they are re-selling. We all get perfect tomatoes sometimes in our garden (I have photos of ours when it happens because they are a reason to celebrate!). However, no one can grow bushels and bushels of perfect tomatoes in the open air without the use of intense chemicals or mass-production practices. They can get quite a few, but getting several bushels all at once, that are perfect and all ripe, that were farmed by the farmer's hand, isn't common.
4. WHEN YOU THINK: Farm products AND garden? That's great! Pretty hanging baskets and spaghetti squash. Quaint!
ASK: Did you plant these from seed? Did you assemble the arrangement from starter plants? How long did it take you to grow these?
REASON: Some sellers of flowers do plant them from seed or sell cut flowers from their own fields or garden (they're pretty rare). That's pretty awesome in our opinion. Some buy mega-packs of starter plants and replant them into hanging baskets of their own designs. That's also fair. No one expects the granny that knits booties to shear the sheep and make the yarn herself! She made the booties. Someone selling potted flower arrangements or hanging baskets that bought them as starters, created something pretty in a pot or basket, then nourished it for another 3-4 weeks to get it rooted has invested their time and skill.
However, know that the auctions also sell pre-made hanging baskets and potted plants -- so the one you're buying from the quaint farmer's market stall or roadside stand might be from the exact same greenhouse as the ones at Kroger. Asking the right questions can help you decide whether you are buying the product you're being sold and if you think it's worth it.
I hope this map will help you navigate the "Wild West" of the growing sell-small choices. The thing no map can help you with, though, is your starting point. That is for you decide.
If you want fresher food, ask the right questions and you will find it.
If you want safer food, the same applies.
If you want humane food, quiz away.
If you assume that because something "looks" homegrown or "seems" organic, you are certain to be fleeced. There is no label, no certification, no buzz-word that can replace a savvy consumer. But your starting point is YOU and what YOU value. If you know what you're buying and you know your farmer, you can't go wrong.