woman at farmer's market looking at vegitables

What Makes a Good Farmer's Market?

It’s a typical farmer’s market scene: freshly harvested honey from local hives, locally rendered goat cheese, carved wood ornaments. Perhaps even more so than food, you’ll find plenty of crafts and artisans selling their wares.

Are you more likely to find crafts and handmade items now instead of food at your local farmer’s market? Don’t be surprised if that’s the case. One reason is because consumers have become more wary of the very foods that drew them away from grocery stores and into to farmer’s markets in the first place. A devastating expose series that ran recently in the Tampa Bay Times revealed how some farmer’s markets are fakes, its vendors selling produce already rejected by the supermarket.

How do you guarantee the food at your farmer’s market is truly farm fresh? Experts say the best way is to talk to the farmer or their designated sales person at the market. The United States Department of Agriculture or the USDA maintains a directory of markets they oversee. It is each market manager’s job to make sure what is sold meets government regulations. The market manager is also the point person who ensures that if food being sold is marked organic, that the grower provides documentation to prove that.

Food Safety magazine says that with an eager consumer base, the number of farm markets has increased by over 370% in the past dozen years, with over 8,100 farmer’s markets listed in the USDA market directory. The USDA’s own publication, “You’re your Farmer, Know Your Food,” is a useful tool for acquainting yourself with good farmer practices. (Click here to read.)

The document emphasizes good practices for decreasing the risk of produce contamination from land and water used in growing; how to properly wash produce; hygiene practices for workers handling the food, not just in the field or in the packing area, but even at the market.

Unfortunately even with these guidelines, a recent survey given to market managers by the USDA concluded that over 40% of managers responding indicated they have no food safety standards in place at their market, including but not limited to the use of raw manure as fertilizer, keeping animals away from growing areas, and availability of sanitizers and hand washing facilities in packing sheds. So, to some degree, it truly is a case of buyer beware.

Sandra Giordano-Lena, who handles the John Boy’s Meats stand at the John Jay Homestead Farmer’s Market in Bedford, New York, sells beef, pork, bacon, and chicken from animals bred and raised by the farmer, John Ublado, said that in New York State the farmer’s beef must be sold frozen, according to federal standards. “Pork and chicken can be sold fresh, and that’s the way you want to buy it,” Giordano-Lena said. “With beef, you can tell the quality by the marbling. If there is none, the beef will be tasteless.”