This article is an excerpt from my eBook
The most nutrient-dense, flavorful, and fresh food available to you is probably close to home. Shopping local is most definitely the way to source better food, but you need to be a savvy shopper. The simple truth is that different farmers use different practices. If your goal is to eat the cleanest, most nutrient dense food you can find, you need to be a smart consumer.
Farming practices are not generally transparent. You don’t see stickers on grocery store produce telling you all the toxins that were sprayed during production. You won’t see that at the farmers market either. We must take on the personal responsibility of educating ourselves. Food literacy today means asking questions and learning about food quality. Arm yourself with a basic understanding of good and bad practices and the vocabulary to be able to maximize the farmer-consumer interaction.
First, locate the farmers
Before you can assess quality, you need to find the farmers. The obvious place is your local farmers market. If you don’t know where the markets are, you can search the USDA National Farmers Market Directory. I am sure not every farmers market is there, but the search I did for my local area pulled up more markets in outlying towns than I knew about.
It would be a mistake to assume all the local farmers are selling at your nearby farmers market. It just isn’t the case. I know many farmers who have never sold at market, or no longer do. Other ways to locate local farmers include websites like Local Harvest, Eat Local Grown, and Farm Match. For my area, Local Harvest has the most listings. Again, I know many farmers not listed there. Simple google searches plugging in your area are an effective way to identify farmers as well. If you have a local co-op grocery, they likely purchase from local farmers and can refer you to farms you may not know about. A web search will tell you if there are chapters of Slow Food USA, Slow Food International, or the Weston A. Price Foundation around you. These groups will (or most certainly should) know the best food sources in your area.
I asked market farmer and friend Abby Abbott-Rider what consumers should keep in mind if they are new to buying local food and talking to local farmers. Most importantly, she said “buyer beware.” It is crucial that you are ready to ask questions and understand certain concepts. Just because food comes from a small, local farm or a farmers market, does not mean it meets the standards you are looking for.
Shouldn’t we put some real research into what we put in our and our loved one’s bodies? We research purchases like cars, but so often pay no attention to food quality. If you are taking the time to seek out farmers in your community, make sure you are getting the best food possible and supporting agriculture that builds a better you and a better world.
So, what are the standards you should be looking for? What are the best quality, most nutrient-dense, and healing foods available from farmers? Best quality is always going to mean local, seasonal, toxin-free, and produced from healthy, living soil. A farm is only as good as its soil.
Local, healthy soil farms will be using regenerative agriculture practices. High-quality local outshines big organic in several ways. First, local food should be making its way to your plate faster. Post-harvest nutrient loss varies by type of produce and post-harvest handling but can be significant. In the case of Vitamin C, produce held at 4 degrees Celsius for 7 days showed 15% loss in peas and 77% in green beans. (Barrett, 2017) Buying from local farmers also gives your food a face. You can ask questions and know the growing practices. Of course, local food also means a great reduction in transportation and storage costs as well as a boost to local economies, which helps us all.
That does not mean that big organic farms are a bad choice. There are even examples of big producers using great regenerative practices. I buy local when I can, so I meet the members of my food production chain, but, when I can’t, I try and support the best national companies. Big and small, local and national, they are all part of the solution. `
These are what to look for on the IDEAL end of the food quality continuum (these all come from local farms using regenerative farming practices):
- 100% grass-fed beef and lamb
- Pastured (free-range) and non-GMO fed pork, poultry, and goat meat (These animals need some grain in their diets, but it is essential they have consistent access to pasture to forage.)
- Free range and GMO-free eggs
- Toxin-free local produce
- Seasonality (eating local implies eating seasonally) food in season is fresh, tastes better, and is more nutrient dense
You will immediately notice that I did not use the word organic. Organic is a term that has been regulated since 2002 by the USDA. For a farm to be certified organic, it must go through a long, expensive process and meet these standards. According to the USDA National Organic Program:
Organic food is produced without using most conventional pesticides; fertilizers made with synthetic ingredients or sewage sludge; bioengineering; or ionizing radiation. Before a product can be labeled “organic,” a Government-approved certifier inspects the farm where the food is grown to make sure the farmer is following all the rules necessary to meet USDA organic standards.
The designation of “organic” can only be used by certified organic growers. Asking a farmer if they are an “organic” farm is not the right question to ask of your local farmers. For many small farms, the bookkeeping and the expense are not worth it. You may find that your local, not-certified organic farmer uses practices that far exceed those mandated by the term organic. You may find some certified-organic farms near you as well. It is still in your best interest to ask them about their growing practices. You will almost certainly find farm and farmers that are better than the organic standard–whether they have the certification or not.
What does the regulated term organic mean in terms of animal products? According to the USDA National Organic Program, organic certification means:
Organic meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy products come from animals that are given no antibiotics or growth hormones. Organic food is produced without using most conventional pesticides; fertilizers made with synthetic ingredients or sewage sludge; bioengineering; or ionizing radiation. Before a product can be labeled “organic,” a Government-approved certifier inspects the farm where the food is grown to make sure the farmer is following all the rules necessary to meet USDA organic standards. Companies that handle or process organic food before it gets to your local supermarket or restaurant must be certified, too.
Nearly all the farmers I source from are NOT certified organic. The goal is to find farmers using “beyond organic” regenerative practices. These are better questions to ask:
For produce farmers:
- Do you use pesticides, herbicides, fungicides? Which ones? (Write it down if you need to and research them.)
- Do you use “organic’ growing practices?
- Do you use regenerative growing practices?
- How do you protect soil fertility?
- Do you use non-GMO seed?
- Where do you buy your seeds?
- Can I visit your farm?
For meat farmers:
- How do you raise your animals? Do your animals live inside a structure, do they have access to the outside, or are they completely free range?
- Do you use rotational grazing? (This is a regenerative practice that moves grazing animals often to ensure they have quality pasture and optimize soil quality)
- If you don’t use rotational grazing, how do you maintain the health of your pastures?
- Do you feed non-GMO grain? Is it organic? Toxin-free?
- Where do you source your feed?
- What is sprayed on any hay used?
- What kinds of medications do you use with animals? (My personal belief is that antibiotics, as needed for illness, are ok, but should not be used as a routine part of production to drive growth.)
- Can I visit your farm?
If you ask these types of questions and the farmer is excited to tell you about how they farm regeneratively (with or without using that word,) you’ve struck gold. If they cannot answer your questions or seem annoyed, I would move on.
Locating the farmers around you doing exceptional farming is worth it. It will build your health, your community, and improve the environment. I believe wholeheartedly that we will change the food system from the ground up. Vote with your dollar and your fork.