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  • Writer's pictureLouise H Connolly MD

Farmers Markets: The Devilish Details

Details! Definitions! Certifications! Boring, I know, but so vitally important. Don't just guess at what those slogans on the farmer's banner mean, know what they mean. If you don't understand the rules, how do you choose what to buy? The cheapest? The prettiest? The most popular? Know the rules and you'll buy and eat the best.

"Certified Farmers Market" means vendors grow their produce in California and "Grow what they Sell". Thus all the farmers in the market are certified farmers. And they must grow everything they sell. They are not supposed to sneak downtown at the crack of dawn, buy up a lot of pretty supermarket quality produce, and resell it along with their own stuff. It's is pretty easy to spot this added inferior stuff, just look at the produce! Does it seem like it all came from the same place? Or is there one gorgeous well represented item, each one perfect, each one the same size looking like it's neighbor's clone. That's a tell-tale sign of mass production and lower quality. Give me spots on the apples.

"Certified Organic" means the crop was grown free of synthetic toxic pesticides, artificial fertilizers, sewage sludge, genetically modified organisms or irradiation. The farmer has jumped through a number of regulatory hoops, paid good money to do so, had to keep records of everything and put up with on site inspections. No wonder his produce cost more! More nutritious? Yes. How much so? Depends on his soil quality, farm location, care, and other factors. But definitely less toxic.

Who certifies a farmer as organic? Many different agencies, some local, some international, all of whom report to the USDA. USDA organic sets the standards and inspects the agencies. The agencies inspect the farms. So the farmer's banner usually contains two organic logos, for example CCOF and USDA.

International agencies? What? Aren't Mexican or South American organic standards different? Not if they are sold in the US. Any produce sold in the US as Certified Organic must meet USDA standards and accept supervision. So Mexican Certified Organic meets the same standards as California Certified Organic. And Northern Mexico is not that far away. Its produce arrives fresh and delicious. Look for it in the organic section of your supermarket because it can't be sold at the Farmer's market. It's not from California.

Of the organic certifying agencies, CCOF (California Certified Organic Farmers) is often our farmers agency of choice. It's the oldest certification in the country. Established in 1973, this Santa Cruz based organization goes beyond just organic, looking at soil quality and contamination. They also reimburse fees to small farmers based on need. This makes me proud to be a Californian! The most popular international certification agency is Quality Assurance International, (QAI). It's a well run organization with minimal unnecessary red tape.

"Certified and Organic"? I don't know what that means. A certified farmer who claims to be organic? Hmmmmmm.

"Pesticide Free". This verbal claim is not a certification but, honestly, is probably mostly true in the farmers market. Pesticides cost money, getting certified as organic costs money and your local producers are out there competing with Big Agriculture and can't afford to supersize produce or kill every pest. This I know. You are better off buying "pesticide free" farmers market produce than supermarket produce almost all of the time. Take a step back, look at the produce, and decide. Perfect looking produce is often the most pesticide protected.


The standard definition of local is produce grown within 400 miles from your doorstep. It's not "eat your zip code".

Actually, I really like this definition! It seems consistent with our origins, with the regions originally roamed by our ancestral tribe as they foraged for food and game. Perhaps they moved their community North to the Central Coast in summer and South into Mexico for the winter. And their local crops truly fit our local seasons, soils, and circle of life. Now, does Mexican produce really fit the climate, terrain, and life style of the Pacific Northwest? No! If you want to thrive in our local environment, eat plants that also thrive here.

Four hundred miles is also one long day's trucking. It doesn't sit at the truck stop overnight. It isn't stored in mass quantities downtown. Pick produce at it's prime, drive it one day to market, and sell it to us. Fresher, picked ripe, less transportation costs, less contamination in storage, climate appropriate. What's not to like?

One caveat: Local is mostly a good idea unless you live in an area where the soil is very depleted or the over all environment is very polluted. Examples include the farming belt of the US Midwest, the Salinas River Valley and, of course, China. If I had to live in one of these places, I'd import.

Native Soils:

Organic is nice but arsenic, cadmium and DDT persist in the soil for decades and can be wicked up into plants organic or not. With such a large area considered local, I decided to investigate soil quality and contamination from our farmers market providers. I got a map of the vendors farms and I cross checked it with soil quality and pollution maps. I questioned organic farmers about raised beds, soil amendments, worm castings, and mycorrhizal fungi got nowhere. Farm websites didn't help. Anyway, I could find no differences in baseline soil quality from one region to the next. But when I looked at pollution, two areas stood out. The Salinas River Valley and Fresno are my #1 and #2 in most polluted. Fortunately, our farmers are NOT from the Salinas River Valley although a few are from Fresno. The Salinas River Valley is a huge "local" nonorganic California produce supplier that spills contamination and cross pollution for miles, eventually dumping it's burden into Monterey Bay. Supermarkets may have Salinas Valley produce, labeled local, complete with a picture of the smiling farmer with his tractor. Beware.

The only other thing I learned of relevance here is that produce grown south of us may be slightly less contaminated that that grown to the north.

Native Sons:

Whether you go to Home Depot or the Botanical Gardens, the latest trend is to buy California Native plants. They just grow here better. And when I plant my yard, I take into account my soil type, my shady spots, sunny spots, and my morning coastal fog. Similarly, we have so many different terrains represented in our farmers markets. Take advantage of them! The cooler coast north of us, the hotter days with colder nights in the inland valley, and the warmer semi-desert climate South. Buy what grows best in each. What's the lesson here? Shop the entire market. Berries, flowers, and mushrooms are best from coastal areas, dates and subtropicals from the hot semi-desert areas, tomatoes and chiles from Mexico. So go native, look around, and buy diversity.

Next up EGGS. Everything you need to know and are afraid to ask.


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