Non-certified organic produce at farmers' markets

Q. I shop at a farmers market, but not all the vendors are certified organic. Should I still buy their fruit and veggies?   - Melissa, NY

A. You bet. Many small farmers actually comply with organic restrictions and requirements, but don’t apply for USDA certification. Why not? Certification is expensive, and would only raise the price on the goods they’re selling you. But one of the luxuries of strolling through a farmers’ market is that you’ll often have access to the farmers themselves. Ask them anything you want about their practices! (Then walk into a supermarket and try asking the guy stocking piles of plastic-covered Chilean pears how the growing season was, and what pesticides were used.) If a small farmer does use pesticide, he’ll almost always be willing to explain to you exactly how much, and exactly why he feels it’s necessary to the particular crop he grows. You may even—gasp—learn something about agriculture. And rest assured that it’s very unlikely any small-scale farmer is going to use chemicals unless absolutely necessary. In an interview this past year, Gabrielle Langholtz, manager of publicity and special projects for New York City’s Greenmarkets, explained: “If the farmer lives and raises his family on his farm, he’s disinclined to use chemicals to spray crops that are harmful. They will be exposed to much more by living there than you would be by eating a pint of strawberries. Not to mention, the chemicals aren’t always cost efficient.”  

But reducing your exposure to pesticides isn’t the only reason to frequent your local farmers' market. Buying produce grown locally is also the best way to cut down on your food miles, or the distance your food has to travel to get from farm to plate. Fewer food miles means fewer greenhouse gas emissions, as well as richer taste. That pear shipped from Chile to New York, for example, has been in so many fossil-fuel burning vehicles before it got to you that it’s left a disproportionately large carbon footprint and isn’t exactly fresh off the tree. Buy straight from a local farmer and in all likelihood that apple, bunch of beets, carton of eggs, or pot of honey you just plunked in your canvas bag traveled 100 miles max to get to you. It may well have been picked, harvested, or poured that morning.

- Amy Zavatto 

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I agree that shopping at a farmer’s market is a great way to learn more about what you are eating and the processes it has gone through before it reaches your plate. But there are environmental benefits of pesticide use as well that I think have been forgotten here. Take greenhouse emissions, for example. Greenhouse gas emissions in agricultural practice have actually been reduced by farmers using herbicides because they don’t need to make so many cultivation trips - cultivators use about four times the amount of fuel per trip compared to herbicide sprayers. Another point: soil erosion. As you may well know, some production systems where ploughing isn’t used and seeds are just planted directly into stubble from old crops would be pretty much impossible without herbicides. These techniques obviously avoid a big amount of soil erosion through agriculture. I think these are definitely points that we should also be taking into account when we are making decisions on how to live and eat more sustainably.

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