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Four Questions You Should Never Ask at a Farmers Market

Editor’s note: In honor of National Farmers Market Week, we bring you a view from the other side of the market stand.

I’ve spent over 1,000 Saturdays and Sundays selling at farmers markets, and even after all this time I still love to answer questions. Farmers markets are one of the few places where customers can directly connect with their food, meeting face-to-face with the people who grew it. Questions are expected at market, and even encouraged. From livestock breeds to production practices, organic certification to chemical usage, I’ve been asked just about every food-related question under the sun.

Though most farmers will happily answer all inquiries, there are a handful of questions that make even the friendliest farmers want to choke a carrot. If you don’t want your farmer to turn three shades of beet red, here’s the reasoning behind four questions every customer should avoid.

1) Was this picked fresh this morning?

So what’s wrong with this question … you just want to know if it’s fresh, right? That’s totally understandable. But let’s take a moment to think about how a farm really works.

Imagine market has just opened, and it’s 8 a.m. For the last hour and a half, the farmer has been setting up his booth. Before that, he drove two hours to get to market. Sometime earlier he brushed his teeth, made a pot of coffee, and—with any luck at all—put on his pants. At what point this morning would he have had time to pick 20 bushels of tomatoes, 100 pints of blueberries, or gather 50 dozen eggs?

Truckloads of fresh food don’t magically load themselves in fifteen minutes. It takes many hands many hours to pick basketfuls of green beans or apples. This doesn’t even count moving the harvest from the field to the packing shed, or loading it onto the truck itself.

So when should the harvesting happen? At 2 a.m.? I’m picturing a bleary-eyed farmer with a headlamp, picking corn with one hand and drinking coffee with the other. As Rachel Bynum of Waterpenny Vegetable Farm explained to me, most market produce is picked a day or so before (depending on the fruit or vegetable), then loaded onto the truck in the cool of the evening before market day.

If you want it any fresher than that, you’re probably going have to grow it yourself. In the meantime, let those farmers get a good night’s sleep! Which leads me to my next question…

2) What time do you get up?

This one’s a classic, something I’ve been asked hundreds of times. Farmers are famous for being early risers, so it’s understandable if people are curious about a specific hour. So why add this question to my list? Because—as I’ve learned from years of experience—there’s never a satisfactory answer.

For instance, if I say, “Oh, about 6 o’clock,” the questioner’s face turns thoughtful for a moment. “That seems kind of late, doesn’t it? I mean, I get up at 5:45 myself.” If I say “A little before 3,” their eyes go suddenly wide. “Why do you have to get up so early? To milk the cows or something?”

One day, I realized there’s only one correct answer for this question: 4:30 on the dot. Not too late, and not too early. Not too lazy, and not too crazy. 4:30 a.m. is the Goldilocks of responses.

So in case you were wondering, all farmers—everywhere—get up at precisely 4:30 (although I sometimes hit the snooze button on my rooster). Any more questions?

3) I know you’re not open yet, but I’m in a hurry … could you sell me something before the bell?

Hello, Starbucks? Sorry to call so early, but your door is locked and I really need a latte. Could you open up early just for me? I’m in such a rush, and it’ll only take a second!

Where else in the world could someone get away with this question? Despite how it might appear at first glance, it takes farmers a long time to set up their booth each morning. Trucks must be unloaded, tents erected and produce arranged. If farmers opened early for even one person (and I’m talking to you, Latte Lady), they’d never be ready for the opening bell of market. Which is a perfect segue to my last question…

4) Since it’s the end of market, can I get a special deal on what you’ve got left?

This one’s a little trickier. I once asked my friend John Hyde, a baker for 25 years, what he thought about discounting leftovers at the end of market. His face lost all expression as he gave me this advice: “Forrest, that path leads to madness.”

He elaborated. “If we gave discounts at the end, then people would simply wait till the last ten minutes of market to shop. And what about the loyal customers who paid the normal price? They’d be insulted to learn they got charged more for showing up on time. It’s always better to donate it to a food bank than to discount things at the closing bell.”

Markets must never become Priceline.com or GroupOn, where last-minute deals and discounts are the norm. In order to stay in business year after year, farmers must get the price they ask for. Discounting at the end of market might seem harmless and even logical, but it’s an unsustainable practice for the farmers themselves.

Farmers markets are a place where customers should expect to have all of their food questions answered. But just like anyone else, we farmers get a little grouchy from time to time (it’s probably because we get up at 4:30). So bring your shopping list, your cloth bag and your farming questions, but leave these four at home. You’ll be a ‘market insider,’ and your local producer will love you for it.

 

This post originally appeared on SmithMeadows.com, along with other posts by Forrest Pritchard.  Pritchard  has a new book out this summer called Gaining Ground: A Story of Farmers’ Markets, Local Food, and Saving the Family Farm.

Photo courtesy of Bead for the World.

67 thoughts on “Four Questions You Should Never Ask at a Farmers Market

  1. To the person that called farmers rediculous for not discounting food, and giving us a lesson on the agrarian history- customers who are asking for a discount are not offering anything. There is no barter happening. I do love to barter with other vendors at the end, as they are not devaluing our work.

  2. Hi, I wanted to say something about the last question and the comments.
    I understand why LocalFisherman would need to reduce prices or else have fish leftover. I do not understand why “limited choice” is even on there as a reason behind dropping prices. If you feel that you are not getting something that was lovingly hand-picked and fresh, then you can come earlier when there is more of the same exact product or go somewhere else to shop. I suggest a grocery store.
    Farmers pick how much they have to because the product either has to be picked or else rot or because they’ve planned ahead to how much can be sold. So, you should congratulate the farmer who only has a couple melons/bunches of kale/fish/etc. at the end of market because that means that they sold what they thought they could and didn’t bring too little. It does not mean that the quality is any less.
    I know that there are some crops that don’t do very well. Last year was a hard year for potatoes, and I know a bunch of farmers who had “Charlie Brown” potatoes for a reduced price. These were a completely separate product and price than the regulars. That is a completely different idea. If we, as farmers, don’t value our products at the end of the market, then why should our customers? It is also a different story when someone calls me to ask for a specific quantity of a product, places an order, and I bring that to the market, set aside for them at a slightly lower price. That is called a wholesale order.
    Thanks for hearing me out. I think this is a very important topic for farmers to discuss in their families and farming communities.

  3. One time I came home with a bag of peaches from the local farmer’s market, emptied it out, and noticed that one of the peaches had a tag from ‘Safeway’ that had been missed for removal. If you get the question ‘did you grow this yourself’ than realize it is a descent question from a customer, I have really slowed down going to farmer’s markets because I’ve had questions about the legitimacy of the ‘locally grown’, and if truly organic…..also, I worry about the pesticides and GMO. It is very important today that you tell us, these things with out an attitude please, if you have a sign at your booth that says ‘non-GMO’ then I will go straight to YOU! Thank you

  4. Here in Texas it is common for buyers to buy from Mexico and pass the fruits and veggies off as their own. I don’t ask if they are homegrown because I generally can tell the difference, but the question, “Did you grow this?” makes sense around here.

  5. To Cheesebaron…I am a consumer who regularly shops my local farmers market, but it is some distance from my home and I can only get there once or twice a month. I think the question regarding where else is your cheese sold is legitimate. The person might have been asking if it is carried by a retailer that is more convenient for her and therefore could lead to additional sales at times coming out to the market is not possible.

  6. I do not discount unless it is flawed in some way.. something that gets over looked in the washing and packing procedures… If folks only knew the cost of seed, fertilize, sprays (when needed) the cost of land, insurance, labor, fuel for the tractor, gas for the truck maintenance, cooler space, electric and water.. then they would or should not even ask for a discount… But hobby gardener that does not have to pay overhead costs will join a local market and give away produce to customers and is very frustrating…They joined the group 10 years ago pay their dues each year but really are not farmers…UGH they sell tomatoes cheaper that I can grow them.. I am often tempted to just stop growing tomatoes and buy mine from them and resell them… Discounting prices hurts those who are trying to make a living off the land…

  7. Wow! Who knew farmers were so sensitive about questions! I would have thought that ANY question was a good question…at least these people are at the farmer’s market and not at walmart buying cheap, poor quality produce. Maybe it’s someones first time there or they are trying to get into eating a little healthier and a little more locally. Can you imagine if a vendor gave a first timer a hard time for asking a ‘dumb’ question? Or even gave a regular customer a hard time for inquiring about a discount? I hope this is just a rant and not a general bad attitude towards customers interacting with their local farmers.

  8. I support all of the questions listed, however, I am taken back by the comment by Provision Farms. The debate of what constitutes a “real” farmer is an old and multi-layered one. I routinely go to every workshop, class and organizational meeting that I can to grow better and healthier food for myself and my family. I do not do it as a way to pay my bills. I consider myself a “real” farmer just like you; I DO pay my membership fees, stand in line behind you at the feed store and worry about whether I will lose my tomatoes or pumpkins or meat birds just like you. If I chose to give away the fruits of my labor, I can. I worked just as hard for my single bushel of peaches as you did for your truckload proportionately. I don’t qualify for aid from the government, subsidies or tax breaks. Mi pay for everything out of pocket and full price. That’s quite a “hobby”.

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  11. Okay, yeah… questions 3 and 4 are dumb. But they do suggest that people who are used to a different culture and a different kind of marketing are actually going to farmers markets. What the heck is wrong with that? You can always say no, or better yet, explain to them why their question is offensive to you. Question 1 just sounds innocent. If you don’t want to explain what farmers do to people who have never been on a farm, you’d be better off either just saying “no, it wasn’t”, or selling your produce wholesale. Question 2 is personal, and if you don’t want to have personal interactions with your customers who are curious about what you do and how you do it, I wonder why you are actually selling at a farmers market in the first place. I’ve heard far worse questions and statements than these. Like “why is this cabbage twice the price of the one at Walmart”, or “do you have any tomatoes (in June)”. It sounds like you’re tired of marketing direct. Maybe you should get someone else to do it – an intern perhaps? Or maybe you should look at a way to make money through wholesale markets. I’m going to ask you a question, and you can add it to your list of dumb ones if you want. Do you know which crop you grow that would give you the best wholesale price margin, taking into consideration inputs, labor, seed cost, and other expenditures? Or how about this one: What crop gives you the best profit over a year at the market considering ALL of the input costs and the volume of sales? Seems like you should be worrying more about these questions than the ones you wish uninformed consumers wouldn’t ask.

  12. I am one of the people who are going to ask “did this item come from your place or a wholesaler?” because my next question is going to be “My family has a lot of food-related allergies and sensitivities. Can you tell me whether this item is a GMO and what chemicals were used on it and when?” Those questions can be forestalled by putting out signs with the answers, at least to the “where did this come from?” question.

    Around here, it is a common practice to label certain crops, such as “South Carolina peaches” or Bogue Banks watermelons” or “Pamlico County corn/potatoes/cabbage” etc. I’ve never had anyone refuse to tell me if chemical fertilizers or pesticides were used, although some people do seem to think it’s their agricultural philosophy that’s being questioned rather than the status of their produce as a possible trigger for an allergic reaction.

    For what it is worth, in my personal opinion, if the seller wants to sell those wilted collard greens and limp strawberries at the end of the day when they are no longer fresh, he or she should offer a discount. Otherwise, load ‘em up and take ‘em to one of the shelters. Nobody is forcing anyone to sell them at any price. If a potential customer wants to make a counteroffer to the posted asking price offer of sale, the producer can just say “no.”

  13. One good reason for discounting: Some fruit growers at my market lower the price on the fruit at the end of the market. But if you wait for it, you get bruised fruit. Don’t mind that? Great. Go get yourself some bruised fruit for cheap. If you want prettier peaches, get there earlier and pay full price.

  14. This is a great post and a great example of why our farm no longer goes to market! We just don’t see a sustainable future this form of sales. The driving, the tolls, the price hagglers, the lack of courtesy. It’s hellish to say the least.

    Farmer owned Co-ops and buying clubs are where it’s going for us. It’s still direct marketing, but it’s organized and can be scaled. We see it as the most efficient way to not only move our products, but the best way to contribute to organizing our local food distribution infrastructure. We’re working with our farm community rather than being in competition with them, and we’re feeding way more people in the process. Plus, we can stay home with our families on weekends rather than being stuck in traffic on a freeway coming back from the city, dead tired from the 3am loadup from earlier that day.

  15. I tend to agree with Paula’s comment, and even Lawrence. If a customer is buying a piece of sculpture designed to last a long long time, I can imagine not wanting to discount, but if your produce is going to spoil on the the truck ride back to the farm, what, and who, is being devalued?
    I expect to see higher prices when I go to Farmer’s Market, but sometimes, even that is hard to swallow. I have to work hard to keep my body and soul together, just like everyone else.
    I even believe that farming can be seen as a higher calling, but for farmers, just like anyone else, to take themselves seriously enough to not realize they are at a MARKET, not a church, then the self-righteousness is a bit out-of-hand, and in my opinion, in it for the wrong reasons, only because they will not survive.
    These are probably all growing pains: I recall a lone farmer with a meager crop grumbling that the CSA was a doomed concept, just a scam meant to pull the wool over the customer’s eyes. My guess is that his endeavor was the one that was doomed, not the businessperson/farmer who found an equitably valued way to finance his/her operations for the greater good. Not the same as “you should unquestionably pay me what I ask, because I’m making enormous sacrifices for YOU.” So, maybe humor me when I ask (from your enlightened perspective) stupid questions.