Questions to Ask Your Farmer!
What type of questions can you ask your vegetable farmer?
- Do you compost your crop waste?
Compost is a way to recycle organic material by turning it back into soil.
- Do you use cover crops?
Cover crops are crops that are not meant to be harvested and are used to manage soil erosion and maintain soil fertility.
- Do you employ crop rotation?
Changing the location that you plant certain crops and giving plots of land time to recuperate after cultivation gives the soil time to replenish its nutrients. Since different crops draw different essential nutrients from the soil, it’s good practice to alter the planting location of crops on a season-to-season basis.
- Do you use drip irrigation?
Drip irrigation is one of the most efficient ways to water plants, thereby saving water from being wasted.
- Do you hand-pull weeds?
Pulling weeds by hand rather than relying on machinery saves the expenditure of fossil fuels!
- Do you use any synthetic chemicals?
This one doesn’t need much of an explanation.
- How do you normally deal with pest problems and pathogens?
Hopefully your farmer is prioritizing the health of the soil and the health of the human in this decision-making process.
- Do you till your soil?
Tilling soil means turning over the top layer of soil before planting a new crop. The process uproots weeds and disperses manure nutrients but can reduce soil moisture and lead to greater erosion.
- Do you have a nutrient management plan?
Hopefully your farmer has a holistic sense of how their crops interact with the soil and the larger ecosystem. A Comprehensive Nutrient Management Plan, or CNMP, “contains records of the current activities on a [livestock/crop-growing] operation, an evaluation of the existing environmental risks, and proposals to reduce the risk of negative impacts to the environment” (USDA).
- Do you use organic seeds?
Conventional seeds come from plants grown in conventional settings whereas organic seeds come from plants grown organically.
- Do you have a pollinator enhancement plan?
A pollinator enhancement plan is a plan to create flower-rich habitats where pollinators thrive. It’s awesome if your farmer is thinking about the birds, bees, and butterflies (since most crops depend on pollinators to fruit).
- Do you test your soil?
By testing their soil, farmers can better understand the effect of crops on their soil’s fertility and its nutrient budget. It’s a good sign when farmers are testing their soil!
- Do you test your water?
Frequent water testing allows farmers to ensure that their water is of adequate sanitary quality for its intended use (no bad pathogens or contaminants). The Food Safety Modernization Act requires that most farmers test their water at the beginning of the growing season but it doesn’t hurt to ask!
- Do you practice seed saving?
Seed saving is the practice of saving seeds from this year’s harvest for planting in next year’s harvest. Seed saving can help to preserve heirloom varieties!
What type of questions can you ask your meat farmer?
- Do you have a grazing management plan?
A grazing management plan is a tool through which farmers “organize their land, improve forage production, determine livestock sustainability, allocate budget resources, and determine the effort and time to achieve long-term livestock production goals” (MS State). Grazing management plans are a goods sign because they indicate that the farmer is concerned about the animals and how they interact with the surrounding ecosystem.
- Do you use synthetic sprays, conventional herbicides, or synthetic fertilizers on your pasture?
This one doesn’t need much of an explanation.
- Do you use any antibiotics or parasiticides on your animals?
It’s important to note here that some farmers will use antibiotics when their animals are sick. There’s a big difference between this use of antibiotics and preventative antibiotics (giving an animal antibiotics before they get sick).
- Do you use any synthetic growth promotants?
The FDA has approved a number of steroid hormone drugs for use on livestock including estrogen, progesterone, testosterone, and their synthetic versions. Some studies suggest that these hormones are linked to human health issues so it’s worth asking about your farmer’s hormone policy.
- Do you practice animal confinement?
Many animals raised through the industrial agriculture system have little access to open pasture. Though this can be more efficient for the farmer, studies suggest that animals raised on pasture are healthier and produce less negative environmental externalities. More specifically, grass-fed cattle work carbon into the ground by dispersing manure and then mixing that carbon into the soil by stepping on it.
- Do you have fences to keep animals out of waterways?
Keeping animals out of waterways helps to maintain the health of the aquatic ecosystems. Manure runoff and bank erosion may cause fish kills, beach closures, increased public health concerns, increased drain maintenance and other negative impacts (Rector).
- Do you use GMO feed?
More than 95% of animals used for meat and dairy in the United States eat GMO crops (FDA). If you feel passionately about GMO products, it’s worth asking your farmer this question.
- How far do your animals travel from farm to processor?
Long journeys from the farm to the meat processing facility can be extremely stressful on livestock. It’s a good sign if your farmer is conscious of this and concerned about the well-being of their animals.
In asking all of these questions, it’s also important to consider the flip-side of each argument. For example, it’s possible that a farmer uses conventional pesticides as a last defense against pests because, otherwise, they wouldn’t be able to grow enough crops to sell and support themselves. That said, when having these conversations, try to strike a balance between curiosity, respect, and understanding!