Farmer Facts

Getting to know people who produce your food is good for you

You have a doctor, a dentist, a hair stylist- why not a farmer?

It’s not that strange of an idea, really. In fact, you probably already have one. Most of us who frequent farmers’ markets or farm stands have a few regular stops. We know whose corn is the sweetest, whose tomatoes are the plumpest, whose scones are the flakiest, and we buy the same things week after week, year after year.

But how much do you know about your farmer? If your answer is “not much,” maybe it’s time to get a little more personal. In fact, striking up conversation is actually a fairly reliable way to ensure that your fresh produce has been handled properly so that it won’t make you sick.

“The best advice I can give is to have a relationship with your farmer,” says Kristin Krokowski, who founded the Wisconsin Farmers Market Association and who also works as a commercial horticulture educator for the University of Wisconsin Extension for Waukesha County. “Farmers want to know their customers and they want to keep their customers.”

And part of that is allaying any fears about food safety.

We’ve all heard about the outbreaks. It seems like every year people get sick—some even die—from eating tainted melons, sprouts or spinach. The U.S. Department of Agriculture reports that foodborne pathogens are responsible for an estimated 48 million illnesses, 3,000 of which are fatal, every year.

Few of the large-scale outbreaks are traced back to the small producers typically represented at farmers’ markets, Krokowski says, and the vastly lower volume of business means that fewer people would get sick from any instance of contamination. Yet that doesn’t mean that markets and farm stands are immune.

“It’s unbelievably difficult to trace,” Krokowski says. “Would you remember who you bought from? If you think of all the things you eat in a day, would you be able to point your finger at one thing specifically?” 

But when you know your farmers, you might have a better chance of following signs back to the source after you’ve been sick. More important, though, is that communication with a vendor can help you avoid contaminated food in the first place. Obviously, you can see for yourself whether the stall or stand is clean. Same goes for the people selling the food. Are their hands noticeably dirty when they weigh your peaches? Is someone sneezing or coughing in between bagging lettuce?

Beyond that, it is hard to tell only by looking whether food was processed or handled appropriately. That’s when you just have to ask.

“The beauty of the market is the direct contact with the vendor,” says Larry Johnson, manager of the Dane County Farmers’ Market. “[Shoppers] can ask vendors how they grow and prepare things.”

There are some standards for vendors of certain products, such as meats, eggs and cheese. Johnson says it’s his job to enforce applicable licensing requirements and safety regulations. He does routine spot checks, as does the health department, and problem vendors don’t get to stick around. Johnson credits such vigilance for keeping the iconic producers-only market free from food-borne illness issues. “A food safety issue would hurt all of us, so we’re pretty picky about it,” he explains.

Yet fresh fruits and vegetables are not subject to the same licensing and processing requirements as are things like beef and cheese.

“Fresh produce operations, which make up the bulk of most farmers’ market vendors, are generally not licensed by the state or municipalities,” says Steve Ingham, administrator, Division of Food Safety at the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection. “But even unlicensed produce operations can take several key steps to ensure that their produce is safe to eat.”

That is why Ingham, Johnson and Krakowski urge shoppers to ask farmers about food-handling processes. For example, you can ask the farmer who is selling “washed spinach” whether “washed” means hosed down in a field or rinsed in a commercial kitchen. You can ask whether corn was picked that morning or days before. You can ask how long the cheese samples have been sitting in the sun. The list is really endless.

Beyond that, don’t assume that the food at farmers’ markets is safer than food you might buy at a conventional grocery store just because it was grown locally. It very well might be, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take basic precautions. For example, growers still need to wash their hands when harvesting—even when their farms are completely organic. “The most important thing that people can be doing on the farm to prevent food-borne illnesses is hand washing,” Krokowski says. “It’s as simple as it sounds.”

You still need to wash your hands when preparing the produce, and you can’t forget to wash the food itself. Organic fruit might be free of pesticides and other harmful chemicals, but your Honeycrisps or honeydews can still be contaminated by improper handling. “No matter if it’s organic or if it falls from heaven,” Krokowski says, “wash your produce.”

Jennifer Garrett is a Madison-based freelance writer.

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