The traditional take on farmers markets is that’s where you’ll find wholesome, fresh, locally grown food. Farmers markets represent an opportunity for an outdoor adventure and — presumably — to meet the person who grows your food. However, shoppers assume many things when visiting farmers markets. Most people think of farmers markets as more progressive and proactive than supermarkets, offering products that conform to a certain set of presumed qualities. Is it really true, though? Are farmers markets still ahead of the curve when it comes to offering transparency, information on sourcing and the healthfulness of the food found there?

We expect farmers markets to be far more transparent and informational than any national grocery store chain. Unfortunately, that is no longer the case for most area farmers markets. For example, on March 8, Whole Foods Market announced it will require labeling of all foods containing genetically modified ingredients, also known as GMO or GE. Despite the fact that 18 states and the U.S. Congress are introducing mandatory GMO labeling laws, most farmers markets are lagging behind. Only one area farmers market (Village Pointe) has announced a GMO labeling policy.

(A GE food is a genetically engineered food, the result of a scientific experiment inserting DNA from one species into that of another. GE foods are already on the market, in 80 percent of all processed foods. In one example, scientists inserted a fish gene into a strawberry; in another, a mouse gene into a potato. Neither would be found in nature, unless you can find a fish that can sex a strawberry or a mouse that can screw a spud. GMOs are controversial and critics point to evidence that GMOs harm human health. Just for some perspective, the list of the largest GMO producers reads like a Who’s Who of Bad Company: BASF, Bayer, Dow, Dupont, Monsanto and Syngenta. Do those names seem “food friendly”?)

Before visiting a local farmers market this season, prepare some questions to ask. [Full disclosure: Heartland Healing is a Village Pointe Farmers Market affiliate.] Just ask:

Did you grow this? Shoppers presume the person selling at a booth is the farmer. But it may be someone hired for the day just to sell. If so, do they know details about the products on the table? One beautiful potential of farmers market shopping is learning in-depth information about meat, eggs, honey or produce. Even more important, is the food on the table really from the “farm” whose name is on the booth? It’s far too common to find farmers market vendors selling third-party goods. Sure, most market guidelines say vendors cannot buy from a wholesaler and then resell the product as theirs but is that enforced by market management? Ask. Look around. Any boxes or crates with unusual names hiding behind the truck or the table? If a farmer is selling produce that is unseasonably early, (or cheap!) be skeptical. Trust but verify. Sweet corn before July 1, where did that come from?

Is it local? Don’t assume. And what does “local” mean to market management? Some Omaha vendors farm in Kansas or Missouri. How far away? Ask. One vendor sells honey with a big “LOCAL” label. She told me the hives were as far away as North Dakota. Is that local? You decide.

Do you spray? When I lived in LA, I asked that of a farmer. “Look at the leaves then you tell me,” he said. If spinach or collards or chard or radishes, etc. have bug holes in them or look less than perfect, good chance there’s no spray involved. Sweet corn of a popular seller at VPFM routinely has worms on it but shoppers line up to buy it because they know it’s chemical-free. Still, ask the farmer. But is the farmer trustworthy? At VPFM we randomly send anonymous shoppers to gather information and check it against what we know about the vendor.

Is this GMO/GE? The most likely GE crop at farmers markets in 2013 will be sweet corn. In fact, be advised: The majority of sweet corn this season will probably be GE. Made generally available in April of 2012, GE sweet corn remains a controversial topic, along with other GE foods. The only GE produce likely found at a market is sweet corn, zucchini, crooked-neck squash and edamame (soy beans). Hawaiian papaya is also commonly GE but we don’t see a lot of local papaya in Nebraska. Few farmers markets require GMO labeling. Village Pointe does. Some markets in other parts of the country ban GMOs altogether.

Do you support low-income food subsidy programs? Any individual farmer can apply to accept Senior Farmers Market Nutrition Program coupons or SNAP (food stamps) so shoppers will likely find some availability at all area markets. Some markets have a centralized system requiring shoppers to apply a multiple-step process to redeem tokens. The most convenient is a one-step process dealing with the farmer directly.

Yes, farmers markets are still the best source for local, fresh, wholesome foods but 2013 marks the season of “Buyer, beware.”

Be well.

Heartland Healing is a New Age polemic describing alternatives to conventional methods of healing the body, mind and planet. It is provided as information and entertainment, certainly not medical advice. It is not an endorsement of any particular therapy, either by the writer or The Reader. Visit for more information.

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