The etiquette of querying farmers


What’s better: eating local, or eating organic? There’s an essay on the Organic Consumers Association website right now that tackles that question. Not surprisingly, given the group’s mission, they’re on the side of organic. "Local," they argue, is a completely unregulated term, and conventionally grown produce is still lousy for the environment even if it comes from right around the corner.

If you want to refresh your memory on the arguments for eating organic, this isn’t a bad place to start. Still, I’m torn on this question. As I write this, I’m eating an organic apple from Washington state. Other times, I buy the "low-spray" ones from Crozet that are sold at Integral Yoga.

Of course, as the essay rightly concludes, local and organic is the gold standard. And in the spirit of encouraging more growers to go organic, the authors seem to be advocating that customers adopt a confrontational attitude at the farmer’s market. To wit:

"Inform your local chemical farmer that their toxic fertilizer is polluting our drinking water, trashing the oceans, killing the soil’s ability to sequester greenhouse gases, destabilizing the nitrogen cycle of plants, and emitting billions of pounds of deadly greenhouse gases every year."

How does one actually say this to a neighbor? I really want to know, because I’ve always found it tough–impossible, actually–to ask a farmer face-to-face whether they use organic practices. If they say no, then my not buying something amounts to a gesture of refusal that I’m not comfortable making. My strategy has been to just buy from the farms that I know are organic. (Except when I don’t. Fruit is a major exception.)

How do you handle this, readers? What kind of reaction have you gotten from conventional farmers when you ask about their practices?