Questions You Should Ask Your Farmer with Local Farmer Cristina Cosentino of Green City Growers
With summer in full swing, we’re loving the seasonal availability of fresh, local produce. We reached out to local farmer Cristina Cosentino with Green City Growers to chat about steps you can take to become a more engaged buyer during your next fruit-and veggie-seeking venture at the farmer’s market.
Tell us a little about your farming background and your role with Green City Growers (GCG).
I’ve been working in agriculture for about 7 years, on farms of varying scale that produce a range of fruits, vegetables and pasture-raised proteins. I now work at Green City Growers, a Massachusetts-based company that transforms underutilized spaces into productive landscapes that yield hyper-local food for our clients. We have farm sites all over the Northeast, including Fenway Park’s rooftop farm and the largest rooftop farm in New England at Whole Foods in Lynnfield, MA. I’m currently managing DeCotis Farm in New England, where we grow produce for an on-site FLIK cafe just feet from where it is served.
What advice would you give to someone looking to become more informed and more deliberate when buying local foods? Where would you start?
I’d say the first thing you have to ask yourself is what’s most important to you. Maybe you’re passionate about humane working conditions for farm staff or you want to make sure the farm goes above and beyond with environmentally friendly practices. Maybe you’re looking for a site with a zero-spray policy or you’re really looking for additional third-party certifications, like Certified Organic or Certified Biodynamic. Whatever it is, it will be very helpful to do some homework on the topic before shopping to understand what types of practices, certifications, and barriers are out there and how to navigate labels.
With that in mind, what are some examples of questions consumers can ask their farmers to become more educated buyers?
As farmers, we love talking about our farms, practices, and how to prepare the food we grow; this is our passion. Don’t be afraid to strike up a conversation and really “dig deep!” Here are a few questions I would start off with.
1. Where is your farm located?
This simple question allows us, the farmers, to introduce you to our operation on a broad scale. You can ask follow-up questions about size and scale, what crops are grown, soil management practices, and even about visiting the site— many of us love showing customers first-hand.
2. Do you have any certifications or do your practices align with any?
Farms will likely be up front about any certifications they have by posting on signage, etc., but you never know for sure unless you ask. There are a lot of certifications out there, ranging from Certified Organic, to Certified Naturally Grown, to Certified Biodynamic. However if organic practices are important to you, don’t shy away from non-certified farms. Becoming certified requires a lot of paperwork and money, and some farms don’t have the resources to commit to it annually, even if their practices meet all the requirements. Other operations may not be certified due to external elements outside their control—maybe they’re located next to a conventional farm, and [pesticide-containing] drift is a concern. Some farms, including those with less than $5,000 annual sales are exempt from obtaining certification before making organic claims. Some farms chose not to certify or practices organic growing and that’s something you can discuss as well.
3. What farm practices are you most proud of?
Farmers at most markets are very willing to be transparent about their practices. As noted above, some farms without certifications may still be practicing organic growing, or even beyond. Give farmers a chance to fill you in on what they’re doing, why they’re doing it, and how it’s affecting their business and product. Everyone loves being recognized for their hard work, so give them a chance to brag! You’ll likely learn a thing or two, too.
4. How do you manage pests and disease? What sprays, pesticides, and herbicides do you use?
Pest control philosophies vary greatly by farm. Contrary to popular belief, organic is not synonymous with pesticide-free; while organic farmers are encouraged to prioritize cultural or mechanical methods of pest control (such as fabric row cover) before chemical ones, there is a list of approved pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers they can use. The organization that approves these sprays is called OMRI (Organic Materials Research Institute).
5. What are your animals fed?
An important distinguishing factor among livestock producers is what they feed their animals. Different feeds have different environmental and health impacts on their animals and consumers. If you’re looking for the healthiest, least environmentally harmful beef, for example, look for animals that are “100% grass-fed, pasture raised, and pasture-finished.” Also keep your eye out for rotational grazing—this provides the best quality grass to the animal and has the most positive ecological impact.
6. Does your farm have a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program?
CSA’s are one of the best and most mutually beneficial ways to support local agriculture. Most CSA’s cost an annual fee that is paid up-front and provides farmers with much-needed financial capital at the start of the season when they need it. In return members receive weekly bundles of fresh produce throughout the entire harvest season. CSAs allow you to invest in a farm you believe in, gain access to the freshest produce out there (usually picked that day), and experiment with new varieties and preparation methods.
7. What are your favorite ways to prepare this item?
If there’s one thing farmers know, it’s how to prepare a given fruit or vegetable in a lot of different ways— this is absolutely essential in the middle of harvest season, when we’re gathering more produce than we’d know what to do with otherwise! We’re in the business because we’re passionate about food and about the earth, so let us share our passions with you!
At the heart of all of this is the theme of supporting your neighbors at local farms and increasing your involvement in your community. With this in mind, you just might find that the food you’re eating not only tastes great, but also makes you feel even better.
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