Farmer's Market-What Do All the Labels Mean?

Tis the season for Farmers Markets! We’re excited to have a permanent stall at the Downtown Topeka Farmers Market this year with our beef, eggs and produce. 

There is a lot of information out there and it can be confusing and almost scary to buy food. I don’t want that to be the case for you (or me) so I have compiled a short list of what to look for at farmers market. Remember, just because you’re at a farmers market in your local town doesn’t mean that the products were grown by the vendor, in the state or even this country. That doesn’t mean it’s bad, just know what you’re buying! 

 

Homegrown?

First, are you looking for a product that is grown locally by the vendor? Every market has different rules and regulations about how far the products can come from. Watch the signs. Most markets require their vendors to use signage about where their products were grown. If you don’t see a sign saying something like “shipped in” or “homegrown”, don’t be afraid to ask the vendor. We as vendors, are there to serve YOU, the market goer. NEVER be nervous to ask questions-any and all questions. If you don’t feel comfortable asking questions, maybe that’s a sign that you aren’t a good fit with the vendor. At most markets, there are multiple vendors selling the same products, so try another one. Good vendors aren’t there only to sell a product-we are passionate about what we have and what we are growing. We want to share why we are there. We want you to feel confident about your food choices! 

 

Cage free/Free Range

My Forever and I decided we were going to get into the chicken business last April after we decided to start going to the farmers market. Neither of us had ever been around chickens and we knew NOTHING! Matt was going to build a chicken trailer that we could move around, rather than having a set chicken coop that we couldn’t move. My Forever is kind of addicted to checking craigslist and found a trailer and 6-7 week old chickens included. He went and got it that day and we were in the chicken business! Our trailer has a photosynthetic door on it so it opens automatically in the morning and closes at night. Chickens are huge prey animals and pretty easy targets. Possums, raccoons, birds, dogs-really anything-can kill them easily. Chickens “go to bed” at night. They go into their home when it’s getting dark instinctively. We are rarely home at night before it gets dark which is why we love the automatic door! Our chickens are pasture raised (they can go ANYWHERE! We have their trailer we move around our acreage, and when that door opens they can go wherever they went.) They will roam and forage, normally in a flock for protection all day, but will go back to their home right before dark because they know that door closes and they are locked out. If they get locked out, their chances of getting ate by a predator are MUCH higher. It’s amazing how smart they are and know how to stay safe. When we first got them, they were about 6-7 weeks old and didn’t really know how to go back in trailer and what to do. We used a fence for about 3 weeks to give them limited access to the outdoors, but so they couldn’t go all over. This was their training period. It took about 2 weeks for them all to figure out to go inside before the door shut. For the first few weeks whenever My Forever and I got home we would spend 5-10 minutes crawling on the ground under the trailer to put the birds inside. The ones that hadn’t made it inside before the door closed would “roost” on the axles of the trailer. So one of us would crawl under and hand out chickens for the other to put inside. It took about 2 solid weeks for us coming home every night and going crawling for chickens for them to figure out they had to go inside. Since then, they know to go inside. When we move the trailer, it normally takes a couple nights for them to figure out where their home moved to. We find them roosting on the ground where the trailer “should be”. We LOVE our chickens. They are SO easy to take care of and we know the benefits of having our fresh eggs. The chickens keep the bug, mosquito and fly population WAY down. Downside-we don’t have them potty trained so they do poop on our deck. They scratch at the ground to get to the bugs so do tear some grass up. Neither My Forever and I like mowing so we’re pretty ok with it. 

Anyway, back to what to labels and knowing what you are buying at the farmers market. 

Free Range (by USDA standards) simply means the chickens have access to the outdoors. So we all picture these birds being on lush, green pastures being super happy hens. While this is really what our chickens are and can do anything and go anywhere they want to, not all eggs labeled free range actually come from hens that go outside. They just have to have access to the outdoors. Sometimes these areas are screened areas with little grass in them. So even if the hens have access to outdoors, they might not go.

Cage free: These birds, again under USDA standards, can’t be locked in a cage. They have room to move, walk and flap their wings. They don’t have access to outdoors. 

Pasture Raised: Okay-this is a new one to me. I hadn’t heard the definition of this one yet. But I’m going to amend our marketing to using pasture raised instead of simply free range. Our hens, as previously stated, are allowed to go anywhere they want. We do live in Kansas so they aren’t on green pasture year round simply because we don’t have green grass all year, but the door goes up automatically at dawn and those hens go anywhere and eat anything they want until it’s time to go to bed. But of note, this term is not regulated by any agency so be sure to ask the vendor what it means to them. 

To sum up the egg section of this-it all depends on what you’re looking for. I don’t often share other websites, especially those that I don’t know the creator, but I did find this one summed it up pretty good and thought was pretty fair to all. It goes further into detail to sum up a few more labels and if you’re on a budget what the best use of your money is when it comes to labels and buying your eggs. (https://www.thepennyhoarder.com/food/cage-free-vs-free-range-vs-pastured-eggs/)

Our marketplace demands a lot of different products so it is 100% what you’re looking for. The author of this explains if you’re on a budget and looking for the most reasonably priced egg, there isn’t a whole lot of difference between conventionally raised eggs and cage free eggs, except the price. Producers have figured out the “buzz” words, but it isn’t necessarily much different for the actual hen. If you’re looking for eggs from hens that are out and about on grass and can forage and basically do what they want…that is currently being called pasture raised. These hens could still have a fence around them, but should have green grass. Again it isn’t regulated by anyone. At the farmers market, YOU are the boss. YOU get to ask the questions. Ask how the hens are raised, what they call “home”, how often they get to go outside, what they go outside to, where do they lay their eggs, etc. Ask WHATEVER you want to ask because you are the one that needs to feel comfortable feeding your families and we all have different ideas about what is best. 

 

Beef: Grass-fed/Grass-finished/Conventional

Just like everything else, there are a lot of options for buying beef. Again I’m going to start this section with…ASK QUESTIONS! The United States is SO blessed with our food choices. Most of us no longer question where our next meal is going to come from, we’re now focusing on how it was raised. On our operation, we have our calves from beginning to end. From the time the calf is born, to the time that it is harvested, they are on our farm. That means, we control all parts of how that calf is treated, how it is fed and how much stress is put on it. Our cows are always on grass, the calves are on grass a large majority of their lives. They are finished on corn that is produced on our farm. The corn adds the marbling and really brings the taste. We have been marketed that grass finished is better for us. I encourage you to do your research into that. Our corn (some non-GMO) is produced on soil that is getting better, not worse. We put in a great deal of time and money to improving our soil so that we can grow nutritious food. It’s interesting to see the research on how much of our food quality and nutrition is directly tied to what soil it was produced in. Not WHERE, but HOW that soil is treated. Our soil has a living root in the ground as much of the year as possible. We are feeding the bugs and good stuff in soil so that the soil will support us and grow high quality food. Just because cattle are finished on grass doesn’t mean that the animal was well cared for. We are in Kansas and have a winter period where grass doesn’t grow. When the grass isn’t growing, we have to supplement with hay. The quality and nutrition in that hay has a lot to do with how and when the hay was harvested. If you want to buy grass-finished, that’s great. Again, we’re so blessed to have that opportunity, but ask the questions-don’t just assume it is a superior product. It’s all about marketing. Most beef grown has been grass-fed. So if you’re looking for a product that hasn’t ever been given anything, but grass, you must ask the questions. A lot of the time grass-finished producers supplement with grains of some sort in order to provide protein to their cattle. Just know what you’re buying and don’t be tricked into spending more of your hard-earned money on what you don’t want. ASK QUESTIONS!

SUMMARY:

Did you see a theme through this? I hope so…I hope it was to ASK QUESTIONS! YOU are the boss at farmers markets. Most of the vendors LOVE their products, are passionate about how and why it was produced and simply want to share it with the rest of the world. If you don’t feel comfortable asking questions of the vendor, move to a different vendor. We want you to have a great experience and be happy leaving the market with zero buyers remorse. I would LOVE to share our eggs and beef and other products with you, but above all, I want to share about our life and answer YOUR questions. I want you to be excited about the food you consume and feed your families and not worried about whether you bought the right thing or wrong thing for your family. Come see me this Saturday at the Downtown Topeka’s Farmers Market and ask the questions you have! If I don’t know the answer, I’m going to be honest with you and tell you I don’t know, but I am positive that I will know somebody that does know the answer! My hope is this answered some of your questions about all the different labels and what they all mean. If you got some benefit out of this, please share with your family and friends and leave me a comment. It really means SO much to me to have you all in this community! Thank you!!