3 Tips on Knowing Your Farmer: Exactly What to Ask, How to Bring up the Sticky Issues, and How to Find Real Food

December 17, 2013 · 16 comments

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The following links not only give you the questions to ask when buying real food, but you’ll also learn what you will want to hear and why. Also where to find real food near you, and what to do if you’re not happy with food you bought from your farmer.

1.  What to Ask When Buying Real Food

When looking through my drafts folder the other day I found this gem of a resource that you will LOVE —  I wish these links/this site would’ve been around years ago when I first started trying to find real food!

2.  Finding Real Food Near You

3.  Dealing with the Sticky Issues:

A reader emailed recently with a great question about whether or not she should tell her farmer if she’s unhappy with food she purchased from them:

When it comes to dealing directly with farmers, how would the farmers prefer we handle complaints about quality?  I’ve run into this a couple of times, and I don’t know how to deal with it.  If I buy something at a store and I don’t like it, I don’t buy it again.  Or if it’s something I buy often, and the quality is diminished all of a sudden, I might contact the company to let them know.  But I don’t know what to do when I’m dealing directly with farmers.  I feel like they work so hard that I don’t want to complain when I get a bad product.  I’m so non-confrontational anyway, but I also don’t want to appear ungrateful.  But on the other hand, we sacrifice in order to buy healthy food.  We pay so much for good food, and I hate it when I get something that’s not worth what I paid for it.  Let me give you a couple of examples.  I once had a couple of gallons of our raw milk taste totally sour the first day we got them.  I also recently had a package of bacon that was about 75% fat, and 25% meat.  How disappointing!  But how do I handle these situations?  Do farmers want to hear about these types of issues?  Or are we just supposed to suck it up and hope next order is better?  I would love to see a blog post dealing with etiquette between farmer and consumer. What do you think?  Maybe it’s just me. :-)

My advice is this:

While you should definitely not expect everything you buy from your local farmer to be exactly the same (we don’t want factory food after all, where every single thing coming off the line is precisely like all of the others), I would be confident in saying that most farmers would want to hear from you if you were unhappy with something.  It’s important to know your farmer whenever possible, thank them often, and foster a good relationship.  This is important for many reasons, but also if there’s an issue, the lines of communication are open and you’re comfortable talking with them about it.   They may or may not offer you a refund, and it’ll be up to you how to handle it from there.

I’ll tell you what happened with us recently…  

Our dairy farmers sent out a group email saying that they’d be refunding everyone for a week’s worth of raw milk because the cows got into something that made the milk taste bad.  I replied and said that we absolutely would not accept a refund, because this is what’s called REAL FOOD and that stuff happens sometimes, I also let them know again how grateful we are for all they do to help nourish our family!

Any farmers out there, please jump in to share your thoughts.  Do you want to hear from customers if they’re unhappy with food that they purchased from you?

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  • { 16 comments… read them below or add one }

    1 Maryjane December 17, 2013 at 7:36 am

    As long as you are sure to express appreciation to the farmer, I think it’s important to communicate with them if you are unhappy or if something is wrong with their product. How will they know how to improve their product, if they don’t get feedback?
    Once I got some raw milk that was sour; I let the farmer know right away, and they discovered that their refrigerator had gone bad. I felt that it was important to let them know for their own protection, to minimize the danger of someone getting sick. I didn’t want them to go out of business because someone slapped them with a lawsuit! And because I had previously expressed my appreciation for their milk, they were not threatened or offended.

    Reply

    2 Jenny December 17, 2013 at 8:26 am

    Hi Kelly, thank you for a balanced article. I currently raise layers, broilers, pigs and dairy goats- for my own milk, yogurt and cheese. I sell eggs, broilers and possibly pig next year. So far, the pigs have been a family gets the meat thing. I have spent alot of time trying to source non gmo products with very little luck. I live in northern Indiana on 5 acres so I have to depend on others to grow my feed ingredients. My dairy goats are 100% gmo free. The small amount of grain they get at milkings is made with heritage corn my father in law grew for us. It will last a couple more years then I don’t know what I will do since he is very reluctant to grow more for us. I have tried many layers mixes with dismal results. The results—no eggs. Still trying and figure I will get it sometime. But, the pigs and broilers are a different story. The pigs get extra milk, scraps, garden excess and are outside all the time. They have shelter but we try to raise them in the spring, summer and fall so we don’t have to have shelter for extreme cold. All my animals have unlimited access to outside including the broilers that are in an open air pen. Again, allowing them free range on pasture sounds great and so “farm-like” but the reality is I lost many animals trying that to hawks, owls, raccoons, and skunks. I could not afford to continue nor can I afford thousands of dollars for netting to cover my pasture! That’s totally impractical also. Most articles I read about knowing your farmer makes me just want to cry. I cannot be perfect and so far I cannot be 100% gmo free as much as I so want to be. I absolutely, positively, unequivocally HATE gmos. I am trying. My animals are healthy, live outside and get sunshine, have very nice shelters either in a barn or small structures and get the best food I can come up with. I would stop raising animals and produce for anyone but myself if I started getting “but why can’t you get gmo free or shouldn’t chickens be able to get everything they need from pasture.” Yeah, right. Been there, done that, didn’t work, got no eggs and unhealthy chickens. I find that many people just have no clue what it takes to raise animals and that absolutely nothing in this world is perfect no matter how much we want it to be so. I want to help as many get good quality food and I want that same food. I eat what I raise, knowing its not perfect but better that what I would get, and I know what is on it, in it, and how it was butchered (we do most of that also.) I figure God will help with the imperfect part while I work on solutions to the imperfections. I won’t give up trying to be gmo and soy free but in this country that is almost impossible especially if you need it to be fairly reasonably priced (Hoping desperately this changes in the next few years.) I do not have unlimited funds nor am I independently wealthy. Thank you again. I ENJOYED reading this article as it didn’t raise my blood pressure, make me want to cry nor make me want to say, “Well fine, then raise your own meat and produce (my garden is 100% organic.) I hope I didn’t make anyone mad. I’m not trying to, I’m just trying to do the best I can with what God gave me and help all I can who want food not in a grocery store. Farm life is frustrating, messy, imperfect and constantly trying your patience, knowledge and strength–emotionally, physically and mentally. I cry and/or get sick to my stomach when I lose animals and almost panic when I think I’m going to or they get sick. Even with it all I absolutely wouldn’t trade my life and lifestyle for any other.

    Reply

    3 Jenny December 17, 2013 at 8:38 am

    I forgot to add in my mini book above that I would definitely want to know if something was bad.

    Reply

    4 Lydia December 17, 2013 at 9:14 am

    Jenny,
    If you want ideas for your dairy goats (they also talk about chickens), check out TotallyNaturalGoats on facebook. The have files with ration ideas, and there are several people who have raised chickens soy and corn free on there. We use a mix of barley, oats and wheat for our goats and chickens, and they do well on it. I have never fed my goats corn, so they can live without it.

    Reply

    5 Jenny December 17, 2013 at 4:07 pm

    Lydia, Thanks for the forums. I have figured out that goats don’t need near what the books and experts say they need if they have high quality pasture as I found out this year. My goats wouldn’t eat much of the feed at milkings. I figure alfalfa will lure them over and keep them occupied. Can I ask how much of each of the three grains you feed your chickens? I am beginning to wonder if it is the breed as I have tried multiple grain recipes (we still have some fish meal and crab meal left) but they have always slowly over a week or two almost stopped laying. I have waited another couple weeks thinking it is just the change in diet but they will not come back on til I start with a high quality but not gmo free conventional feed. That frustrates the heck out of me. I’ll get on the forums and see if anyone else has had what I have and if they have managed to get past it. Thanks again.

    Reply

    6 Lydia December 19, 2013 at 9:09 am

    The mix is 300 pounds barley, 400 pounds oats and 100 pounds wheat. Our chickens don’t lay well in the winter, but in the summer they do. to us, it is worth it to get fewer but healthier eggs. We do still get anywhere from 6-13 eggs per day from 27 chickens in the winter. We are adding sunflower seeds now that it is winter, for extra protein. They get protein from bugs in the summer. We also sprout the grains, so that increases the nutrients.
    I give the goats enough grain to keep them occupied on the milk stand. I have not found grain to increase their production, but alfalfa sure does!

    Reply

    7 ValerieH December 17, 2013 at 10:54 am

    It really helps to hear from farmers. As a consumer, all I know is what I read by other people. The WAPF does tend towards some kind of perfection.

    Reply

    8 KitchenKop December 18, 2013 at 4:29 pm

    I’m so glad this post didn’t get your blood boiling, believe me, I know exactly what you mean!

    I also agree that most of us don’t have a clue what goes into raising and growing the food that we so appreciate, that’s why I’m so grateful to people like you! :)

    Kelly

    Reply

    9 Mike Moskos December 17, 2013 at 12:16 pm

    The one thing I would add is, look for information that’s printed (signs at farmers’ market booths, labels on products, website) because verbal answers can change depending on who is asking. (How hard can it be to include a small slip of paper inside the carton that says exactly what a pastured chicken ate–CAFO feed or GMO-free, soy-free, organic, etc.?)

    As more people are willing to spring for local and/or nutrient-dense food, a lot of charlatans have made it to the scene, peddling stuff that isn’t worth the price. Sometimes they don’t know, sometimes they just want you to believe they’re doing what you think they’re doing to get the higher price.

    I’m lucky that I get the bulk of my food from an Amish farmer who ships nationwide (and has a customer base willing to pay for improvements in quality), but when I venture out to more local vendors who are cropping up, it’s a crap shoot, and I feel like I’m pulling teeth to get the information out of them.

    Reply

    10 Denise Borgeson December 21, 2013 at 9:18 pm

    Mike- know that I am saying this with a giggle not an attitude- how hard would it be to add a slip of paper with exactly what the chicken ate? First, I’m not entirely sure exactly what the chicken that laid your eggs ate because they’re free ranging. Then it doesn’t sound too appetizing to put “birds that eat worms & larvae”. I’ve also seen my flock attack garter snakes, toads & once I’m pretty sure they found a field mouse. They’re supplemented with a soy-free, organic feed & I do tell people that. As for actually putting it on a slip of paper- I’d have to write them all by hand, my 6 year old had some fun printing out things from sprout online this week :p

    Reply

    11 Denise Borgeson December 17, 2013 at 11:59 pm

    We’re a new, small, family farm. We’re currently raising chickens, pilgrim geese & Narragansett turkeys; and trying to establish gardens that the geese can’t get into :/ If a customer was unhappy with a product I would absolutely without question rather hear about it from them then have them stop purchasing it or worse tell others that the item was unsatisfactory. It may be something we’re not aware of & not only would we want to make it right for the customer, we’d want to investigate it in our flock too- like if your eggs tasted off & it turned out the free-ranging hens were accessing something not appropriate for them. Or you may be cooking the item in a way that’s not best for what you’re preparing. If you try to hard boil fresh eggs the way you hard boil grocery store eggs, you’re going to have a disappointing mess on your hands. If you roast a heritage turkey the way you’ve done your grocery store birds for the past decade, you may be disappointed. But I’m more than happy to share recipes & tips we’ve learned. And the only way I can do that is if customers give me feedback.

    Reply

    12 Karen December 18, 2013 at 10:44 pm

    I used to have a great source for raw goat milk. Then the goats changed ownership and I started getting soured milk. I let the new goat owner know the first time, but after a couple more times, I just stopped buying from her. (I’m super non-confrontational) I should have had more open dialogue with her. But here’s the thing. I was pregnant at the time and also feeding this milk to my toddler. If I couldn’t trust her to sell me milk that wasn’t soured (unpleasant but not a huge deal), I didn’t feel like I could trust her to NOT sell me milk if there was actually something really wrong with it. And if I couldn’t trust her, I didn’t want to be feeding that to my family.

    Anyway, if I can ever find another source of raw milk, I will keep this in mind and ask more questions ahead of time and try to keep the lines of communication open. I’m learning. Thanks for this blog post!

    Reply

    13 Denise Borgeson December 19, 2013 at 1:07 am

    I wanted to come back to say I wrote a blog post answering the questions suggested for asking your chicken farmer :) http://serendipityfarmandforest.blogspot.com/2013/12/responses-to-what-to-ask-poultry-farmer.html

    Reply

    14 Tracy December 21, 2013 at 8:08 pm

    I have pretty much every critter and veggie anyone would want to eat and because of that I now have a pretty good size customer base. MOST of my customers have some knowledge of what to expect and ask questions. But then there are the ones that make life miserable. If you are buying from a farm, remember that you are buying from a FARM and not a grocery store where the cucumbers are waxed, the potatoes and other root crops scrubbed clean of all dirt, the corn husks removed, etc. I had one group of 10 CSA customers this year that I could not wait to be rid of because nothing was ever good enough because they were expecting to have a selection equivalent to what a grocery store would have. And they didn’t want anything “strange” which included carrots in any color other than orange, radishes should only be red, no strange greens, no pickling cucumbers, no huge pumpkins, no beans other than green, no Asian veggies, “why don’t we have tomatoes and corn in our CSA boxes”– in June (I am in Minnesota, no corn in June lol), etc. It was a nightmare. While this group was the exception, if you are going to join a CSA or such, find out what the farmer grows and how it is handled. I do not scrub the dirt off the produce–get the extra off but not spot clean like the grocery. I only have heirlooms so things may not look quite like the store bought varieties. I have strange colors–white carrots, purple beans, tomatoes in red, pink, purple, brown, yellow, and white. Educate a bit on what to expect. And then follow up on flooding, hail, drought, etc., that the farmer may be dealing with as well.

    As far as critters, I deal with hawks and owls (and wolves, coyotes, and a cougar from time to time) so the chickens are mostly pastured which means in pens moved daily or every other day depending on age of birds. Like Joel Salatin does. If I have them free ranging, they are owl bait. It is pretty much like that with all the poultry. Ask what pastured means, every farm is different. My birds can access dirt, grass, and bugs, just not get eaten by a predator while doing it. My broilers are two different types, I raise the cornish x which looks like the bird you get in the grocery store. I also raise heritage chickens and those tend to have darker skin–something that some people have asked about. The skin is darker and some people can not eat it due to the color. Hey a Silkie has BLACK skin, very strange looking on a chicken. So ASK about those things. I give the option of ordering cornish x or heritage birds if the skin color is an issue and most of the time it isn’t but it can be different getting a chicken that looks different than the store bought types.

    Dairy, while is it great to see the critters on grass and such, ask how they are milked and how the equipment is cleaned. All the grass fed milk in the world can make you sick if the equipment is not cleaned properly. That simply means that the cow and her milk can be healthy but if it is put into a dirty bucket, it ruins it. Same when you bring your containers to the farm. If you use scented soap that makes the dishes smell nice or reuse plastic milk jugs, you are asking for trouble. I have had people show up with lavender scented canning jars, the milk will pick up that flavor. And if picking up at the farm, brink a cooler and don’t expect the farmer to provide the ice.

    If visiting the farm (call first please, it is very annoying to change plans to accommodate someone who just “drops by” unannounced), wear shoes and clothing appropriate for a visit. Farms that have animals have poop from said animals. Keep kids under control. Don’t bring your dog/cat/lizard/etc along. Keep it short. As a general rule, when the visitor says they only have a few questions or would only take 15 minutes to see the place, I can count on that in reality being 2-3 hours of time dealing with someone who probably didn’t read up on why/how things are done. One of the huge changes this coming year is not doing the farm visits but having an open farm day when people can come up to see the critters and have some fun. Probably have a BBQ as well, still in planning stages.

    It is OK to ask questions and find out how/why stuff is done but do a bit of research first. If the farm has a website, read it or at least look through it. Don’t compare one farm to another, we all do things differently. My farm is set up for being easy for ME to work since I don’t have an outside labor force. As a result, I don’t have huge equipment that is difficult for a female to handle, my animals are pretty tame and most will lead and tie (even the cows), my driveway is big enough so a trailer can be turned around without having to be backed up, etc.

    If there is a problem or you don’t know what something is or what to do with it, ask. But do it right away. If the milk is off, contact the farmer ASAP–which is NOT the following week. I tell my customers if there is something wrong with the milk and they let me know in 24 hours, I will replace it. Most of the time I found that it was the customer not picking up the milk at the dropsite until the next day or later and finding the milk had clabbered or that the goats got into the burdock–total grossness when they do! You are dealing with products that have a short shelf life (veggies, meats, milk) so report any problem or concern or question–no matter how small as quickly as you can.

    End of mini novel! Sorry for the length!

    Tracy

    Reply

    15 Chris January 24, 2014 at 6:31 am

    I’ve never been a farmer, just a home gardener but I’m sensitive to the many variables they must deal with. In my early 20′s we moved to a home that had 2 apple, 1 apricot, 2 cherry and 3 peach trees. Just the weather alone was quite a learning experience. Of the 4 years we lived there, we only got apricots once and when we did, it was such abundance that I was giving them away in large grocery sacks to anyone who would take them. I was canning and cooking them and couldn’t keep up with the quantity. They were growing like clusters of grapes. The cherry trees: if I waited until they were ripe, a flock of blue jays could wipe them out in one day. The peaches: if you didn’t thin them they would get a fungus growing on them. The apples: the one year we had a good spring (as in no huge temperature swings), the branches were so heavy laden that the trunk started to split so we had to pick early to relieve the weight. I filled up a kiddie pool with them. Apple pie and applesauce all around. Growing crops takes a lot of stamina, patience, ingenuity and love. I can’t imagine if my revenue stream depended on it. Farming is in our blood and heritage. Long live it’s imperfections!!!!

    Reply

    16 KitchenKop January 24, 2014 at 6:44 am

    Chris, I totally agree. We have trouble just with our garden, if it’s not the deer and the other animals coming up the hill to help themselves, it’s some blight taking out all of our food. Then there’s my brother who grows EVERYTHING where he lives and he can’t believe how easy gardening is. I wonder if he’s just got much better soil quality than we do or *something*…?

    But as you said, farming is full of challenges from one year to the next, and I am also very thankful for those who grow our nutrient-dense harvests!

    Kelly

    Kelly

    Reply

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