Is Your Green Market Really Green?

Before you head to opening day at your local farmer's market, ask yourself: How well do you know your farmer?

Can you be sure that the guy or gal selling you those plump peaches or salient spinach leaves is truly following sustainable growing methods? Or that it's actually grown on his or her land?

These are questions that Chicago's Green City Market organizers want answered. Today the twice-weekly market kicks off a fresh season in its usual spot near the south end of Lincoln Park. But organizers are already looking towards the next season.

That's because next year's Green City Market will be the first farmer's market in America to require third-party certification from vendors. Farmers, vendors of "value-added" items (soap and yarn, for example), and prepared-food vendors do not have to be certified-organic—a process that is often cumbersome to farmers due to the amount of paperwork and the financial cost to apply—but they must be able to prove that an outside party certified its growing practices as adhering to any number of naturally and sustainably grown methods. To guide farmers, the market developed a list of approved certifiers.

Sheri Doyel, former forager for the city of Chicago farmer's markets, and director of the Farmer Training Initiative at Angelic Organics Learning Center, sits on the committee that in January 2008 began writing the new rules and regulations. Although these will not go into effect until May 2012, vendors were contacted in writing during 2008 so the switch would not come as a surprise. Organizers want to be viewed by farmers as friendly supporters, offering advice and suggestions to seeking certification—as opposed to merely regulators. "It can affect people's livelihood if they are surprised by something and can't be in the market," says Doyel. "Most of them want to go there (be sustainable) but just need a little help getting there and for someone else to set up these standards." Last year each vendor was contacted again, with a request for an action plan as to how he or she will meet the new requirements.

"My hope is to bring the money chain back to the farmers," says Doyel. "There was certainly a climate around people buying from different farms or purchasing things to be sold at the market. There's an underlying deception if you're selling products from a different farm. We felt that having our vendors farming in a way that is not ecologically sound, that's another level of deception."

While Doyel estimates that, come 2012, all of Green City Market's current vendors will comply, this policy shift could have ramifications for other farmer's markets across the country. How many of your favorite farmers will not be able to participate in the farmer's market anymore? Or, say advocates for this change, does the push to be certified introduce more farmers than ever into the do-good food movement?

Fruit orchards are among the most difficult crops to comply with sustainable growing practices. Most of the fruit sold at Green City Market is grown in the neighboring state of Michigan. "For some of our fruit vendors, to change their practices is a huge request," says Doyel. "We have been fairly open to forms of certification, such as fair labor practices, or welcoming wildlife to certain areas of the farm." For meat vendors, a commitment to using antibiotics only if the animal is sick—as opposed to doing so regularly—is another regulation that Green City Market has established.

In preparation for a certified-only farmer's market in 2012, this was the first year that Green City Market did not allow new vendors to join the market that did not already meet these pending rules. Also, a special "food policy" five-page document was created for prepared-food vendors, asking that local ingredients be used as much as possible. (This will also go into effect in 2012.) While it's assumed that flour, oats, spices, and other bakery ingredients are sourced from outside of Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin, or Michigan, they cannot be a "defining character of any product." Seasonal nature of prepared products must also be respected, so as to avoid apple pies being sold in May or strawberry pastries in October, which might be tell-tale signs that their ingredients are not locally sourced.

"We expect that raspberry tart to be on the table during raspberry season only," says Doyel. "And those raspberries better have been growing on their farm and not been bought at the grocery store."

Non-edible items are not exempt from the standards set forth by Green City Market. If a vendor is selling soap made from goat milk, he or she should also be a producer of goat cheese, or another product (derived from goats) that is sold at the market. Similarly, wool ought to only be sold by a lamb-meat vendor. Eliminating the presence of vendors who are not selling byproducts is the reason for this rule, says Doyel.

Do you think the organic farmers you buy from at your greenmarket are truly organic? Talk about it in the comments.