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What’s in the jar? Part 3: Get what you pay for

This is the final installment in a series on ingredient sourcing for processed—sometimes called “value-added”—foods sold at farmers markets.Shoppers may seek out farmers markets for a variety of reasons: because they want more “natural” foods; because they want to know how the plant or animal they’re eating was raised; because they want to support local businesses. A few farmers markets require food vendors to acquire a certain percentage of their ingredients locally, but most do not.As the consumer, you have to decide for yourself what’s important.Will you pay more for humane or environmentally sustainable practices? Can you live with scant supplies of your favorites in the off-season? When forced to make an imperfect choice, do you prefer locally grown or certified organic/sustainably grown? Whatever your choice, vendors who share your priorities should be able to tell you—and show you—where they get their ingredients and why.A “Georgia Grown” label may not help you decide. The Georgia Grown website explains that agricultural food products must merely be processed in Georgia, “regardless of origin” of the ingredients, to qualify for participation in the labeling program. So a participating company need only buy, say, pickled okra packed in a Georgia factory to legitimately call it “Georgia Grown.” The okra may come from Georgia … or it may come from Florida, Mexico or the Honduras.What can you, a mere shopper in a little farmers market, do to ensure validity? Ask, ask, ask. Educate yourself. And then, demand.“Ask your vendor if they have open houses, if they have field days,” says Mark Stevens, founder of Capra Gia Cheese Co. And then go. “You can’t borrow a herd of goats and a milking parlor.”“I wish more consumers would know the seasons and know the harvest,” says Lori Bean, owner of Georgia Jams. Strawberries are first, then blueberries and peaches, then apples. “Within a few months that a fruit is out of season, you probably aren’t going to have any of that stock left unless you are a commercial operation.”If you run across a significant difference between the product description offered by the vendor in person and the description on the vendor’s website, point it out. Perhaps the vendor’s process has changed due to growth, and the website lags behind reality. A little consumer pressure may push a web redesign to a higher place on the company’s priority list.

What’s in the jar? Part 1: Defining local products

When you go to a farmers market, you have certain expectations about the food you buy there: that it’s grown locally, using sustainable methods, by the people who are selling it. Most of the time, those expectations are met. But what about the “value-added” foods like jams, spreads, baked goods and cheeses?That’s a grayer area. Although many of those vendors make every effort to be upfront about their ingredients and production methods, some, quite frankly, are intentionally misleading their customers. And in some cases, they have the complicity of market managers.Just like in the real world, at farmers markets, it’s buyer, beware.To be clear, I’m not talking about the importer of fine aged cheeses, the Vermont maple syrup guy, the wild salmon salesperson. To be sure, one could make a very good argument as to why these products, while lovely, do not belong at a Georgia farmers market—and I’d support you. But these folks are clearly advertising what they’re selling. As a consumer, you know what you’re getting. No, I am talking about the vendors who suggest, aggressively, that their factory-made jam was hand-made, or that their repackaged chevre was made with milk from a local herd.A few of these businesses are coming really, really close to lying. And the managers who allow them in their markets either look the other way or don’t do their jobs in weeding them out.Vendors, you know who you are. Market managers, if you don’t know, then look a little deeper.“Unfortunately, there are a lot of businesses in the farmers market world, as in the rest of the world, that are riding the local food wave. People are getting away with far too much,” says Lauren Carey, manager of Peachtree Road Farmers Market, which has a reputation of stringent standards for its producer-vendors. Carey requires vendors to document ingredient sources, and she schedules on-site visits to verify that things are as they seem.Locating a steady supply of local, naturally grown ingredients can be a challenge for producers. It’s reasonable to expect a year-round tomato sauce maker to buy local tomatoes while in season, and to supplement with non-local when that supply runs out. But some producers bypass local sources entirely.“I could buy frozen curd for a fraction of the cost to make my own,” says Mark Stevens, founder of Capra Gia Cheese Co. “For pennies on the dollar, we could bring in massive bulk cheese, thaw it out and put our label on it—and it falls under the same licensing, the same certification, as milking the goats and making the cheese.”According to the Georgia Grown website, items eligible for approved use of the promotional label include “agricultural food products processed in Georgia, regardless of origin.” That means that unsuspecting consumers could buy “Georgia Grown” peach preserves made out of Chilean peaches, put into jars right here in Georgia.Next week: Balancing authenticity and growth

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