A Chef’s Guide to the Farmers Market
Culled from Discussions at Farm Camp, November 2009

by Emily Bell
December 2009

We reached out to some of our farmer friends to help us devise a guide for chefs who are, for whatever reason, estranged from the process behind the raw product in their kitchens, from beef to eggs or maple syrup. Although the lessons of Farm Camp were many, the basic theme was that an informed chef is a powerful thing at the farmers market, more likely than his complacent culinary brethren to consistently find the highest quality product all the time. Other lessons to take home? The more articulated the needs of the restaurant are, the better a farm can accommodate them. And the more a chef understands the agricultural process behind the product, the more attuned his menu will be to the seasonal rhythms that steer the course of modern cuisine. The restaurant program that takes farming into account will succeed at the market, and on the menu, every time.

A Glossary for Chefs at the Farmers Market

Free Range – Can only refer to fowl and eggs; technically only means the animals have access to the outdoors, not that they’re put outdoors for a period or entirety of the day. No direct relation to organic.

Heritage – Breeds that are more than 50-years-old with scarce populations and genetically specific lineage; harder to sell because of rarity, often less meat though more flavorful. Drastically fewer heritage breeds as industrial agriculture developed, focusing in on only a few breeds (190 farm animal breeds have gone extinct worldwide since 1995).

Heirloom – enduring variety of plant, fruit or vegetable, that’s allowed to pollinate naturally where applicable and was introduced before 1950, although most heirlooms are decades older. Heirloom propagation is less certain due to open pollination, but it helps enhance biodiversity and maintains genetic integrity (hence characteristics) of plant. Important to sample at market for flavor and texture.

Hormone Free – animals that have not been injected with hormones intended to increase milk production or growth of beef in cattle.

Meadow Raised – same as pasture raised, i.e. animals fed primarily on pasture (fresh grass), not grains. Important as it can affect taste.

Natural – not a standard agricultural term except USDA definitions for meat and poultry. Labeled meat and poultry must not contain artificial flavoring, colors, chemical preservatives, artificial or synthetic ingredients. But “natural” label does NOT require meat or poultry be hormone or antibiotic-free. Often labels using term “natural” or “eco-friendly” etc, applied where there is NO third party certification, merely manipulative marketing tactic. Extremely important for the chef to investigate this claim.

Non-certified organic – refers to farm or product that uses mostly organic methods but cannot be certified organic due to not completely accommodating organic certification; this kind of farming happens more often than strictly organic farming among small farmers as it is more practicable. It helps to have relationships with your farmers to determine how they farm.

Organic – products grown or raised entirely without use of synthetic products, i.e. no synthetic pesticides, fertilizers; animals not treated with hormones or antibiotics, no GMOs. (Be wary of organic agribusiness, which commodifies organic principles on a large scale and behaves much the same way as large scale agribusinesses, depleting diversity.)

Pasture-raised – animals raised on diet that is of a consistent high quality, which includes primarily grass and grain; grain is used to supplement grass, especially in colder climates.

Pasture-based – this means majority of animal’s diet is grass as opposed to grain and the animal, including all varieties of poultry, spends most time in the pasture as opposed to being confined.

Pastured – animals that graze and are continually herded to new, greener patches of grass; can be fed conventional, grain-based diet as well.

Recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone (rBGH) – injected into dairy cows to increase milk production, shortens cows’ life spans and thought to cause cancer in humans

Sustainable – no regulatory certification as of yet; farming practice that maintains long term outlook on balance of resources; in agricultural terms, reduces need for outside influence in farm; the chef at a farmer’s market can expect highest consistency of practices from a sustainable farm.

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