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Sunday, July 24, 2011

Transparency is clearly key

I would like to apologize that I never closed the loop regarding my initial concerns with Blue Ridge Dairy. However, I got married (yay!), went on a honeymoon (more on that later), and was in Denver for work. (Note to anyone reading this: do not plan a work trip on the heels of a will almost certainly lead to a very emotional traveling workerbee.)

To recap what happened with Blue Ridge Dairy after I last wrote:

The owner of Blue Ridge Dairy called one of our wedding weekend vendors and refused to allow them to purchase his products for my event. Yes, you read that correctly. He refused to sell them his product for my event. All because I asked a question and expected transparency from a vendor at the Dupont Circle Farmers Market --- something that most food-conscious shoppers at farmers markets also expect.

His refusal to sell for an event I was hosting obviously led to some serious skepticism about his product (what do you have to hide?), on top of sheer embarrasment for putting one of our wonderful vendors who went out of their way to buy humane dairy through such a confusing and tiresome ordeal.

I emailed Ann at FreshFarm Markets, and she politely told me that Blue Ridge Dairy was an independent operator and she could not intervene in a business deal outside of the market. I am not sure if this aversion to customer engagement and awareness raised a red flag for her as well, but I hope it did considering that transparency is the market's bread and butter.

As if that wasn't enough food drama to deal with one week before the wedding, the owner of Blue Ridge Dairy called me that evening to ask why I wanted to know the answers to all of these questions, and why I thought I had the right to know about the farm where he bought his milk. While I won't go over every detail of our conversation, as that would become HumaneFoodFinder: the book, here is what I took away from our conversation:

In order for farmers markets to work, there must be transparency. That is what sets them apart from any large supermarket chain. You can't go into a Harris Teeter or Safeway, for example, and ask if you can visit Smithfield Pork's hog farms. But you can, and many people do, ask these questions at a farmers market, and even go visit.

However, this is something that Blue Ridge Dairy lacks, for the owner specifically asked me not to contact the farm.

Yet the desire for transparency is largely what leads customers to pay a premium to shop at farmers markets across the US. It is a rare time that I don't overhear someone at any farmers market asking questions about animal treatment, or for directions to the farm. And I would guess it is just as rare for a farmer to tell those customers who ask to stop buying their products. Instead, they go into detail about their conditions, explain their open farm policy, and encourage customers to come visit the farm.

After it was already decided that Blue Ridge would not be featured during my wedding weekend festivities, the farm that I was told supplied Blue Ridge Dairy returned my initial email. The email read, "We are milking 85 cows and they do get to graze. They are not on concrete all day. We do not dock their tails." This short email was exactly what I was looking for all along: Answers to a customer's questions. Period.

So Blue Ridge is not transparent, clearly. But is that really their fault? Whole Foods doesn't look into the sources of all their products, and neither do restaurants. But FreshFarm Markets clearly states in their
rules and procedures that the vendors must provide contact information and directions to the farm. And it is this small paragraph in the 16-page document that is the holy grail for the market, and makes people willing to pay a premium to shop there.

Every farmer I have spoken with or just passed by (I don't buy lamb or pork) offers their customers a chance to come experience their farm and see how their animals are treated. You know, I used to ask all these detailed questions: do you dock the tails, how many cows, etc... But I think now the most important question you can ask is: can I come visit your farm?

And all of the vendors I have endorsed here -- Keswick, Clear Springs, Trickling Springs, Smith Meadows Farm -- have open farm policies. Does the farm that supplies Blue Ridge Dairy? Well, I don't know.

And who is accountable?

While I strongly believe that every farmer and vendor -- no matter their size -- should only buy and raise humane food, and allow people to come see the farm for themselves, I don't really think that Blue Ridge Dairy bears the sole responsibility here.

Why hasn't FreshFarm Markets (the market manager), taken a more active role in promoting transparency? The only enforcement mechanism to ensure that customers' food is produced in the manner they hope, is whether they are allowed to visit the farm. I don't think it matters so much whether they visit, but it's essential that they be allowed to do so. I like the Louis Brandeis quote that "sunlight is said to be the best of disenfectants." It is especially apropos in light of the frequent assertion by Michael Pollan and others that if we saw how our food were produced in factory farms, we would be horrified and factory farming would end. So it seems especially important that consumers be able to visit the farms where their food is produced, since that is how to verify the difference between sustainable, humane farms and factory farms.

Moving on.... Finally.

I have stopped buying from Blue Ridge Dairy. And it's not because of any hard feelings, but because I only want to buy from farms that people can visit. If they enacted the same open-farm policy that other farmers have, I would start buying from them again in a heartbeat. In the meantime, Keswick and Clear Spring both have delicious yogurt (something I found out by simply asking), Clear Spring has butter, and Organic Valley sells mozzarella.

Transparency is king when it comes to farmers markets. It is why we pay the extra money and take the extra time out of our weeks to go. Without transparency, we would all be shopping at the Safeway Farmers Market.

As I overheard one customer say to another vendor one weekend, "I just watched No Impact Man, and he said we should go visit the farm we get our food from. Well, I've already seen your farm!"

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