This past fall, an NBC affiliate in Los Angeles conducted an undercover investigation of several farmers’ markets in Southern California, and found multiple instances of vendors lying about what they were selling and what they were growing. They were simply reselling produce that they were obtaining elsewhere. Many of the residents who shop at farmers’ markets intentionally shop there to directly support the farmers who are growing their food. This recent expose has spurred much mistrust. How can you be sure that the farmers from whom you bought food at a farmers’ market actually grew that food? How can you be sure that they grew it in the manner that they are advertising, such as organically?
In California, there is a legal definition of a Certified Farmer’s Market. Legally, only regional farmers may sell their products at a Certified Farmer’s Market, and middlemen or brokers are not allowed. Regulations govern what may be sold at a certified farmer’s market; all items must be grown, raised, foraged, or otherwise produced by the seller. A farmer selling at a certified farmers’ market must possess a “certified producer’s certificate,” which is issued by a county agricultural inspector and verifies that the farmer is actually growing the food. You will see these posted at every farmer stall in a certified farmers’ market.
Here at the Ecology Center, we do a number of things to ensure that our markets have the highest level of integrity. We have built a market culture that honors the hard work that real farmers do while vigorously discouraging reselling. Before bringing new farmers’ into the market, we check up on them by speaking with other farmers, farmers’ market managers, and agricultural inspectors, just as an employer might call the references before hiring a new employee. We also visit as many of our farms as we can each year, both to learn more about what they do, and to confirm that they are growing the produce that they sell. Our market staff keeps a keen eye out for items that might send up red flags, whether it be produce that is out of season, or produce that a farmer hasn’t brought to market before.
Our market community helps us by acting as our eyes and ears. Market staff can’t be everywhere at once, and sometimes vendors tell us different things than they tell customers or other farmers. Farmers that work hard to grow food do not appreciate competing with resellers who are making false claims about having grown the produce. Customers have become quite savvy about shopping the market, and look out for their favorite farmers. If farmers or customers suspect reselling, they often alert us, and we investigate credible suspicions.
When we find evidence of a violation we respond with fines, or more likely suspensions or expulsion from the market. It is important that there are consequences to betraying the trust of our community. Otherwise, it sends the message that reselling is accepted at our markets, which it isn’t.
The California Department of Food and Agriculture recently hosted a public listening session to address the recent scandal surrounding reselling at farmers’ markets. The Ecology Center made the following recommendations:
1. Markets need more support from State and County officials to investigate potential incidents and to provide more consistency in inspections, documentation, and responsiveness.
2. The word “certified” in the Certified Farmers’ Market Program needs to be changed. Customers assume that a Certified Farmers’ Market is one in which farmers are certified organic, rather than certified meaning that vendors are growing what they are selling.
3. Fees associated with operating farmers’ markets need to be adjusted to reflect the true cost of conducting inspections so that the state and county have the resources to do what is suggested in #1 or the fees need to be dropped and markets be tasked with using that savings to conduct their own inspections.
We hope that the reselling scandal that NBC uncovered spurs markets across the state to increase their vigilance. As farmers’ markets become a more popular venue for sourcing food, it is important that the institution be trustworthy. We at the Ecology Center recognize our farmers’ markets as the heart of an alternative food system, one that strives to be more environmentally responsible, more transparent, and more just for farmers. To keep those values front and center, the Ecology Center takes our administrative and enforcement role seriously.