Headed to Farmer’s Market?

Many have asked why I don’t do the Farmer’s Market.  I’ve tried but most markets just are not farmer friendly.  Many charge steep fees and require you to be there (like now, the last of April) when produce is not available.  One might reply, “I see many farmers there so what’s your problem?”  As a correction, you see many vendors there but the farmers are few and far between.  Most of the vendors in our metro area have no clue where the produce was grown.  They buy at produce auctions and resell at farmer’s markets…every day of the week.  If you see tomatoes this time of year, they’re not from around here…most likely Florida.  Most markets set fines and penalties for not stocking produce during the off-season.

Back in the late 90’s I stopped operating the pumpkin patch for a few years but kept growing pumpkins on a small scale.  The registered vendors had the locks on the Manassas market on Thursdays but it was open to anyone on Saturdays so I took a truck load of pumpkins in on a Saturday in October.  I was one of twelve selling that day.  The young lady next to me was very friendly and inquisitive.  She was curious where I got the pumpkins from as they did not look like a variety that anyone else had.  All the vendors knew each other well and knew where each got their produce from.  She told me that I was the only one at the market that grew the produce.  If I had not been there that day, there would not have been a single farmer in the lot.  I got a newsletter yesterday from Local Harvest News that outlines the same situation in Florida….it’s nationwide.  I will paste the newsletter below.

How can one tell the difference?  By asking the right questions such as: What kind of green beans are those?  What variety of tomato is this?  Is it determinate or indeterminate?  If they answer green, red and yes, they’re faking it.  What is the address where your farm is located?  Or will pay a modest sitting fee if I could come to your farm and paint a painting of your produce.  Make no doubt about it, the imposters will get ruffled feathers.  I’ve been know to go through a market and ask such questions just for fun and see the tension rise.  It’s kinda like going through the apiary and hitting each bee hive with a sledge hammer (no, I wouldn’t do that!).

I bring this up because I believe in food honesty and traceability.  The supermarkets are quite diligent about food safety with the food-borne illnesses that have come through in the past 20 years.  If a bunch of folks get sick from cantaloupe from a store, they can track it down pronto!  Not so much from a farmer’s market.

As far as I know, I’m still on the wait-list (5 years) to be the only Certified Organic farmer in the Falls Church and Fairfax City Farmers Markets.  Not holding my breath.


LocalHarvest Newsletter, April 29, 2016
Keeping Markets Honest

Welcome back to the LocalHarvest newsletter.

Unlike the calm blue water lapping at its Floridian shores, the latest series in the Tampa Bay Times is making some giant waves. The “Farm to Fable” series written by restaurant critic Laura Reiley exposes some unsavory issues that shake the foundation of the local food movement. The first article points out dishonesty in the restaurant trade about the provenance of their so-called “local” ingredients. The second article in the series exposes pervasive and egregious fraud in the farmers markets of the Tampa Bay region. This is by no means a “Florida thing”- I have experienced first-hand similar issues when I farmed in California and heard about it from others farmers around the country. What may be one of the most important and financially viable ways for farmers to sell their freshly harvest goods may also be a place where consumers are being lied to in some cases. That is not a story anyone wants to tell, but keeping an industry honest is important for both the producers and the consumers.

I wanted to find out if the problem of produce resellers posing as farmers was in all farmers markets in Florida so I called a friend of mine who has a 60 acre mixed organic farm up near Gainesville and sells at 6 farmers markets a week. Amy Van Scoik of Frog Song Organics, a Local Harvest member since 2011, says that she attends some “producer-only” markets such as the Alachua County Farmer Market, where growers are only allowed to sell items they grew or raised themselves. Reselling is not allowed. Consumers frequent this market because they know they are supporting Florida growers and getting some of the freshest food around. Farmers must possess a growers permit issued by their local Extension office to even sell there, which is written documentation of the farming location and the items that the farmer grows or raises. Although it’s not a perfect protection against fraud, Amy feels pretty confident that nearly everything sold at that market is locally produced.

Other markets her farm attends do allow some resellers. Amy figures that as long as the resellers are being honest about where and how the produce is grown, she thinks it probably helps to attract more customers to those markets. It’s when the resellers lie and say they grew something or when they label something “no spray” and then sell it for cheaper than her certified organic produce is when she believes it is unfair competition. That is beginning to change as some market managers are no longer allowing unverified production claims on produce or meats.

Her farm, unlike the resellers or the fake farmers, is open to the public a couple times a year for a farm tour. She likes it when her customers ask questions and come out on a tour- it builds their trust in her farming business and begets more loyal patrons. She encourages them to ask questions of other vendors too.

But for some fledgling farmers markets or ones located in areas with few farmers, they often have little choice but to invite some produce resellers if they want to actually have fresh produce at their markets. Amy also thinks that practice is fine as long as everyone is being honest and food is accurately labeled. Some markets that have removed the resellers have then found themselves with no produce vendors and consequently, a dwindling customer base.

On the other side of the country is the Portland Farmers Market, which is actually a non-profit association of 8 different markets. Oregon does not have a growers permit system like Florida, or the more cumbersome Ag Department certification that farmers have to go through in California to ensure they grew what they sell. The Portland Farmers Market works hard to build relationships with their vendors and aims for more of a personal vetting system rather than farm inspections. Their Executive Director, Trudy Toliver is not a fan of more regulations, licensing, and fees for farmers and food producers. She thinks their system works and eliminates nearly any chance for fraud.

Trudy believes more in a self-policing strategy in which customers or farmers that suspect a vendor did not grow or make something themselves can simply report it to the market management. The markets have a clear complaint process and follow up on every written complaint that somebody may make. Likewise, each vendor must reapply every year and fill out a lengthy application listing where they farm, what they produce, or in the case of prepared foods, where their ingredients come from. The PDX markets also require that value-added foods (prepared or processed) contain at least 25% Oregon ingredients. This has really amped up the demand for Oregon grown foods and helped many farms scale up. With more than 700,000 shoppers and 240 vendors, these markets are having an impact of more than $8 million dollars in sales annually. They are especially proud of the numerous small businesses that got their start there.

We at Local Harvest love the concept of farmers markets- a marriage of public space, community-building, values-driven commerce, and agrarian ethics. We think that most farmers markets and most vendors are honest and work hard to follow ethical procedures and management. So don’t let a few rotten apples spoil the bushel- keep supporting your local farmers markets, ethical farmers, and just keep asking questions.

-Rebecca Thistlethwaite


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