Do You REALLY Know Where Your Farmers' Market Produce Comes From?

CC BY 2.0. NatalieMaynor

Farmers' market fraud is such a serious problem that California has just passed a new law to crack down on vendors who misrepresent non-local products.

One doesn’t usually think of farmers’ markets as being prime locations for fraud, but apparently they do see their fair share of unethical behaviour. When a vendor misrepresents products, whether through direct mislabeling or lack of labeling, the integrity of the market is undermined for everyone.

The state of California has decided to crack down on farmers’ market fraud. Last week, Gov. Jerry Brown signed a new law authorizing the creation of a group of investigators to ensure that market vendors are following the rules – that is, selling local produce that they’ve grown themselves and was not purchased wholesale.

Every market has its own set of regulations. In New York City, most of the major farmers’ markets are run by a non-profit organization called GrowNYC, which ensures that markets are producer-only. That means that vendors can only sell items that they’ve grown themselves; no reselling, even if clearly labeled, is allowed. As Modern Farmer reports, GrowNYC maintains its high standards by employing investigators who keep an eye on vendors, taking note of any suspicious things such as retail boxes, waxed fruit, or consistently high volume of produce.

By contrast, markets in Los Angeles allow for resale, as long as it’s clearly marked. Some farmers don’t have a problem with that. NPR cites a farmer named Eli Cook from Slainesville, West Virginia, who says that, although non-local produce is a common problem at farmers’ markets, it’s the least of his concerns:

“The resellers can’t control quality, and they sure aren’t going to outsell me.”

One of Ontario’s largest farmers’ markets is located in a miniscule village called Keady. I go several times a year to stock up on produce in bulk for canning and I’m always amazed at how many vendors are allowed to sell imported U.S.-grown produce. Clearly producer-only regulations don’t exist or are not applied. I received no response from the market organizers when I contacted them for further information.

Ontario corn

© K Martinko

While it’s nice to see so much care and attention being given to farmers’ markets with this new law, it’s also important for customers to take responsibility for their shopping habits. A farmers’ market is so much more than a quick stop for veggies; it’s about building relationships with local farmers and consciously allocating one’s dollars toward supporting local agriculture. If a customer is getting duped into buying imported vegetables, then perhaps that customer should ask more questions and pay closer attention to who is selling what.