Saturday, May 29, 2010

Farmer's Market Conspiracy?

I love hitting up local Farmer's Markets, but I'll admit that I rarely make it out to them. For most of the year we have soccer on Saturday mornings and that's the big Farmer's Market day around here. The market location and the soccer fields are on opposite sides of town, so I'm out of luck most of the year. I think there are a couple open on Sundays only, but we try to stay home on Sundays so we have at least one car-free day a week.

But the soccer season is over and I happened to be in a shopping center today that does a Farmer's Market on Saturday mornings. But it just didn't feel right to me. It felt more like a flea market than a Farmer's Market. I could get sno-cones and funnel cakes and all sorts of jewelry and flip-flops and I only found two tented produce stands. I expected a lot more than just two, but they were both large booths so maybe they'd be just fine. I wandered over to them and immediately noticed a few things that just felt off.

1) The person selling the produce did not give off the vibe that they were employed by the farm where the produce was sold. I can't explain this any further without sounding horrible, but the sellers just didn't look like they'd ever set foot on a farm. Call this a bias on my part, but they appeared to be hired hands from a local labor pool and not affiliated with any farms.
2) There were no signs on either produce stand stating which farm the produce came from. I've noticed this even at nicer farmer's markets from time to time. I realize that not every farm has a name, but it is sort of strange to me that there was no farm name or city anywhere to be found.
3) Many of the items being sold did not appear to be local. I saw cherries, apricots, bananas and potatoes labeled "real Idaho potatoes." I suppose there could be somewhere locally that grows these items, but Florida isn't famous for any of those things as far as I know.

Then I got to wondering…. There is a local city in Florida appropriately called Plant City. It is where all the produce comes in to the state and gets distributed. I belong to a local veggie co-op and the coordinator goes to Plant City every two weeks and buys whatever looks good and is affordable and boxes it up and sends it out to the co-op members. I stopped getting co-op deliveries from her awhile ago since my boys had seen enough squash to last them all summer, but I did find it odd that we sometimes got grapes and bananas in the box - again, two items that are not grown in Florida. I once asked the coordinator if the squash was from the Orlando-area and she said "I don't know - I just get it all at Plant City." But things come into Plant City from all over… so am I really buying local?

So what stops someone who wants to make a buck from going to Plant City and buying up produce and then selling it at local Farmer's markets under the guise that they grew it themselves? Just hire some workers from the local labor pool, buy some card tables and a tent, and you're got yourself a quick business. The buyer has no idea if pesticides were used on the produce or if the produce is even local. We go into it with a set of assumptions about the Farmer's Market faire that might be false.


Then I noticed that some of the fruits and vegetables were so incredibly uniform, much like you see in the grocery store. I know that some locally farm-produced foods can be uniform, but they usually don't look so "grocery store perfect," if you know what I mean. Then I got to thinking…what stops this same person who wants to make a buck from seeing that the local Albertson's is having a sale on Idaho potatoes where you can buy a 5lb bag and get one free. Then buying a bunch of bags of potatoes, opening them up and putting them in trays, raising the per-potato price and selling them at their booth at the farmer's market?


I've read repeatedly that Farmer's Markets are one of the fastest growing alternative food business in America. They're popping up all over the place, which I do think is great. But I started wondering if some unscrupulous sellers might be pulling the wool over the eyes of unaware buyers and selling them produce that's not from a local farm at all, but might be from overseas or half-way across the country, and might be laden with pesticides. I know that one of the main reasons I visit a Farmer's Market is to buy local, pesticide-free produce, but now I wonder if that's what I'm getting at all.

I'm not knocking the Farmer's Markets, but I am suggesting that 'Buyer Beware' might be the best philosophy when you visit one. Michael Pollan mentions how great the markets are since you can talk to the farmer about their farming practices and shake the hand that feeds you, so to speak. Maybe we should ask questions from the person taking the money to make sure we really are getting what we pay for. If they're a legitimate farmer, I'm sure they'd love to talk to you and you'll be able to buy fresh fruits and vegetables with confidence.

11 comments:

Daphne said...

Boston has a produce market like that called Haymarket. It is a historic market that has been around since the early 1800s, but hardly local. The vendors all get their produce from the wholesalers in Chelsea the night before - the ones they are trying to clear out of the warehouses. So on Friday and Saturday you can get the cheapest produce in the city there. It is dirt cheap. But again not a local thing to be seen. Our farmer's markets however are for the most part real farmer's markets. They have local farms that come to sell. Many of the names are on their stands and sometimes even tell you the town they are from. We can even get local honey, maple syrup, grass fed beef and lobster in season. Though we also have a fish seller that has some very unlocal fish. I think buyer beware is very appropriate. You can always ask the vendors where things come from if they don't proclaim it loudly on their signs.

Anonymous said...

Way to go, Eagle Eye Kate. Well said, well thought out and polite. And it needs to be said all over the place - loudly and clearly.

Unfortunately, some things don't seem to change: Caveat emptor a/k/a buyer beware.

I'm lucky here in Burbank CA. We have a Sat farmer's market where there are about 25 booths all with signs identifying the farm, the location of the farm, stating "organic" if it is organic. Perhaps about 20 of the signs say nothing about "organic."
Most of the organic stands even have little signs identifying the variety of the produce.

Here in CA it is unlawful to identify produce as "organic" unless that produce and it's farm have been certified "organic" by one of several state licensed certifiers.

And, yes, the organic guys like to talk with me and I get the strong feeling that they are the growers because I grow a lot of stuff myself and I know a thing or two. Their comments are right in line with my personal experience.

So you go, girl. Shout it from the mountain tops.

Best,

Tony

Anonymous said...

"Anonomous Tony" is right about the regulation of the "organic" label in California, but may be unaware that in a California Certified Farmer's market, the goods offered for sale must have been grown, caught, or made by the person who did the growing, catching, or making (or, of course, by an employee or associate of that person).

I know that not all states have similar laws, but think that they should.

HelenB

Kate and Crew said...

One thing I read about was that many small local farms may be doing everything organically, but do not have the resources necessary for organic certification. So just because a farm hasn't been certified organic doesn't mean it's NOT organic. I think if it's not labeled that way you have to hope an employee is on-hand to let you know how they choose to fertilize their crops and eliminate pests.

I wonder if there are any regulations regarding Florida farmer's markets.... Hmm.... I might look into this. Thanks for the food for thought!

Stefaneener said...

In California, we have what's called "Certified Farmer's Markets." You have to sell things that grew/were produced on the farm whose name it bears. It's not perfect, but something.

Erin said...

A great post, Kate! We always try to actually buy from the stand at the farm now because as our farmer's markets grow in size, I have seen this stuff happening here, too. Apples from the mountains of VA being sold in coastal VA? I'm cool with that, but come on, bananas? LOL...but they really ARE fooling many people, and there are so many that only shop there because it's "trendy" to be seen with a market bag...HUH? I hope many read this that have never given the common sense thought to what they have seen at the market and will learn some valuable things.

patricia said...

You will have to look up the rules for Farmer's Markets in your state, they are not all the same. Remember, you need to shop at certified farmer's markets; your state may also allow farmers to get together and start a market that is not certified and in those anyone accepted by the group can sell produce, no matter where it came from. Roadside stands do this, too.
Within a certified Farmer's Market, depending on the rules of your state, not all the growers have to be certified organic. That is a separate certification.
The market manager is usually the one who is responsible for checking to be sure the farm can produce what they sell. Sometimes that doesn't work as well as it should. When it doesn't I have noted that other growers will call them on it.
Lastly, you must realize there is no requirement for a grower to be small. There are growers who also sell to the supermarket, and those growers may sell the same produce at the farmer's market as they do wholesale.
The system isn't perfect, so you need to be a sharp shopper.

Worknprogress said...

Wonderful topic and great post, Kate!

We are blessed to live about 10 minutes away from 3 farmer's markets here in Western Washington State. Then again, we don't have anything as cool as the Space Shuttle landing in our backyard, but...we all make do, eh? :o)

Like you, i have found a couple of those markets to be too confounding what with their funnel cakes and kettle corn.

The one closest to us is one i wish i could teletransport to you. It is run by a state farming coalition that organises FM's from locally, sustainably grown farms. Of course, most of King County's farmland has been turned into Seattle suburbia, so these farms may be "local" yet still 50+ miles away.

This market is exquisite--save for the one booth of kettle corn. There are three majour booths of produce from families of Asian immigrants, so the veggie variation is amazing. 1 huge farm owned by a hispanic family from Yamika, WA (hotter climate) brings in their peppers, garlic, potatoes and peanuts and also neighbouring farms apples, peaches, and cherries. Small farms have booths of just flowers and root crops or lettuces. An organic butcher, goat milk creamery, beekeeper, and chocolatier have booths also. I go for the groceries and usually come home with lunch too as there is a polish caterer and a vietamese caterer with food booths there. Amazing the market is...especially because it's on the water here. Sadly, the city is going bankrupt, so i wonder what will happen to the market.

Engineeredgarden said...

Kate - farmer's markets in Alabama are monitored very closely, and occasionally someone brings in something from out of state - but always get caught. It should be only veggies that are grown (and sold) by local farmers.

Cheryl said...

Insightful and thought provoking...especially the comment about the two-for-one potatoes. One of those things that make you go hmmmm?

Anonymous said...

Totally agree with you on this one. FYI potatoes are actually grown here - up in Hastings and Spuds (yes that's the real name of the town), near Jacksonville, but I'm pretty sure they do not call their potatoes "Idaho potatoes."

Becky (also in Central FL)

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