A farmers' market is based on trust.
Consumers trust that what the vendors are selling has been grown by the farms whose banners fly above them. But, as is the case with any industry that involves money (i.e., any industry), there's going to be folks trying to cheat the system. And with farmers' markets, a cash-based business, it's incredibly easy to cheat the system if no one is watching.
Luckily, some people are indeed watching.
If you read David Karp's wonderful trio of pieces for the L.A. Times, you got an interesting snapshot of the cheating that goes on in L.A. area farmers' markets, from inspectors spotting unlicensed produce, to a listing of vendors that have been caught, to consumer tips for avoiding cheaters. In response to the series, I phoned a few local market managers to get their experiences with this dark underbelly of farmers' markets. Interestingly, some of the vendors selling off-label produce were doing it on their own, without their employers' knowledge.
Karp's list of vendor-cheaters only included one from the La Cienega Farmers' Market, the Oxnard-based Tamai Farms, who were fined $401 by the county for selling large red tomatoes they didn't grow. Cynthia Ojeda, executive director of the La Cienega Farmers' Market, told me the backstory.
"The young lady that normally had worked with me was on a medical leave," Ojeda said. "And there was a young guy brought in to cover her while she was gone. And it was this young guy that brought tomatoes from outside the farmer." Ojeda suspects he bought them at a farm on his way into the market. And, it probably wasn't the first time he did it.
"Here's the thing about this kid," Ojeda says. "His father worked at one of my markets years ago, and I kicked him out because he was doing the same thing. I caught [his father] coming into one of my markets a lot earlier, two hours early, and it was like he had a second market going on. He was selling products that he bought. And then when the market started he would sell what the farmer had. So, I caught him and kicked him out."
Another on Karp's list was Adams Olive Ranch, who were busted at the Hollywood Farmers' Market, one of the seven certified markets in L.A. County under the watch of SEE-LA. In this case, Adams had a certification that lists the specific items they grow. So, when their table started to include more than that, market organizers took notice.
"Last summer we became a little suspicious," says James Haydu, executive director of SEE-LA. "They had a product that really shouldn't belong in the certified section, because they didn't grow it. So we moved them out of the certified section and into the prepared food section." They were also fined $1,800 by L.A. county.
With four-digit fines being handed out -- not to mention, reputations being irreparably harmed -- why would vendors take the risk?
"Let's say he gets a flat of tomatoes for $10, and he turns that around for a $20 profit," says Ojeda. "And if he's in one market, maybe he's moving four or five flats, so maybe he's making $80. Which doesn't seem like a lot. But if you start doing that at four or five markets..."
If there's money to he had, someone will try for it. For market organizers, then, it's a matter of remaining ever-vigilant. "We look very critically every week at tables to make sure what is on their certificate is on the table, or not, based on seasonality," says Haydu. "If somebody has two acres, and they grow apples, and they're bringing in 1,000 pounds of apples, something may not be right."
In Ojeda's eyes, one of the reasons cheaters have become more rampant in farmers' markets is simply because of how quickly the business has expanded. "It just exploded two years ago," she says. "How many people have opened markets without any experience or knowledge? So, they're a breeding ground for these cheaters. It's the wild, wild west." And with the new influx of participants comes a different set of priorities.
"Markets were started to help the small farmer, and it was required that you were a farmer or a non-profit," says Ojeda. "But people found a loophole and made themselves 'non-profits,' but their motivation is not community service. They're there to make money. So they polluted the intent of the industry."
As Haydu points out, cheaters are still extremely rare. "More than easily 95% of our farmers are honest, great, family-run businesses." But as long as that 5% is out there, everyone still has to keep their eyes peeled. "The question of integrity is at the forefront of every organization that produces a farmers' market," says Haydu. "I have no qualms about kicking out a cheater."
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