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California Farmers' Markets Under Stricter Regulation

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Farmers' markets are no longer cute, quaint remnants of a time long past, before big box stores and grocery chains dominated the industry. They are now big businesses, with new markets seemingly opening up every other week. (If you don't have one within walking distance by now, wait a month or two and you probably will.)

But as the famous theorem first posited by the late Notorious B.I.G. states, with increasing financial equity comes an increasing frequency of problems. And farmers' markets have not been immune, being hit with more and more cases of fraud. And in the meantime, farmers' market regulation has failed to address this new reality.

Until now.

Last week, Governor Jerry Brown signed AB 1841 into law, which will dramatically change how the state's farmers' markets are governed.

Among the changes instituted will be the requirement that all vendors post signs informing the public of the name and location of the farm where the food they're selling was grown. This will be accompanied with a declaration stating "We Grow What We Sell," making it easier to penalize sellers trying to pass others' produce off as their own. (No longer will enforcement officers have to catch the sellers making the claim, as the sign does the work for them.) As such, penalties for cheating customers will grow harsher:

False statements about the grower, growing area or growing practices will be treated as a misdemeanor, punishable by a fine of up to $2,500 and up to six months' imprisonment.

Of course, investigations into farmers' market crime means more investigators need to be hired. So, how's the state going to pay for it? By raising the cost of doing business.

Previously, the cost for a farmer to set up shop in a farmers' market was 60 cents a day. Starting January 1st of next year, all vendors -- both farmers and those selling non-agricultural products -- will have to pay a two dollar fee to set up. According to estimates, this modest hike should generate up to $1.35 million dollars a year (one million of which is "new money") to be used to help regulate the industry.

"The fees have not increased since 1999 and were not sufficient to cover the inspections needed in a county like L.A. where we have over 130 farmers' markets and farmers participating in markets from afar," Diana Rodgers, who manages the Mar Vista Farmers' Market, told me.

One of the big problems these new regulations seek to address is the lack of investigation across counties. "Most farmers come in from, at least, two hours away and many of them up to four hours away," said Rodgers. The new money, then, will allow for more cross-county inspections to be funded.

Another aspect of the new regulations is what Rodgers calls a "tightening up" of what's allowed to be sold in what section. No longer will vendors in non-agricultural parts of the market be allowed to sell fresh whole fruits, nuts, vegetables or flowers, meaning they won't be in direct competition with the agriculture area of the market. This is particularly good news for the state's flower vendors:

"A good portion of the flowers that are sold in California are imported from abroad," [the L.A. Times David Karp] explained, "and they have been gradually putting the California flower industry out of business."

Rodgers is also pleased with the changes.

"I am very happy to see this bill pass," she said. "As farmers' markets in the state of California have proliferated, we were severely underfunded in our ability to keep track of and enforce participating producers."

And as far as whether or not the price hike will keep vendors from setting up shop?

"If farmers want to ensure that farmers' markets preserve integrity through better enforcement, they should be happy to pay it," said Rodgers. "As for the community event participants -- they are there because of the farmers. The permit is predicated on a farmers' market so they should gladly support the cause to support the local economy and contribute to a healthy and prosperous industry through the integrity of actual California small farmers/producers and high quality fruits, vegetables and flowers in the markets they participate in."

"It's the price of a cup of coffee, right?" she said.

To keep farmers' market from being overrun with fraud, it's worth the cut in caffeine consumption.

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