The Transparency Business

November 5, 2010

If you’re a farmers market shopper living in California, you’ve probably been thrilled to see the number ofsites/default/files/farmers_market_sign.jpg markets double in the last ten years. However, this increase — to over 700 certified farmers markets statewide — has come with some growing pains. For one, this surge in markets has not been accompanied by a significant boost in the number of farms. The result is a maze of options and an unfortunate lack of transparency in some markets.

This lack of transparency has been much discussed recently — ever since a local NBC affiliate in Los Angeles ran a 2-part series that exposed farmers at Southern California farmers markets selling produce they hadn’t grown and several others making false claims about their growing practices (fruit designated “no spray” was shown in laboratory tests to contain pesticide residue).  

John Garrone, owner of Far West Fungi and current president of the Heart of the City Farmers Market, says reselling can be a problem in markets that aim to provide produce to a wide audience at accessible prices. But, he says, it’s not a new phenomenon either.
“I have a book written in the 1940s — when they first opened the farmers markets in San Francisco — and they’re talking about the exact same problems,” he says.   

While most market managers work hard to bring farms with integrity to their markets, it can be very hard to identify re-sold produce, he adds. The only way to know for sure is to visit the farm.

“A lot of people want to maintain their stands year-round and it does prompt illegal behavior,” he says. “If you’re a farmer, you realize you’re not going to have product all the time. Even at Far West, where we have between 75,000-100,000 mushroom blocks going at all times, we have high points and low points.” The problem in Southern California, he says, exemplified the tight spot many market managers are in. “The management may have turned a blind eye because of the importance of maintaining the markets,” he says.  

Technically, the onus lies with county agriculture commissioners to verify that farmers are growing what they sell, but the vast majority of county agriculture offices are under-staffed or stretched too thin to actively enforce the rules. A recent LA Times article includes a hefty list of ideas for reforming the system, including ways to boost funding for oversight and enforcement. The article’s author, David Karp, argues that “an effective integrity program would increase the quality but might decrease the quantity of produce available at farmers markets.”

Going back to the explosion of new markets without a corresponding increase in farms: Karp speculates that if the market landscape reflected the true reality of agriculture in the state, “prices might well increase, and some markets might have to close.” In the long term, though, he believes the shift would be “an incentive to genuine farmers.”

Until such steps are taken, many farmers markets (including the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market*) are working to create as much transparency as possible. And, as is often the case, shoppers themselves have a significant role to play.

The Agriculture Institute of Marin (AIM), which runs a handful of markets around the Bay Area, has been inspired by the controversy to make a rule barring “No Spray” signs from their markets. “We’re trying to make it clear for folks. You’re either organic and certified, or your not,” says AIM executive director Brigitte Moran. And, as has always been the case, eaters can’t expect signs to tell the whole story. “In the end it’s on the consumer to ask [open-ended] questions like, ‘how do you manage pests?’”

For repeat customers, the signs that a farm grows what it sells are not hard to spot. The produce looks less regular, is less likely to have wholesale marks and stickers on it, and the farmers and their staff should be able to give updates on the growing season. It’s also becoming easier to seek out farms that offer tours, have a farm stand, operate a CSA, host farm dinners, or post photos on a blog or twitter stream. And in cases where hired retail staff are not trained to answer questions about how the food is grown, look out for the farmer’s contact information online.

It’s important to remember that the majority of small farmers are in business because they believe in real food and enjoy what they do. (If they were looking to make a quick profit, sadly, farming is still low on the list of options.) And, in the end, increased scrutiny will only serve to strengthen our farmers markets.

The California Department of Food and Agriculture has scheduled several listening sessions — including one in Berkeley on November 8 — as a way to gather public input about possible improvements of the Certified Farmers Market program.

* CUESA requires thorough documentation from each farmer about their agricultural products. When there is a question about whether a certified producer is bringing what they grow to market, or about their organic status, we follow up by contacting the certifying agency. We also increase transparency by working with farmers to create detailed signage and web profiles that include information about growing practices, hosting farm tours and farmer talks, writing articles about the farmers, and providing slide shows for all our tours.

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