Sunday, December 11, 2011

Farmers Market Consumers: Buyer Beware. Part 3 of 3.

Buyer Beware at Farmer's Markets

Part 3 of 3. Part One and Part Two

I've spoken with the market manager for the farmer's market where I work and shop. Diana Rodgers runs the Sunday Mar Vista Farmer's market. Here is what she says about the issue of consumer protection in the ever growing direct to consumer farmer's markets: 

"You may be experiencing seeming reticence or apathy because farmers' market managers are concerned for the livelihood of the real, true dedicated farmers so one wants to be sure.   Also, a big expose would hurt the whole business including the farmers -- and there are still a lot of them-- that work earnestly to do things right.  The big supermarkets would like nothing better than to see farmers' markets go away.  At the same time, many are very concerned about fraud and looking for new ways to enforce thoroughly.  This takes a lot of research and diligence so it appears sometimes that nothing is being done.

Part of the problem is that the formal Agricultural inspection system is severely underfunded and we're having trouble getting the legislation passed to up the budget for agricultural inspectors.  A huge part of the issue.  There were 300+ farmers' markets in the State of CA in 2000 there are now over 700 so this is daunting and a lot is falling on market managers alone who don't have the resources to do everything by themselves.  Not to mention properly along with all of the other demands of the job.

Another problem is that there are a lot of people opening up farmers markets who know nothing about the system, farming etc.  So, they see markets as moneymakers but do not have the education to open and manage them properly.  A lot of this is the result of grass roots become industry and demand outweighing supply (small, family farmed produce).  An industry growing too fast without the proper checks and balances in place for the current system.

Big improvements have been made in the last year on the local level despite it not appearing so. A sincere and concerned group of LA Managers have gotten together to form a consortium around these very issues.  We  work on questionable farmer investigations as a team but we're having to learn a lot as we go.  We are doing inspections and sharing information and trying to do calculations based upon how many markets one farm goes to but there's a lot of other things to factor in.   I think we are all blinking in the horror of all of this and trying to gather ourselves a) to make sure our markets are quality and b) to join forces in our small way to work together to investigate and to enforce -- something, historically the job did not require to the huge degree it does now.

It is important to protect the small farmer in this work -- as it would be a terrible thing to ruin the very people we want to support, at the same time, more needs to be done to help work on a solution to the growing problem and to create a strong message to the cheaters that it will not be tolerated.

I think all the managers in my circle would be very interested in the information you have gathered -- many of them have HFF in their markets. Especially if it is evidential for them to use in enforcement.   They just have to be sure, clear and measured about how they use it.  If there is something tangible to enforce, I suspect they'd want to do so.

I so appreciate your concern.

Diana Rodgers
Mar Vista Farmers' Market"

What ARE the markets doing to investigate Healthy Family Farms in order to keep them in their markets as a vendor? 
Certain farmer's markets where Healthy Family Farms sells their products have lawyers on retainer watching the Healthy Family Farms saga closely. Or are they protecting their own interests, the interest of the small farms they host, and the cities that host the markets? "Farmer's markets have been sued by farmers that they've kicked out before," says Greta Dunlap, market manager for both South Pasadena and Beverly Hills farmer's markets. She said that her market's lawyer has been watching the "Healthy Family Farms issue" for about a year. Operations Manager Aaron Young confirmed that the Board of Directors for the Santa Barbara Farmer's market where Healthy Family Farms sells on Saturday had met recently to discuss the situation. Other farmers/ranchers in that market told this citizen and former Healthy Family Farms customer that they were surprised when Healthy Family Farms showed up the Saturday following the board meeting. When pressed as to why they are still selling in Santa Barbara, Young responded that they, too, have a lawyer on retainer and that "they [the board] are waiting to see what comes down the pipe [presumably from the current investigation and trial]." Dunlap echoed a similar sentiment, "We're waiting to see what comes down the pipe."

The manager of Hollywood's Sunday farmers market responded to my question about what they are doing to protect their consumers from fraud by basically stating that Cal Ag in Ventura counts what Sharon Palmer produces and Cal Ag Los Angeles keeps track of what she sells. According to Laura Avery, head manager of the Santa Monica farmer's markets where Healthy Family Farms sells on Saturday, Ventura Ag checks Healthy Family Farms egg layers and the last count, done in April, recorded that Palmer had 2,000 egg layers. But they don't count meat birds, Avery said. She also said that her market is trying to count what Healthy Family Farms sells against what Ventura Ag reports is actually on Palmer's land. This is a step in the right direction, but is it enough?

Recently, I inquired as to how the investigation into Healthy Family Farms is going at the Santa Monica Farmer's Markets, where I used to buy from Healthy Family Farms at the Saturday market. It is my earnest belief that Laura Avery is doing everything within her power to investigate Healthy Family Farms. Unfortunately, it seems as though the information I have gathered is from the past and the more current picture evidence does not provide anything that is "tangible to enforce" in the words of Diana Rodgers, above.  It is my sincere hope that Sharon Palmer is producing her own meat and eggs at this time.

So what do watch dog farmer's market managers do to investigate fraud themselves? According to Mar Vista market manager Diana Rodgers, where Healthy Family Farms is not a vendor, they are doing the best they can with limited resources. From an article by David Karp for the Los Angeles Times Farmers Market column:

"Rodgers meets regularly with other local managers in a group, recently incorporated in a chapter of the California State Grange, to discuss a broad range of issues such as street closures, regulatory requirements and quarantines. And in January she was appointed as an alternate to the Certified Farmers Market Advisory Committee, which helps guide the state program.

Market integrity, always a concern for Rodgers, has become a priority since media reports last fall about vendors who sold produce they'd bought from the wholesale market rather than what they'd grown themselves. She evaluates farmers who apply to sell at her market by checking that they haven't been cited for peddling by agricultural authorities, by asking which other markets they sell at, by vetting them with other managers whose opinions she respects and by visiting the farms.

Verifying integrity can be tricky. Brief farm visits like the ones she recently did are enough to catch blatant cheaters, Rodgers says, but won't nail those who grow a plausible amount for show and then buy the rest. The new mantra for integrity-conscious managers is "do the math": check records of farmers market sales against estimates of production on the farmer's certificate, issued by county agricultural inspectors. But the variables, such as crops, growing areas, seasons and sales to wholesale outlets are so complex that it's difficult for even a determined manager to catch cheaters, who have grown increasingly creative in exploiting the loopholes in market rules, Rodgers said.

The problem is that farmers markets have proliferated, but agricultural commissioners have scant resources for inspections. Rogers recently took a lead role in rallying support for a plan, proposed by a committee appointed by the California Department of Food and Agriculture, to increase the stall fees paid by farmers in order to fund enforcement and manager training. If this plan fails to gain authorization from the state Legislature, as now seems likely, local managers may need to band together to hire professional investigators if they are to protect customers against fraud, Rodgers said.

Like many good managers, she provides customers with information to guide their choices, by posting on the website a map with descriptions of growing practices for each of her farmers. She also forbids vendors from displaying signs with misleading or meaningless phrases, such as "naturally grown" or 'no spray'."

Demand is Growing 

"Demand for local food is expected to reach $7 billion by 2012, nearly doubling since 2002, according to the Agriculture Department. And with more than 6,000 farmers markets currently operating in the United States — a 40 percent jump in the past five years — they are an easy place for consumers to go to get their fresh-food fix." states an article on MSNBC's food safety column. That article is concerned about food safety in the rapidly grossing and growing markets.

But as this current trial with Healthy Family Farms shows, maybe we should be worried that to "know your farmer" is not enough to put your full confidence in their products. A discerning consumer will visit the farm themselves, and know the tough questions to ask.

Part 3 of 3. Part One and Part Two

No comments:

Post a Comment