Misrepresenting products sold at FARMERS markets in California results in a fine of up to $5,000 and an 18-month suspension.
Nationally, it's not clear how much cheating there really is. What is certain is that farmers' markets have soared in popularity – now numbering about 8,500 each summer, a five-fold increase in the last two decades.
These are bona fide farmers markets, not to be confused with "farm markets," like the one I saw on a recent Saturday in Bend, Ore. It consisted of brightly colored tents and tables in a supermarket parking lot – but the produce came right from the store's shelves, just as it does every other day of the week.
Here in Sonoma County alone there are 16 different full-fledged farmers markets. Most are "Certified," meaning that vendors must pass rigorous inspections by both county and state officials.
Anecdotal evidence, plus a few headline-grabbing national reports, confirm some level of abuse. The most common is "supplementing" – that is, when a vendor mixes produce from national wholesalers with smaller quantities he has grown locally.
Other frauds include labeling produce "organic" or "pesticide free" when, in fact, it was farmed by conventional methods.
In my view, the huff is somewhat overblown. Yes, a reporter in Los Angeles found abuses at markets, as did journalists in Tampa. This sent the Internet into spasmodic overreaction and soured some consumers on the farmers market experience.
Most of the customers I spoke with here in Sonoma believe it's worth paying more for produce if it's fresh-picked, chemical-free and offered for sale by a local farmer who deserves support. After all, selling at farmers markets is no easy task.
Just ask the three young women selling strawberries from Ortiz Farms in Watsonville. Six days a week they load their vehicle with boxes of berries and drive to a different market – in the case of Sonoma, two hours each way – unload, prep the fruit, sell, load again and drive home.
They pay $30 for each 10 feet of space, plus a seasonal fee. Before selling, they sift through each box of berries, separating out the slightly discolored and disfigured fruit that would ordinarily be included in a store package but won't survive the scrutiny at a farmers market. There's a lot of waste. And for each sale there are, of course, free samples.
Consumers who fret too much over a few minor infractions – such as selling produce from a neighbor's farm because he couldn't make the trip himself – are missing the larger point.
Fresh produce is a great antidote to the standard American fast-food diet. And a federal program now makes it possible for low income families to essentially get double the monetary value when shopping at participating farmers markets, thanks to a program known as Double Up Food Bucks, pushed through Congress by Michigan Sen. Debbie Stabenow.
The Department of Agriculture also makes grants to help fund farmers markets along with other community-supported agriculture programs and even roadside stands.
So, let the buyer beware: an apple sold in April probably wasn't picked yesterday. But don't let a few rotten apples spoil your enthusiasm for a worthy summer experience.
(c) Peter Funt. Distributed by Cagle syndicate.