Pacific Swell | Southern California environment news and trends

Farmers' markets sketchy practices laid bare

A vendor cuts heirloom tomatoes to serve as samples for potential customers at a farmer's market.
A vendor cuts heirloom tomatoes to serve as samples for potential customers at a farmer's market.
Abdullah Pope/AFP/Getty Images

Ever bought the cheaper tomatoes at the farmer's market and wondered how the farmer can afford to sell 'em that way? Maybe you should be wondering harder. In the LA Weekly, brilliant Beth Barrett has a pretty frightening must-read investigation  of the claims of produce hawkers at farmer's markets.

Barrett's piece points out the limits of regulation in "direct marketing" of produce in California. (The term's not rocket science; but it's good to remember, for reasons I'll explain.) California's got no rule that you can't have pesticides at a farmer's market. And state law, Barrett writes, "places no restrictions on the size, or the "organic-ness," of the agricultural concerns that peddle herbs, vegetables, fruits, nuts and other edibles at farmers markets. And state-regulated chemical pesticides and fertilizers can legally be applied to the millions of pounds of non-organic produce sold at farmers markets each week."

Not to say that these guys aren't supposed to have documentation:

A mandatory "certified producer's certificate" is issued by the county Department of Agricultural Commissioner/Weights & Measures and must be conspicuously displayed in each stall. Any farmer who is also growing organic must include an organic certificate, issued separately by the state under a costly process. The letter-sized documents, with clearly typed information, are enclosed in a clear, plastic folder.

The big reason this is especially troubling is that farmer's markets aren't just stuff white people like these days.(Organic food is up there too, btw; ABOVE public radio.) Farmer's markets, roadside stands, any way the farmer has to sell directly to the consumer, they're all growing like weeds, according to the US Department of Agriculture.  More than 7 thousand farmers' markets exist in the US as of the middle of this year, 17% more than last year.

Regional numbers are staggering too. In California, direct marketed ag is a $162 million business. And ways to sell agriculture direct to consumers are zooming up at more than double the rate of growth for the agricultural product itself, especially here. A USDA report covering the 10-year period ending in 2007 found that direct-to-consumer markets in the Far West region (yep, containing California) grew fastest in the nation.

As for why you might want to remember the phrase "direct marketing." Because it can apply to other things you eat about which someone makes a claim of organic-ness, or freshness, or sustainability, or its natural value. The next big one? AQUAculture. Keep an eye out for the fish. Figuring out what seafood you're buying or eating is sustainable, and what isn't, already ain't easy. But with the help of restaurants, environmental groups, foundations, aquaria, seafood labeling is becoming a bigger issue too. If we start having more fish markets open to consumers, we might also want to think about how in today's marketplace we regulate the claims fishermen make.