There are plenty of reasons to do your shopping at a farmers’ market instead of at a supermarket—the chance to shop in the fresh air, to learn about what products are available in your region during each time of the year, and to support local family-owned farms instead of giant agribusiness conglomerates. All are great motivations to pick up a reusable bag and start shopping, but the greatest resource at the farmers’ market isn’t the crate of dry-farmed tomatoes or the free-range organic eggs … it’s the farmer. When you shop at a farmers’ market, you get to interact with the people who planted, tended, and picked the food. They know what kind of soil their plants thrive in, they know how to avoid pests without pesticides, and they love talking to their customers about the food they grow.
But how do you discern a caring and attentive farmer from a guy surreptitiously selling carrots he bought at the local Safeway? The sad truth is that as farmers’ markets gain popularity and prestige, some people take advantage of customers’ trust, posing as local purveyors while actually selling mass-market conventional produce grown across the country and purchased at a wholesale price. NBC Los Angeles recently did an exposé on farmers’ markets in the L.A. area and discovered that many of the items being represented as organic were actually smothered in pesticides, and some of the “independent farmers” were little more than hucksters who bought their wares at Costco. Who polices farmers’ markets, and how can consumers be sure that they’re getting what they’ve paid for?
Not All Markets Are Created Equal
Some farmers’ market regulations vary state by state, but the vast majority of the rules that govern the operations of the markets are implemented and enforced by the market itself.
There are basically two kinds of farmers’ markets: large, official, regulated markets and small, casual, unsanctioned ones. Examples of large, official markets are the San Francisco Ferry Building Farmers Market, New York’s Union Square Greenmarket, Washington D.C.’s Dupont Circle FRESHFARM Market, and Seattle’s Pike Place Market. These markets have been around for decades, and similar markets are springing up in other American cities, too. They’re producer-only markets, meaning that the vendors at the market can only sell items that they grow or produce themselves on farms located within a certain distance of the market. They are not permitted to sell genetically modified crops or processed food, with few exceptions.
At most large markets, vendors’ applications and credentials are verified before they’re admitted to sell. It’s hard for a peddler or reseller to get past the layers of administration at these markets, since full-time market managers check to make sure that each farm grows what they claim to grow and properly discloses whether their produce is organic or conventional.
These markets’ greatest assets are the market managers—administrators who approve farmers’ applications, set rents, oversee the operation of the market, and enforce rules; vendors found to be in noncompliance can be permanently barred from the marketplace. Many farmers themselves carry certifications from a state or county board of agriculture, meaning that a county representative from the USDA has been to the farm, seen and verified that they’re growing what they say they’re growing, and has reported this finding to the market master. Large farmers’ markets rely on self-policing from other members as much as thtey do inspection from USDA officials; customers can also file complaints if they believe a farmer is not the true producer of their wares.
However, not all states or markets have the luxury of large, well-run market operations. In many smaller communities, farmers band together quite informally (sometimes with crafts sellers or other vendors) to sell their wares in any available public space, without much organization or infrastructure. In these emerging markets for local food, there are few rules about who can sell and what they can sell, and with these casual market arrangements, there is often little oversight of the farmers and their claims. These informal markets are most susceptible to impostor farmers because of the ease of gaining a stall and setting up a booth. Large farmers’ markets are tightly controlled and farmers compete for spots; at small, local markets, they often find room for everyone.
In many of these emerging markets, farmers are pushing for county certifications in order to set up well-regulated, producer-only markets and prevent peddlers from taking business away from family farms and local produce.
So how can a locavore tell the difference? As farmers’ markets—official and unofficial—start becoming ubiquitous, it’s up to shoppers to be savvy about where they’re spending their money.
- Know the lingo. “Organic” is a legal designation. “Humane” and “natural” are mere marketing terms. Even at farmers’ markets, some produce will be conventionally grown; learn how to tell exactly what you’re seeing when you examine a booth. A farm’s organic status is tightly regulated by the government. If you have reason to believe that food labeled “organic” isn’t actually so, inform the overseer of the market and the local USDA.
- Find the market manager. Find the information booth or market manager. There should be information available on every vendor selling at the market, as well as information on the market’s policies and criteria for vendors. If the market has no manager or administrator, it’s a good sign that oversight is lax.
- Ask questions and expect answers. Ask a vendor where their farm is. Ask about their watering practices and pest-control measures. Ask whether the produce was allowed to ripen on the tree or vine, or if it was stored before sale. A real farmer will know the answers to all these questions and more, and will be happy to tell you. An impostor may be evasive or uninformed.
- Know what’s local and in season. If your local market in Ohio features tomatoes in March, it’s highly improbable that they were grown in the area. Likewise, if you see someone hawking “local bananas,” they’re probably not legit. Once you know the growing seasons for veggies, you can spot those that turn up out of season and dig a little deeper before you buy. And remember … produce straight from the farm never has SKU labels or grocery store stickers affixed to it.
Once you know how to weed out the shady dealers, shopping at farmers’ markets is fun and rewarding. These markets are good for the family, good for a community, and good for the environment, so don’t let a few bad apples spoil your enjoyment of their bounty.