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California Cracks Down On Farmers' Market Cheaters

A customer shops for produce at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market in San Francisco in March. (Getty Images)

Could that beloved farmer at your farmers market possibly be lying to you, passing off supermarket produce as locally grown?

California's state officials seem to think so. Last week, Gov. Jerry Brown signed a new law that will raise a million dollars to deploy a small army of inspectors to farmers markets around the state. The inspectors will check for signs that farmers are selling fruits and vegetables that they didn't actually grow themselves, but instead picked up wholesale.

There have been some well-publicized cases of fraud. In 2010, an investigative team from an NBC affiliate in Los Angeles followed one farmer's truck to the LA wholesale market, where he picked up a load of produce, including Mexican cantaloupes. That produce, according to the report, was later sold at farmers markets.

In response, Los Angeles County dispatched a few inspectors to look for evidence of mislabeled produce. According to the Los Angeles Times, 19 vendors were fined in 2013 for misrepresenting their products.

The new law will drastically increase funding for such inspections by raising fees that farmers pay to participate in farmers markets.

Eli Cook, owner of Spring Valley Farm and Orchard in Slanesville, W.Va., says that non-local produce is a "common problem" at farmers markets. A casual consumer may not notice, he says, but "I can spot it a mile away. I can tell you who's doing it and who's not doing it."

At the same time, Cook says competition from wholesale produce "is the least of my worries." The re-sellers, he says, "can't control quality, and they sure aren't going to out-sell me."

FreshFarm Markets, which runs several of the markets where Cook sells his harvest, tries to verify that farmers are selling only their own produce at these markets. "They do come around and check" to make sure that a farm is growing the types of produce it's selling at the market, says Cook.

What's more difficult is verifying production quantities, making sure that farmers aren't adding a few extra boxes of tomatoes from the wholesale market. "They almost have to be a doggone private investigator to catch some of this stuff," Cook says.

According to Gus Schumacher, a former USDA official who's been a close observer and promoter of farmers markets for several decades, the most successful farmers markets in the country are "producer only," with strict rules against selling produce acquired elsewhere. But he's also seen some markets survive and prosper with a more lax policy. The two types of produce can co-exist, Schumacher says, "as long as it's transparent, and the product is clearly labeled."

Schumacher, who now is a vice president at Wholesome Wave, an organization that tries to promote access to fresh and local food, says he was "surprised" that California officials felt a new law was needed. "My sense is, the markets are self-policing," he says. "Farmers monitor farmers. I see very little purchased product."

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