Very interesting. As someone allergic to non-organics, it's nice to know I can ask to see a certificate to validate "organic". Thanks for this!
By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
The impression made by the Calabasas Old Town Farmers Market on a rainy autumn Saturday was that of an organic, or nearly organic, event. "Organic" banners were prominently displayed, and several produce sellers assured one curious customer that produce lacking the "organic" sign, while not organic, at least hadn't been sprayed like fruits and vegetables at supermarkets. After all, the market is run by nonprofit Raw Inspiration, which has strict, written policies on its books.
Yet dubious practices were obvious — if shoppers knew what to look for. A half-dozen sellers with stalls in the market, held in a parking area in Calabasas' quaint, Western-themed historic district, were blatantly breaking California law by failing to display a mandatory certificate explaining where their produce came from. When queried, they grudgingly produced the public document.
Several produce peddlers told L.A. Weekly they'd tucked the documents away because of rain — but their stalls in Calabasas were dry and covered, and the certificates were encased in plastic.
A man at one stall produced a certificate whose detailed information probably would have come as an unpleasant surprise to shoppers drawn to the market's fresh goods grown by small farmers: The stall is run by Suncoast Farms of California, a large, corporate agricultural operation in Lompoc.
Robert Campbell, owner of 2,500-acre Sun Coast Farms, agreed that Sun Coast Farms' mandatory certificate should always be posted for consumers. But Campbell argued that fruits and vegetables he grows on 900 acres* of land, and which he's sold for two decades at farmers markets, "are no different in the taste and the freshness of the commodities" from those sold by the boutique farms — the little guys who have turned Southern California's farmers markets into a booming, and lucrative, industry.
Gene Etheridge, working his longtime booth several yards from Suncoast's stall, has a different view.
An affable, retired high school principal, Etheridge also is the former chairman of the state's Certified Farmers' Market advisory committee. He knows a lot about the good, and the bad, practices at farmers markets.
"The public thinks everything is certified organic, and it's anything but," Etheridge says.
For nearly two decades, he has hauled his certified organic stone and citrus fruit, including peaches, nectarines, plums and oranges, from his small farm in Dinuba near Fresno to the crowded Calabasas event on Saturdays and to the equally bustling Encino Farmers Market on Sundays.
He has watched the region's markets morph from a few low-key affairs dominated by small farmers to profitable, competitive businesses where sellers can — and do — cheat and misrepresent with little fear of punishment. Etheridge deplores the "duping" of the public, who naively fill their eco-conscious reusable shopping bags with fruits, vegetables, nuts and herbs believing that they're buying organic — or close enough.
"They try to tell you it's healthy, but often it's a play on words," he says. "They try to circumvent (the fact that the produce isn't) organic by saying they don't spray, and some of them are probably lying."
L.A. Weekly inspected nine certified farmers markets in greater Los Angeles — all certified by county inspectors who determined that they comply with state laws. The nine, run by different nonprofit and government outfits, were located in Calabasas, Hollywood, Santa Monica, Glendale, Encino, Northridge, Century City, Lawndale and West Hollywood.
At all nine outdoor markets, and during a handful of repeat visits, we found a sharp disconnect between the actual practices and the stated policies of adhering to the law. Farmers or their hired sellers often made misleading claims, implying that they had grown their produce organically or without sprays. Or, like Suncoast, they failed to display a certificate verifying that they grew the fruits, nuts and veggies themselves — and didn't buy them on the sly from packing houses or wholesalers.
Today, some of what the stalls sell is barely distinguishable from food sold by Vons, Ralphs, Costco, Gelson's, Target, Walmart or Albertsons. And some of the outgoing, eager hawkers — who shoppers tend to assume are real farmers — are actually just sellers hired to move goods.
Most of it is perfectly legal. California law 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.
Los Angeles County Agricultural Commissioner Kurt Floren, the highest-ranking county official overseeing the markets, disputes "the perceptions out there in the media that problems are rampant."
But incredibly, L.A. County last year tested only five of 700 farmers to catch those who might be lying about using pesticides or purchasing pesticide-laden produce under the table from secondary sources.
Laura Avery, coordinator of Santa Monica's four farmers markets, says, "The bottom line is the majority of farmers are honest."
But critics say the longtime small-grower culture at the markets, and thus the quality of the food, is under threat. They blame an inadequate California law, the Direct Marketing Law of 1977.
Fruit farmer Etheridge says, "What's going on in the markets isn't necessarily illegal, but it's not the flavor" of the 1970s-era law, created in a more innocent time, when small farmers ran their own booths — and nobody anticipated the entry of big agricultural concerns lured by the markets' growing profits.
Very interesting. As someone allergic to non-organics, it's nice to know I can ask to see a certificate to validate "organic". Thanks for this!
Being inside the farmers market business i've seen a lot of these " allegations " by LA WEEKLY are true, even people claiming here they only buy from people they trust they will be surprised and deceived of who they trust, many of this market managers here in the business for the money not really because they care about sustainability , i've seen many "farmers" loading vans of fruits and vegetables and i've reported them to the guy who runs the market but they still selling "their produce" at the market, the real issue in this report is the cheating from the seller, the I only care about the money and image of the some market managers, if the fines were hefty and the regulations enforced by authorities and market's managers , will help the public and the small honest growers!
Small farming is such extremely difficult business. I suggest all these pathetic cry babies to try that work sometime! Everyone who knows what's good for them should be standing behind that farmer and support them in every way. As it is said, nothing in Supermarkets is accounted for as much... Do you think you know more about an apple that comes from another country? Open your own eyes and don't buy from the vendor that you see is bad- he will be out of business before you know it! Why do you expect someone else to look out for you? Increased policing and more government fees will only promote more successful cheating and will really destroy and drive out the "real honest small farmer". The four dollar fee becomes $500.00 in no time!!! Who do you think survives that better? The cheater, the GMO modifier, or the small honest guy???? Why don't they spend their energies on creating better things to help the farmer instead of increasing his petty worries! How about start with a simple thank you to promote his work ethics too!
Having sold at Farmer's Markets for the last 27 years, it;s hard to believe someone could drone on with things that are so petty. If someone doesn't have his certificate posted, ask him. 99.9% of the time it'll be in his van or truck. Nobody in 27 years has ever asked to see mine except the inspectors every quarter, Next if somebody doesn't have an "Organic" sign up, he's not certified. Most customers know the farmer's that they buy from/. 95% of all my costumers are repeat who I've known for years. I guess if they didn't trust me they wouldn't come back.
Oh LA Weekly, farmer's markets are so 2000s. How about an expose on those sneaky farmshares that purchase some of their produce? I mean they do disclose it but if they didn't i never would have really pondered the possibility.
(This is why i grow my own pot.)
A few points: 1. The organic regulations are for the most part written for, and often by, big ag, the Cascadian Farms and Organic Valleys. The paperwork alone makes certification nearly impossible for small farmers. 2. If you actually shop at farmers markets, you get to know the farmers and their produce. It's the ultimate accountability - if the broccoli was bad last week, or you distrust a farmer's assurances, or it really matters to you that the paperwork is not displayed (why?), you go to the next stall. This is impossible at supermarkets, where the sources vary so widely. Also, if there's a grower you really trust, you may end up buying something you've never tried before - romanesco, padron peppers, kohlrabi - and finding out you love it, the way you may be inclined to try Au Bon Climat pinot blanc if you really like their chardonnay. 3. If what's important to you is produce grown completely without chemicals, whether legal under the certification rules or otherwise, it's your responsibility to ask. (It's pretty uncommon, and not always desirable.) At farmers markets, you're likely to get a straight answer, as you are not at supermarkets, where the produce managers likely have no idea about the provenance of what they selling - most of the time, they can't even tell you whether a given avocado is from Fallbrook or from Chile. 4, Cheating farmers get tossed out of markets all the time. Laura Avery and Pompea Smith are especially famous for this. And they hold long, long grudges. 5. If you haven't tried the dried shell beans or the baby artichokes from Suncoast, you're really missing out. See you at the market!
Nobody buys from unknowns at farmer's markets. I only buy from those I know personally and have been certified organic growers. This is a lame, BS, fluff story. Nothing anyone buys at a farmer's market is worse than what is offered at the big supermarkets, so why make a big deal out of it? If you want organic but it, if ya don't care, buy what ya like. Notice how nobody brings up GMOs at all. GMOs are what all of us should be avoiding all of the time. I hate GMOs.
I admit, I only read the first page. It was hard to even get that far. I expected this article to be a shocking expose, but all they did was make allegations, and then fail to back them up... Yes, they didn't post the signs showing where they were grown?! And that means...? Oh apparently nothing. It says it's organic....but it's not??? Oh, nope not that either... Whoever wrote this article should be ashamed. Make a point and back it up with some evidence if you are going to have a shocking title like that.
Editor's note: The following letter came to us via email from John Edwards, president of Raw Inspiration Inc.
Farmers markets and the people who run them have got to get used to articles such as the one written by investigative reporter Beth Barrett (“Ripping the Lid Off L.A.'s Farmers Markets,” Nov. 11). The truth is, with more than 1,000 certified farmers markets throughout the state and with many thousands of farmers participating at them, cheating by the farmers at farmers markets will probably never be completely eliminated, no matter how hard we try. It’s analogous to blaming the police for not eliminating drunk driving.
However, as the president of an organization operating more than 20 certified farmers markets, I can assure readers that we go to extraordinary lengths to clamp down on farmers cheating at our markets. You just wouldn't think so from reading Ms. Barrett's ill-informed and misleading article. I am very thankful that the editor has graciously allowed me this opportunity to correct Ms. Barrett’s factual inaccuracies. However, she also misleads your readers with journalistic sleight-of-hand and attributes acts of malfeasance without naming names or offering any proof. We just have to believe Ms. Barrett.
To begin with, Ms. Barrett has a total misconception of what is a certified farmers market. She chides our organization for having so many organic banners at our Calabasas Farmers Market that it gave the “impression … that it was an organic, or nearly organic event.” Out of nearly 40 certified producers at our Calabasas farmers market, eight of those who are organic farmers display an “organic” sign, as is their right. We, as the operators, only display seeing-eye dog signs and signs that delineate between the certified and noncertified sections of the markets and a wall sign that simply states “Farmers Market,” and that’s about it. The picture that Ms. Barrett paints is grossly distorted, but she needed that distortion to back up her (false) premise that, as the story’s headline reads, “Often, produce sold at stalls isn’t organic, grown by small farms – or even spray-free.”
Ms. Barrett thinks certified farmers markets are places where only organic produce can be sold. But it's not true. There is no specified or specific farming practice required of a farmer to be able to sell produce at a certified farmers market. At our markets, we have hydroponic farmers, organic farmers, no-till farmers and non-organic farmers. Ms. Barrett woefully underestimates the knowledge and sophistication of the avid and regular farmers market patrons if she thinks they don't know the difference between organic and non-organic.
Another error in Ms. Barrett’s article, and in her understanding of the rules that govern what a producer can grow and sell, is demonstrated when she writes: “Under state law, sellers at so-called certified farmers markets” – why “so- called,” Ms. Barrett? – “must directly grow the crops sold in the certified section of the market.” Not true. The rules allow a farmer to hold a “second certificate” allowing that farmer to sell produce of another two farmers at certified farmers markets.
And whose definition of “small” is Ms. Barrett using? Does she think Gene Etheridge has the same farming acreage as he had when he first started growing and selling at our Calabasas market some 10 years ago? Of course he hasn’t. And does Etheridge Farms only sell at the markets Ms. Barrett says he does? Of course not. Apart from Calabasas and Encino, Etheridge Farms can be seen at Santa Monica markets and South Pasadena, as well as having a burgeoning Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) sales outlet.
It is precisely these family farms, who through very hard work have grown their farming acreage over the years, that Ms. Barrett confuses with “Big Ag.” This was demonstrated by Ms. Barrett’s ugly dig at Suncoast Farms, a third-generation family concern. It’s true that the Campbells incorporated their business. Who wouldn’t in these litigious times? Why, even “affable” Gene Etheridge incorporated his family farms into a limited liability company.
When I telephoned Mr. Campbell to talk about the article, his daughter Kari answered and told me her dad was out in the field harvesting beans before the weekend rains set in. If you believed Ms. Barrett, you would think Mr. Campbell was sitting behind his huge corporate desk while his farm labor was doing the back-breaking work. And, by the way, what Ms. Barrett labels as 2,500 acres is actually around 900 acres, as confirmed by Suncoast’s official county agricultural certificate. If Ms. Barrett did a little more research, she would have seen that the Campbell family has another 1,500 acres where they grow contract seeds and export them abroad in competition to the insidious big chemical companies who bully farmers into buying GMO seeds. Mr. Campbell is a hero to me – but painted a villain by Ms. Barrett.
We farmers market operators clearly have a responsibility to do everything in our power to eliminate cheating at certified farmers markets. But journalists who (rightly) take us to task also have the responsibility to report accurately and fairly. Ms. Barrett fails badly in that respect. Does she really think there is barely any difference between what is sold at a certified farmers market and one of the many supermarkets she lists? Read Bill Marler’s Food Safety News blog, Ms. Barrett, and you may be worried even to walk into a supermarket. The recent listeria outbreak, killing 20 people and hospitalizing another 80, was from melons sold in supermarkets. The pine nuts responsible for the latest E. coli outbreak were sold at supermarkets, not at farmers markets. How many examples should I list to make my point?
And, finally, although I could go on and on detailing Ms. Barrett’s inaccuracies, I want to correct a situation where Ms. Barrett got it wrong through her lack of understanding of what she was writing about and clearly her failure in checking her sources. It wasn’t Big Ag who lobbied against an initiative to increase the 60-cent inspection fee to $4. In fact, nobody lobbied against it. What small farmers and farmers market operators wanted to know before pushing for the increase was: How are the additional funds to be spent? The founder of my company did vote against the measure while at the same time supporting an increase of inspection fees, if a realistic inspection system was put in place. She wrote to state Sen. Anthony Cannella, chair of the Agriculture Committee, on June 2, 2001: “I wholeheartedly support this increase and I trust the (California Department of Food and Agriculture) will work with us on developing a stringent inspection regime.” We didn’t want to give a blank check to the state for the purpose of hiring more bureaucrats while not providing serous inspection rules and the proper monitoring actions. Again, with a little more research and a better understanding of the issue, Ms. Barrett would have known that neither Big Ag or their lobbyists had anything to do with this issue.
Of course, none of this sloppy reporting excuses or can disguise the fact that cheating by farmers at farmers markets exist. We operators must, in conjunction with the state and county agricultural departments, tighten our controls and inspections. Because if we don’t, articles like those written by Beth Barrett will destroy the farmers market movement through her error-prone reporting.
This is how Alan Rusbridger, editor of the Guardian, ended a recent lecture on Orwell: “But the truth, as all honest journalists know, is that newspapers are full of errors. Not just errors, but crude over-simplifications, mistakes of emphasis, contestable interpretations and things which should simply have been phrased differently. It seems silly to pretend otherwise.”
Well, let’s pretend that is the case and Ms. Barrett wasn’t simply an investigative reporter who played fast and loose with the facts to get another notch on her belt.
Thank you for giving me this opportunity to respond.
Sincerely,John EdwardsPresident, Raw Inspiration Inc.
BS, Raw Inspiration has been at the forefront of being exposed as a group who could care less about the cheaters in their markets; remember that TV expose with Joel where they went back and found the same farmers in your Larchmont market you were supposed to throw out? Never happened. Don't compare your self to the others who truly work hard to clean out the cheaters. You've taken an industry that was supposed to be operated by local nonprofits and turned it into a for profit business by taking advantage of genuine farmers and exploiting their fees any change you get every week. Shame on you for pretending otherwise, week after week.
There a lot of great farmers out there, Cynthia, and Gene is most definitely one of them. And then there are cheats and then there are those accused of cheating. For all the errors in Beth's and Joel's reporting (yes, he got some things wrong, as well), it would be foolish to deny cheating by farmers at farmers' markets takes place. I just believe its much less than the media makes out and I think market operators do a much better job of monitoring farmers than they are credited for. Surely we can both agree on a simple goal. More farmers like Gene, zero cheats. We are working on it.
Agreed; the point being made is in some cases the pot is calling the kettle black. It's in the actions of enforcment that counts when it comes to integrity of a product and that goes for the operator, grower, and consumer, everyone plays a roll. Choose wisely, know your farmers market and sponsor, know your farm stand and grower. There are some great farmers out there, and Gene is one of them.
What is missing from this slam on farmers markets is some positiveness. Farmers markets are helping to make eating whole fruits and vegetables popular again. Also by supporting California agriculture, organic or conventional, we are protecting our food supply. As to the nit picking about Certified Producer Certificates being posted, a quick walk through by the on-site manager a few minutes after opening to remind growers to "put them up" is all that is needed. Eating the seasons where we live is a healthy alternative to the "melons in February" from our local supermarket.
I don't bother w/ "farmers' markets" as most of the produce looks like it was harvested from the dumpsters of nearby supermarkets, then marked up to make it look "organic".
I run two small farmers markets in low income neighborhoods in northern CA. I know and visit the farms that sell at my market. Our stall spaces are free. We put on 100 yearly events in at risk communities with a budget under 3000 dollars a year. This is a problem of specific regions and scale. A 4 dollar per week per grower fee would kill our markets. As it is, the 60 cent quarterly fees and paperwork make us pull our hair and weep as it goes to not solving problems 100s of miles away and is nothing but a hassle for our all volunteer organization.
An issue? Yes! Does the article lack perspective and rigor? Yes! Are people that should have been questioned questioned? No! Is the market environment a little more complex than they make it out to be? Yes! Is produce all there is at a market? No! Could the byline have substituted the word "often" with the term "sometimes" and then be a little more accurate? Yes! Is any responsibility put on the customer to do a little digging and research rather than just going and asking a vendor "is this organic?" and taking their answers at face value? No!
Unfortunately, Beth's piece is not well researched. I have left a message for the Weekly's editor requesting permission to respond to many factual errors and misleading statements in Beth's piece. Long time patrons of farmers' markets know only too well that some vendors sell organic produce while others do not. And there is a huge difference between produce sold at farmers markets and that sold at supermarkets. Over fertilizing and soil erosion on huge commercial farms (who supply supermarkets) has resulted in the erosion of the nutrient value of their produce. Also, as we know, many supermarkets are buying produce from around the world, including China, where safety regulations are usually non-existent. The recent listeria outbreak was because of poor sanitary conditions at a commercial mellon farm whose melons were sold at supermarkets.
Our founder Jennifer McColm supported the increase in the inspection fee and wrote to Senator Cannella in June supporting it. However, she wanted to hear how that money was going to be spent - we all are aware of wasteful government spending - before casting her vote in favor at a the CDFA board meeting.
Suncoast does not farm 2,500 acres. There have several hundreds of acres of which some are farmed seasonally.
I spent some time talking with Beth and supplied her with numerous documents. However, it appears Beth wanted the story she already had in her mind before writing. She clearly had settled on the headline "Farmers Market Exposed" well before her research started.
Yes, cheating happens at farmers' markets. But as the Santa Monica FM head, Laura Avery says, it's very minimal nowadays. And all the market managers are very strict about clamping down on cheating farmers. Why would we let one farm ruin our entire reputations?
Finally, I disagree with my good friend Gene Etheridge. It's the farms that need rating, not the farmers' markets. A farmers' market is just a location where farmers get to sell their wares.
Beth portrays an absolute false picture of a farmers' market and fortunately the many thousands upon thousands of patrons who visit farmers' markets every week know better.
I was a faithful shopper at the farmer's markets in santa monica and hollywood for many years. Even then, I knew many of the stalls were not organic. You had to ask to be sure and rely on an honest answer. I gave up going when it was obvious the markets were growing rapidly with no persistent oversight about this issue. The next evolution will, and should be, an entirely certified organic locally grown market niche. It would probably be more seasonably adjusted with fewer, but more reliable, stalls.
Wow Ebony!!!! It looks like you've been doubling as an ICE agent since you can tell the legal status of people just by looking at them. I have the same sort of "telekenetic power" except I can spot the criminals in our society. They are usually the lazy ones as well that feel this country still owes them and they're "getting theirs" because gov't help "ain't enough."
Great article, Beth. Well researched - I can only imagine how much time this took. Still, even if think reform is blocked, I always prefer investigative journalism when it ends by proposing policy options. If you were to distill this down to key recommendations, where do you come down on this?