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."