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L.A. Farmers Markets Exposed 

Often, produce sold at stalls isn't organic, grown by small farms — or even spray-free

Thursday, Nov 10 2011
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Page 4 of 6

Camp was irked by what he learned in Northridge. "I started asking if (the produce) was organic, and they'd say, 'No, but we don't use pesticides.' But then I talked to another guy and he said, 'They're all lying.' But then I thought maybe he was just saying that so I'd buy from him. There was one woman who I think I trust, who even invited me to come out and help on her farm." (He bought a bag of dark green kale from her.)

"I'd love to see more disclosure," Camp says. "I'd pay more if I knew some of it was OK — that someone with cancer could use it."

When the Weekly visited the stall where Camp bought the kale, Santa Maria farmer Arturo Ramirez explained that his farm uses an organic "soap" insecticide but an inorganic fertilizer, Triple 20 — comprising 20 percent each of total nitrogen, phosphoric acid and potash. Triple 20 is considered safe and is routinely used by commercial farmers.

click to flip through (7) PHOTO BY TED SOQUI
 

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While Ramirez was right — his goods had not been sprayed — the extra piece of information about the fertilizer shook Camp, who responded, "That doesn't make me feel very comfortable."

County Agricultural Commissioner Floren says many consumers don't realize that California's Direct Marketing Law, allowing farmers to sell straight to consumers without using packing houses as middlemen, legally opens the door to farmers of all sizes — and all types. Today, he says, larger growers legally "divert" some produce grown for grocery stores to farmers markets.

It's only illegal if farmers buy their edibles from a middleman and then pass them off as their own.

Even then, serious punishment is exceedingly rare. County inspectors spent 2,050 hours this fiscal year inspecting farmers markets, at a cost of about $147,000. To put that in context, Los Angeles County, a vast entity that employs 101,296 people and has an annual budget of $24 billion, pays the equivalent of only about two workers per year to ensure that produce at farmers markets is legit. In the last year, county officials reached decisions and proposed modest penalties against three of the 700 farmers in Los Angeles County. Two other cases are pending.

In one 2010 case, James and Timothy Monahan of Paso Robles were selling plums at the Hollywood Farmers Market, but their mandatory certificate showed no plums being grown at their farm. They admitted that they hadn't grown the fruit. According to county documents, the violation was officially classified as "serious," and the Monahans were fined $401.

In another case, inspectors questioned a seller employed by Heliodoro Avalos of Moorpark, who, oddly, was selling eggplants in March at the certified La Canada-Flintridge Farmers Market. Eggplant season had not yet arrived in California, so at that time of year eggplants were being imported from warmer Mexico.

Documents show that Avalos' employee, Hector Aragon, told inspectors the eggplants were from last year's crop. But when inspectors visited the Ventura County farm's storage site, they found "five pieces of eggplant inside a refrigerator.... Two of the five eggplants were moldy and stems were brown." Avalos paid a modest $401 fine.

The modest, infrequent fines slapped on scofflaws make it tempting for some to lie. One way is by "supplementing" — a subtle form of cheating whereby the farmer buys an item from a wholesaler that fits with what the farmer is currently, or has just finished, growing on his land, then resells it as small-farm produce for a much higher price.

"Supplementing is the hardest thing to catch," says the Santa Monica Farmers Market's Avery.

She believes the majority of farmers are truthful. But county and state inspections are so rare that nobody really knows if Avery is right.

The largest fine against a market booth in Los Angeles County last year was $600 levied against Young Jae Pak of Fallbrook in San Diego County for selling grapes at the certified West Los Angeles Farmers Market that he had not grown.

In that incident, about 64 pounds of red table grapes were being hawked by an employee of Pak's when county inspectors noticed the grapes had been packed in the same type of white Styrofoam boxes found at the huge Los Angeles Wholesale Produce Dealers Market. Pak's paperwork indicated his farm grew only 30 pounds of grapes — annually.

When inspectors went to Pak's farm, his own grapes weren't even ready for harvest. Asked where he got the grapes, "Mr. Pak said that he did not know," county inspectors wrote in a report.

Floren, the county official, can't say how much fraud exists. The farmers markets, most of which are weekly and operate 52 days per year, get only one unannounced check by the county each quarter. State-employed inspectors are an even rarer sight.

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