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.
Some critics say it's time for reform — but one reform effort was quashed this year by the California Legislature after big agricultural lobbyists protested. "There should be criteria as to what a good market looks like, like a Zagat rating," Etheridge says. "Even if (farmers' practices) aren't illegal, the public now is in the dark."
Pompea Smith, manager of the popular Hollywood Farmers Market for 20 years and a member of the 17-member advisory committee that Etheridge formerly chaired, says the markets have boomed "without planning or carefully being regulated," growing from a few sites in Los Angeles County in the late 1970s to more than 120 markets, with some 700 farmers, today.
Smith, like several other market managers, has tried to take some responsibility for quality control by personally visiting farms to check claims that they don't apply pesticides or chemical fertilizers and that they're growing the crops themselves. Avery eyeballs the farms where Santa Monica produce is harvested, as does Encino's market manager, Carole Gallegos. Raw Inspiration board president John Edwards says his organization also visits farms, and awards an in-house certification to farmers in its 20 L.A. markets.
But Smith, CEO of the nonprofit SEE-LA (Sustainable Economic Enterprises of Los Angeles), which manages eight farmers markets, says even carefully managed markets can't always keep up. "We get so caught up in so many issues, we all need to be reminded to do more enforcing of the regulations," Smith says.
Under state law, with one exception*, sellers at so-called certified farmers markets — including the nine visited by the Weekly — must directly grow the crops sold in the certified section of the market. The certified section is supposed to be, but frequently is not, carefully marked with signs separating it from the uncertified section selling food, houseplants and even jewelry.
A mandatory "certified producer's certificate" is issued by the county Department of Agricultural Commissioner/Weights & Measures and must be conspicuously displayed in each stall. Any farmer who is also growing organic must include an organic certificate, issued separately by the state under a costly process. The letter-sized documents, with clearly typed information, are enclosed in a clear, plastic folder.
Under this consumer safeguard, the farmer details the months during which his crops are grown, his estimated pounds of crops and his expected harvest dates. Theoretically, if the farmer is cheating — say, by getting produce from a wholesaler and then selling more pounds of peaches or apples than his fields produced — consumers and government inspectors can spot the discrepancy.
But good luck to the concerned L.A. shopper who searches for the mandatory document that cites the origins of veggies and fruits they are buying.
Even savvy shoppers like Angela Knowlton of La Crescenta, buying one day at the city of Glendale's farmers market, didn't know about them. "I'm not familiar with them," she says. She was buying produce from Jaime Farms of Ontario, but its certificate was nowhere in sight in the stall. A seller, Noemi Toral, pulled it from under a table, saying, "It fell down off the hook."
Santa Monica's Avery says amidst lax enforcement, it's "human nature" not to comply.
"If they went around and issued market violations or fined them, they'd put it up," she says.
Nearly every market manager interviewed by the Weekly acknowledged either having kicked out a seller for sneaking in illegally purchased produce or issuing a stern warning to a farmer to never break the law again.
Jodi Low, manager of the Santa Monica Farmers Market, knew of four farmers kicked out of the market in the last six years; Smith booted a farmer out of Hollywood in the last year; Gallegos, the Encino market manager for nonprofit ONEgeneration, did the same this year. In Lawndale, Chamber of Commerce executive director Dyan Davis, who manages the market for the city, pulled lemons from a stand that weren't on the farmer's public certificate.
Recently visiting the Santa Monica Farmers Market, held on Sundays on Main Street, the Weekly immediately spotted two sellers without certificates on display. Low, manager of the market, says keeping farmers and sellers in line can be like the "whack-a-mole game."
"You focus on one thing, and another thing comes up," Low says.
She's right. Even as managers strive to adhere to strict policies, some sellers have found a second way to mislead buyers: by prominently labeling organically grown produce as "organic" but placing no labels on nearby mounds of nonorganic produce. Buyers could easily assume the entire booth is organic.
Produce sellers from West Hollywood, Glendale, Northridge, Calabasas and Santa Monica, asked by the Weekly about unmarked produce sections, quickly explained that while not organic, their unmarked fruits or vegetables were "no-spray," suggesting the food was nearly organic.
Maybe, or maybe not. There's no state law requiring sellers to explain to shoppers what they mean by "no spray."
Smith says sellers in Hollywood who are reported three times in a year for making the no-spray claim can be ousted. "If they say no pesticides, they should be tested," she says. They rarely are.
The fact is, there's no reasonable way for consumers to figure out the truth about pesticides on "no-spray" crops at farmers markets, and even the sharpest market managers get fooled.
Last May, Jaime Farms of Ontario displayed a banner at Wednesday's Santa Monica Certified Farmers' Market that boasted: "Growing chemical- and pesticide-free vegetables" — a common claim. In a very rare move, county inspectors tested Jose Luis Jaime's baby spinach crop and found it had been sprayed with a pesticide. Last month, Jaime Farms — the same company whose seller had told Angela Knowlton at the Glendale market that its crop certificate "fell down off a hook" — was found by the county to have engaged in "false, deceptive or misleading" representation of its products in Santa Monica. The proposed fine, which it can fight: $500.
Yet after nabbing Jaime, county inspectors didn't bother to alert Avery, the market manager in Santa Monica, and Jaime Farms continued selling produce at the Wednesday market on Third Street, as well as at the Saturday Santa Monica farmers market on Pico Boulevard.
Avery learned of the positive pesticide test from the Weekly. She wasn't pleased to have been left in the dark, saying she could have taken steps to protect the public. "I wasn't aware the test took place or of the results," she says. "I should have been. ... You'd think they'd notify the managers."
Daryl Tanner, a Montrose hairstylist shopping at the Glendale Farmers' Market, says she's worried about chemicals because of the lack of disclosure by some sellers, and due to her fear that regulators are not sufficiently testing the fruits and vegetables to verify the "no-spray" claims. "It's true the watchdogs aren't that great, so I always wash everything I buy really well," Tanner says.
Organic fruit grower Etheridge estimates that less than 10 percent of produce in each farmers market is certified organic. About 30 percent of the produce sold at Santa Monica's downtown Saturday "Organic/Certified" market actually is, Avery says. She says the market, originally intended to be fully organic, now is being referred to as merely the "Saturday downtown market" to be more accurate in its branding.
Gail Zannon, who sells organic pistachios harvested at her farm in Santa Barbara, recently set up her own farmers market in Ventura County after becoming disillusioned over the commercialization of the L.A. markets. Zannon says many farmers market managers don't know enough about their farmers and "don't know where the food is coming from."
Avery, who has managed markets for nearly three decades, explains, "There are no standard qualifications for farmers market managers.... It's a system where there's one manager for 30 to 70 farmers." She believes reforms are needed. "Some (managers) are more lax than others," she says, "and farmers expect different levels of scrutiny."
Avery is somewhat unusual among market managers because she pushes hard for transparency. For example, she publicizes the details of each farmer's growing practices, including all the pesticides and fertilizers they use, in a special kiosk set up each Wednesday and Saturday at the Santa Monica Farmers Market. However, the farmers' claims are made on the honor system.
Consumers in the Los Angeles region are just beginning to realize there's a lot they aren't being told.
Electrician Joe Cuevas, shopping recently at the Lawndale Farmers Market, discovered there was no easy way to assure he was getting produce that was free of chemicals or pesticides. "I assumed it was not sprayed. I didn't know — I assumed everything was organic, and it's obviously not. I assumed they were local, little guys."
Adds Cuevas: "I guess I'm getting an education."
One recent evening at the Northridge Farmers Market, Reseda set decorator Hamilton Camp spent some time politely interrogating produce sellers in hopes of learning which vegetables were grown without chemical pesticides or fertilizers.
Direct, honest answers were important to Camp: He juices fresh fruits and vegetables for his brother, who has cancer. The last thing Camp wants is to inadvertently spike his brother's healthy juice drinks with chemicals.
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.
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.
Even when inspectors write up farmers for "noncompliance," the laws are so relaxed that few get in trouble. In 2010, at least 75 farmers were written up at 30 Los Angeles-area markets by county and state inspectors. A handful of the 75 were fined. The rest went unpunished. In 51 cases, the farmers faced no penalty because it was their first offense — that year — for breaking state law by not posting or possessing their mandatory certificates, selling their own produce without listing it, not properly identifying produce, mislabeling or making misleading statements.
Market managers and a number of certified producers last year tried to beef up enforcement by asking California legislators to hike the market booth fees paid by farmers from a meager 60 cents per day to up to $4 per day. Fred Ellrott, who was the board's chairman last year, calls the 60-cent daily booth fee "ludicrous."
Eleven members of the certified markets advisory board, including four market managers (Hollywood's Smith wasn't present), voted to ask the legislature to create the $4 maximum fee. Just two board members voted against it — Raw Inspiration's founder Jennifer McColm and certified-producer representative Russell Hall.
But the view of the board, which advises California Food and Agriculture Secretary Karen Ross, a Gov. Jerry Brown appointee, was ignored by the legislature.
When Senate Bill 513, by Sen. Anthony Cannella (R-Ceres), was passed unanimously, the 120-member Legislature extended for two more years the existing, weak enforcement program.
The efficacy of the fee hike had been questioned by farmers markets.* The increase would have meant that each farmer paid a $4 fee per market day, or $208 each year per booth, to fund new inspectors.
Cannella's spokeswoman, Jessica Hsiang, says, "He hasn't taken a position on the [$4] fee itself. His focus is on finding consensus."
Zannon, the Santa Barbara organic pistachio grower, is indignant at state legislators and government officials rationalizing their inaction. "They have the bureaucratic mantra, 'We're understaffed and there's no money.' They use excuses as a child would," she says. "Don't make a law you can't enforce."
With the California Legislature bowing to campaign contributors and putting the kibosh on reform, paperwork is the only thing Californians can rely on to help ensure that produce stalls are not selling supermarket-bound crops bought from packing houses or wholesalers.
The Weekly surveyed more than two dozen sellers and found that many, often hawkers who haven't spent time on the farms, are cavalier about being busted.
At the Glendale Farmers Market, the Weekly found that about half of the sellers either didn't have or weren't posting the certificates that indicate whether the produce they are selling is really grown on their farms. Several of them, when asked, reluctantly produced these public documents from under tables or out of their trucks. This pattern repeated itself across the Los Angeles region at markets visited by the Weekly.
Adrian Gaytan, who said he had trucked the produce to Glendale from his brother's farm in Santa Maria, hadn't posted any certificate, saying, "I don't have it today, I forgot it."
Richard Dominguez, who was peddling produce grown at a certified-organic farm in San Diego County, says it's "frustrating" because only discerning shoppers grasp why his produce costs so much more. Many farmers who go to the expense of growing organic crops and getting certified — a process that can cost several thousands of dollars per year — complain that their nonorganic competitors make the "no-spray" claim and other boasts that most cannot actually prove.
Dominguez's legitimate, organic tomatoes were going for $3.75 a pound in Glendale. But nonorganic tomatoes — whose sellers were insisting without any proof that they were harvested from a "no-spray" crop — were going for $2.75 a pound or less a few feet away.
Glendale Farmers Market manager Christopher Nyerges, who previously sold herbs and packaged wild plants, didn't seem too concerned about the obvious violations.
Nyerges claimed that the Weekly just happened upon the Glendale market during an off day, when he'd slipped up on enforcing the law. He also defended the farmers who were claiming they didn't use chemical pesticides as people who don't want to jump through the state's expensive hoops to gain organic certification. "Whether you have a Ph.D. or not, does that make you more intelligent?" he asked, by way of analogy.
The sloppiness, lack of transparency and widespread violations of law are beginning to erode shoppers' trust in farmers markets in Los Angeles County — yet trust is one of the key assets that has created great value, popularity and profit for the markets.
At the Encino Farmers Market one Sunday, Marla Vaughn, an Encino resident fighting breast cancer, assumed she was buying locally grown produce raised without any chemicals, ensuring that the food was both wholesome and not adding much to her carbon footprint.
Vaughn was at first taken aback when the Weekly pointed out that the booth she'd been buying her goods from belonged to a Santa Maria farmer located 129 miles away. But when seller Maria Chavez, who identified herself as the farmer's wife, couldn't answer questions about the fertilizer used to grow the produce, Vaughn was shaken.
"It's important, the food I eat," Vaughn says. "I care about the fertilizer — I especially care about that."
Shopping on a different day at the Northridge Farmers Market, Mark Kernes of Canoga Park, an editor at Adult Video News, said he was not so naive as to think all the produce was organic, but he'd like some clarification.
"I'd like to see more disclosure, if it's organic or not," Kernes said. "If they're part of a large company, I'd like to know that too."
At the Century City Farmers Market on a Thursday, Kristin Pinkson was sampling "alcoholic" cupcakes. She first tried a screwdriver cupcake, then a margarita one. Pinkson shops at the Century City Farmers Market for its prepared food and doesn't trust what the sellers at the section containing produce booths say about the origins of their vegetables and fruits.
"I heard some of those people get produce from grocery stores," she says.
Tracy Conyers, who sometimes shops in the Century City Farmers Market because it's close to where she works, says she doesn't bother asking sellers anymore which pesticides they might use. "I don't ask," she said, "because I don't trust the answer."
Instead, she samples the produce before buying but still feels trepidation. Free samples of fruit such as strawberries might taste great, but Conyers worries that if they're from a big commercial operation, they could be grown along major highways and exposed to pollutants.
"There's not enough transparency," Conyers says. "There's kind of this aura of being local and organic, but we don't know if it's true and we're paying a premium price. I don't perceive it as a deal."
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Correction: The original version said the law requires farmers to grow all produce they sell in certified markets. But there is an exception: farmers can get permission to sell produce of two other certified farmers. The story reported that big agriculture interests sought to stop a $4 fee to boost inspections. In fact, farmers markets questioned the purpose of the fee.
Clarification: Sun Coast states its size as 2,500 acres. More specifically, 900 acres are devoted to market produce.