Farmers Markets Facing Increasing Fraud

Regular readers of The Bachelor’s Kitchen know I’m a big fan of farmers’ markets. There have been posts about how to go through a market, tips for getting the most from the experience, stories about increased acceptance of food stamps at markets and more. One article even talked about how some vendors are labeling produce as being organic when it’s not.

Now, a new fraud is entering the market. Thanks to the increased popularity of these direct growers-to-consumers selling venues, tricksters and con men are seeing a ripe hunting ground for easy marks.

The new rip-off at farmers’ markets involves saying produce is locally grown at nearby farms when it really comes from a wholesale market, just like what you find at any supermarket.

Recently, a television news team in Los Angeles reported that some farms mentioned by vendors at a farmers market didn’t exist. The reporters went to the places where vendors said their goods had come from and found dry, empty fields or places where the fruit and vegetables could not have been grown.

And the organic scam is continuing, too. The same reporters purchased produce the sellers claimed was organic. But when the goods were sent to a lab for testing, chemical pesticides were found. When confronted, one vendor claimed the pesticides had blown into his fields from nearby farms. But scientists said the levels were way too high for that to be true.

One clue to making sure the produce you’re buying really does come from a local farmer and might truly be organic is to just look at it. Rarely does homegrown, organic produce look perfect. Real organic produce from small farmers is likely to be off-color, misshapen, dirty, bruised or unevenly ripe. I like to buy things that look like they came from someone’s backyard garden rather than a large factory farm field. What’s that old saying about something being too good to be true?

Homegrown Evolution, a website devoted to urban gardening and eco-friendly activities, says just take a look at the display. Are all the tomatoes the same size and shape? Do apples have that waxy look you see in the supermarket? Is every vegetable free of blemishes? If you can say “yes” to any of those questions, then chances are the goods were purchased wholesale and are being resold. That’s not necessarily a bad thing if you’re looking for something that wouldn’t be produced locally at that, or any, time of year. For example, bananas don’t grow in most of the U.S. But there they are, some even have the Chiquita brand sticker on them. Those are the same bananas you can get at your local grocer, but maybe the price is better. It helps to know what things are selling for at the supermarket, so pay attention.

The next tip is to know what’s in season in your part of the country at that time of year. If you see perfect watermelons in Detroit in April, you know they’re not local.

Finally, as I’ve said before, get to know your vendors. Walk around the market before you buy anything so you can compare quality and prices. Talk to them. Ask them questions about the food they sell. If they can’t tell you the specific variety of a vegetable or fruit, chances are they didn’t grow it. Also, many local growers are listed on locavore websites like LocalHarvest. Not all farmers or markets are listed, but more than you might expect are.

During the off-season or to keep their stand in the markets, some growers will sell things they didn’t grow. That’s good. Buying from local farmers even if what they have to sell isn’t from their farm is still supporting small, local farms. As the weather turns colder, you’ll notice that a lot. Many of the small vendors at the market I go to will sell nuts or holiday candy to keep some income flowing during the winter months. That’s why getting to know your vendors is valuable. You will know which are growers and which are resellers.