State policymakers Thursday approved a sweeping plan aimed at stopping rampant fraud at California’s 700 farmers markets.
The plan, adopted by the California Farmers Market Advisory Committee, would create a new team of state investigators, whose sole job would be to inspect markets and farms, and do investigations of farmers suspected of defrauding consumers.
"The mantra has been, there needs to be more regulation, there need to be more visits” of farmers markets, said Kurt Floren, LA County’s Agriculture Commissioner, who sits on the Advisory Committee.
The push for tougher enforcement began last September, after an NBCLA investigation exposed how farmers at numerous markets were illegally selling produce they claimed was “locally grown” and organic, when it really wasn’t. In many cases, farmers were reselling produce that was conventionally grown abroad, but charging premium prices because they claimed it was fresh-picked, pesticide free, and locally grown.
After the NBCLA investigation, the California Agriculture Department held four “listening sessions” around the state, to give consumers, farmers, and market operators the chance to propose ways to stop the fraud. The Ag Dept then formed a special task force to devise a plan of action, based on comments from the listening sessions.
“Everyone agrees something has to be done” to clean-up farmers markets, said Fred Ellrott, a task force member who helped draft the plan.
Thursday that plan was presented to the California Farmers Market Advisory Committee, which overwhelmingly approved it. That committee advises the Secretary of Agriculture on policy.
The key part of the plan would be to push for legislation that creates a team of state investigators to police farmers markets. The team would make about 500 visits a year to markets and farms.
The legislation would also require state training and certification of people who operate each farmers market, known as “market managers.” Right now, many of them hold other jobs and moonlight as farmers market managers on the weekends; they have little training in agriculture and on how to spot produce that is not locally grown.
An unanswered question is how the state will pay for this tougher enforcement. The plan approved Thursday calls for raising the fees the state charges farmers to sell produce at farmers markets. Right now, by law, the state can only charge farmers a mere 60 cents a week to sell at a market. The plan calls for hiking that fee from 60 cents to four dollars. While some farmers say they’ll protest fee hikes, Advisory Committee member Mary Lou Weiss said, “If we’re going to do the job that we need to do, it’s going to cost money.”
The next step in this process: the Advisory Committee hopes lawmakers will step forward and sponsor legislation that will make the plan approved Thursday into the law. Some Advisory Committee members tell NBCLA they’re optimistic that the plan to cleanup farmers markets could become law, sometime this year.