The popularity of farmers markets is exploding across the Los Angeles area. There are now more than 300 weekly markets, where farmers claim they're selling produce that's locally grown and often pesticide free.
But an ongoing undercover investigation by NBCLA reveals that some farmers at these markets lie and make false claims about their produce, and government inspectors admit they're failing to stop these cheaters, and protect consumers.
During the NBCLA investigation, we found a lot of farmers making suspicious claims, such as the three vendors we investigated at the Century City farmers market, including Adan Farms of Redlands.
An NBCLA undercover shopper bought cauliflower, broccoli and artichokes from Adan Farms, which claimed they were grown on a family farm in San Bernardino County.
By law, farmers at these markets are supposed to sell mostly produce that they grow themselves. But when NBCLA made an unannounced visit to Adan Farms, they couldn't show us any broccoli, cauliflower, or artichokes.
It's the job of the agriculture commissioner of each county to inspect farms and farmers markets, and to issue penalties to farmers caught making false claims about the produce they sell. But that almost never happens.
NBCLA asked LA County's Deputy Agriculture Commissioner Richard Iizuka "Could your people be doing a better job of spotting the cheaters?" Replied Iizuka, "Yes, they could."
Iizuka says his team of 14 inspectors just doesn't have much time to really investigate evidence of lying by farmers at these markets.
"With the limited manpower that I have, it's hard to police them all (the farmers markets) on a regular basis," says Iizuka.
In fact, with thousands of vendors selling at LA County farmers markets, the agriculture commissioner has issued only four fines since 2007.
Three of the fines were for just $50, and one fine was for $401.
"Could you be doing better than that?" NBCLA asked Commissioner Iizuka. "Yeah, we could," Iizuka replied.
Other counties admit they too could be doing more to police farmers markets.
Orange County has also issued just a handful of fines in recent years, and suspended one vendor caught lying, from selling at farmers markets for one year.
But fines and suspensions are the exception.
NBCLA asked Orange County's Deputy Agriculture Commissioner Mike Bennett, "People that are selling stuff they didn't grow, how often do they really get caught?" Bennett replied, "Rarely, rarely."
Because of the NBCLA investigation, operators of farmers markets are taking steps on their own to stop cheating and false claims.
The nonprofit group Raw Inspiration, which runs 18 LA-area farmers markets, has suspended two major vendors from all of its locations. Both farmers were caught in the NBCLA investigation making false claims to customers.
"We have a no dishonesty policy," says Melissa Farwell, market coordinator for Raw Inspiration.
The nonprofit now prohibits its vendors from displaying signs claiming their produce is pesticide free.
"We can't really prove that they are not using pesticides and not spraying," says Farwell.
In fact, NBCLA's investigation exposed several vendors who advertised their strawberries as "pesticide free," but lab tests revealed the presence of pesticides in the fruit.
So, Raw Inspiration is also asking all of its 350 vendors to sign an "honesty questionnaire," disclosing what, if any, pesticides and chemical fertilizers they use.
NBCLA asked market operator Farwell, "These people (the farmers) are all on the honor system to tell the truth, right?" Responded Farwell, "Yes, they are small farmers and they are on the honor system to tell the truth."
So farmers market customers, like Sherry Marks, are now realizing it's up to them, to try and verify that the farmers they buy from, are telling the truth.
"I guess I'm going to be a lot more careful. I guess I'll ask more questions," says Marks, about shopping at farmers markets.
Since our investigation began, the San Bernardino Agriculture Commissioner issued a Notice of Violation to Adan Farms for selling produce they didn't grow. The owner of Adan told NBCLA that he was growing the produce sold at farmers markets, but that he harvested it weeks earlier and kept it in a refrigerator. He wouldn't tell us the location of the refrigerator. Adan does have the option to appeal the citation.
Read Part 1 of this report: "False Claims, Lies Caught on Tape at Farmers Markets"
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