There’s now a musician in one of the prime selling spots at the Larchmont farmers market. A market that has now had a fifth vendor expelled, after we caught them lying to customers.
The latest to go is the Lee family, who’ve been selling at farmers markets for years.
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Just a week before their expulsion, we bought more than a dozen different items from them. Items they said were all grown on their farm in San Bernardino County
But there was almost nothing growing at their farm when we went there with the County Agricultural officer Allen Lampman.
“The property looks like its been abandoned,” Lampman said.
When we asked if it looked like the stuff we bought came from the Lee’s field he said, “absolutely none of it.”
State law says vendors who sell at farmers markets are supposed to sell produce they’ve grown themselves in California and they can’t make false claims about their produce.
It was only after our visit to their farm, that the Lees were expelled from Larchmont and three other markets by Raw Inspiration, the largest operator of farmers markets in LA.
We wanted to know why Raw Inspiration allowed the Lees into their markets in the first place, since the Lees were caught and fined by the government in 2005 for selling produce they didn’t grow.
They were caught again in 2008 and suspended from selling at farmers markets for a year.
Now we caught them doing it again.
“Once it is proved they’re in violation, they will be out,” says John Edwards with Raw Inspiration.
But on its website, Raw Inspiration touts its “zero tolerance policy,” which says, “dishonest farmers…are banned from our markets.”
admitted he knew of Lee’s past record.
When we asked why they would let someone into their market that’s been penalized twice for lying? Edwards said, “I believe that at almost every farmers market you go to, people have been suspended.”
We spoke by telephone with a member of the Lee family since going to their fields. She claims they did grow all the produce we bought from them.
San Bernardino County now tells us the Lee family is under investigation, once again, for selling produce they didn't grow.
The investigation could result, in their third penalty for doing this, in five years.
We wanted to ask John Edwards more questions, but he ended our interview on November 7th early and agreed to talk with us more later in the week.
But Raw Inspiration cancelled that meeting, in an email from their lawyer, saying "there will be no interview until more facts are developed."
But the debate over cheating at farmers markets is just beginning to heat up.
“I have been so concerned about the fraud taking place at farmers markets. It’s rampant,” said one farmer at a recent series of statewide hearings, held to address problems uncovered by our investigation.
Some market managers said government inspectors don’t really seem interested in stopping the cheaters at markets.
“When I talk to inspectors, when I really get into the nitty gritty, they’re like “we don’t want to put farmers out of business,” said Laura Avery, the manager of the Santa Monica
Since our first report on this subject back in September, officials have been penalizing a record number of farmers.
Like Frutos Farms, Adan Farms, and Juan Uriostegui
farms. We caught them all making false claims about their produce, sold at dozens of farmers markets.
They have all been fined and suspended from selling at farmers market for 18 months. That’s the maximum penalty.
In just the last two months alone, Orange and San Bernardino counties have penalized 11 farmers for lying to customers in LA County markets.
That’s more penalties than they issued in the previous five years combined.
Still, there is a call for tougher penalties to stop farmers from breaking the law over and over.
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Do you have more information about this story? Do you have another story for us to investigate? Email: Joel.Grover@NBCUNI.com