Smart Markets advertises that we guarantee that our markets are producer-only, which means that we know where the food sold at our markets comes from. But the truth is that none of us in this business can be absolutely positive that every fruit or vegetable you see at a market was grown on a local farm.
The only way to be certain would be to have an inspector at every farm every day. For our part, Smart Markets does have strict rules and regulations that are enforced with as much regularity as it takes to get the word out that we do not tolerate missed markets, late arrivals, surly behavior or peddling products purchased wholesale for resale. We do this by being ready to make an unannounced inspection whenever a shopper or one of our managers notices something fishy (that isn’t fish). But the best way to back up our guarantee is to take time to know the farmers, and we do a good job of that.
We reach out to all of our farmers with information that can help them to farm better; we help them with everything from pricing to display to handling their finances if they need that. We pass along grant and loan information and seek out restaurants and other retailers who pay good prices for locally-grown products. And by helping like that, we form a relationship based on trust and respect. And rarely thus far has any farmer taken advantage of that. In fact, the only ones who have been suspected of breaking any of our rules have chosen on their own not to return. The word is out.
The wonderful result of having such a crack-the-whip reputation is that now we have farmers coming to us because they know we will protect them from other farmers who would cheat and undercut them. It’s much easier to charge less for your produce if you are buying wholesale. I admit that to be successful at this I did have to grow myself a second, tougher skin, but my vendors and certainly my shoppers are better off for it, so I must be, too.
To help you shoulder your responsibility, we have a handout that we share at our markets called Five Questions for the Discerning Shopper, which you can read here. And please do not be afraid to ask these questions. There is another list provided by the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services that has questions for the farmers themselves.
You will ultimately have to decide for yourselves how important those answers are to you and how much you trust the market management and farmers. But at least you have that opportunity at a market; you see that farmer every week and you see how the market is managed. You can tell whether the vendors are glad to be there, even in a 30 mph gale, and you can learn just what you need to know to make your own decision.