Weekly Newsletter: Keeping Markets Legit

Dear Shoppers: Recently NBCLosAngeles.com did an undercover investigation at several of the 300 farmers’ markets in the city. The investigation revealed the difficulty of accepting and verifying producer-only and local-only claims if the market management is not on top of the issue at all times. I appreciate the concerns raised by this report — especially the finding that farmers were selling items that they advertised as pesticide-free when they were not. But I also realize that it is a challenge for any organization that operates many markets or deals with many farmers to know each and every market day if that market has only locally grown, certified-organic or producer-only produce, depending on what their requirements and guidelines may be.

I know for a fact that many of the vendors in this area who do other markets bring produce that they do not grow, and I know also that many of the markets in this area are managed by people who barely know their farmers. At Smart Markets we rely on trust as much as inspections; it would take more time than I have to travel the many hours to farms spread out all over this area to check on every question or doubt I may have. Instead I rely on my own instincts and what I know about food and the growing season in this area to help me know what is legitimate and what is not. Not many of the market managers have been in the food business as I have, and not many are Virginia-grown themselves and can count farmers among their family and friends. And not many read about these issues as I do either. I am pretty good at spotting out-of-season or out-of-area produce too — I have let numerous vendors go already in my short tenure with both the Fairfax County markets and our own markets for bringing things I knew they did not grow, even without visiting the farm.

In addition, I do know my farmers, and the value to our markets of that trust may be intangible, but it does work for each of you and for the other vendors, too. Next year, in fact, you will see more local farmers who have proved trustworthy and more who are committed to sustainable production methods. Right now, we do allow farmers to bring to market the produce of neighboring farmers who may not be able to sell at markets otherwise. This does help to keep more farmers alive and “growing” — and that is part of our mission. Those farmers must apply to Smart Markets and submit to any inspections that I would make, and I do like to meet them too and learn something about how they grow their produce.

That practice has actually led to new vendors for our markets — farmers who are selling only in our markets because they get the support they need and they like the way we do business, which includes not placing them next to vendors who can undercut them because they are reselling produce from wholesale markets.

I do agree with the conclusion of both the NBC story and the New York Times Well blog. You also will learn whom to trust over time, and no need to tattle if you have concerns; I probably have them too, and I will be following up on those doubts in good time. At our markets, at least we make the effort to ensure our guarantee that everything in the market is locally grown, raised or produced, and is an item is suspicious one week, it will not be there again; and eventually neither will the vendor who was selling it.

One other thing to point out is that in Virginia, the State does not set standards, nor does it monitor markets for farmers’ compliance with any rules or regulations. That is our job, and we have only our own resources to support that endeavor. I can promise that we do everything we can to create honest markets, and we encourage you to learn what you need to know — you are the best arbiter of what you want on your table and how you want to feed your families. Please feel free to ask questions of our farmers and our other vendors and of me, and you can read the rules and regulations (PDF) that we have adopted for our vendors. Then you can help me to hold them to our standards.

See you at the market!