Imagine: You’re unloading your farmers' market bounty from your favorite canvas tote bag and the sticker on the zucchini catches your eye.
“Grown in Chile?” you shriek, glaring at the summer squash in your hand, lost in a cascade of anguish and betrayal.
If you’re assuming all the produce at your local farmers' market is grown by local farmers, you may be wrong. There are no national regulations dictating who can and can’t sell at farmers' markets and local regulations vary wildly. Many farmers' markets are run by state associations or non-profit organizations, which are responsible for laying out rules and enforcing state or local regulations. But enforcing the rules and keeping out vendors who present wholesale produce as their homegrown stock—“pin-hookers,” they’re called—is proving difficult. Enhanced regulations are also proving to have unintended impacts—specifically for low-income families using Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits at markets. So how do we regulate these markets without sewing the seeds for too much new red tape?
“There’s definitely a national conversation happening about what it means to call something a farmers' market,” says Ben Feldman, chair of the California Alliance of Farmers Markets, a non-profit group that advocates for local producer-only markets (ones in which the actual growers sell directly to consumers). Feldman’s group was involved in the passage of new California legislation that allocates money for auditing vendors at farmers' markets. “I think the term farmers' market has become part of our vernacular and that it’s lost some of its meaning.” He points to grocery store chains that have been re-branding their regular old produce sections as “farm markets” without changing anything else about them.
Nationwide, interest in farmers' markets has never been higher. According to data from the USDA, the number of farmers' markets in the U.S. has grown 76 percent since 2008. There are now 8,300 markets registered with the USDA National Farmers Market Registry. That explosive growth hasn’t been without its complications though.
On February 1, the Nashville Farmers' Market, which has been in operation since the 1800s, began the process of switching to a producer-only market. The idea was to give local farmers and artisans an edge in a market where wholesale produce and bric-a-brac competed for dollars. While some local vendors and shoppers are excited about the change, many longtime sellers are being displaced. If the aim is to clear up the confusion about who is selling and what is being sold at farmers' markets, that’s probably a step in the right direction. But simply switching to “producer only” isn’t necessarily a permanent fix.
Take, for example, California, which has arguably the most stringent rules on who can and can’t sell at a certified farmers' market. (Certifications are handled by the state Dept. of Agriculture.) A 2012 report from the California Department of Food and Agriculture called cheating “widespread.” Last month, the state hiked the fees that markets must pay to the state to help cover the cost of clamping down on pin-hookers.
Still, figuring out where a zucchini actually came from is a logistical challenge. Right now, there’s a disconnect between who inspects at the markets and who inspects on farms. Say your farm is in California’s Yolo County but you sell at a market in Alameda County; you will have a different inspector at the market than at your farm. And often the inspections happen months apart. So the Alameda inspector reports that you’re selling beets, but months later the Yolo inspector would see a different crop in the ground. Getting those two inspectors on the same page is crucial to catching cheaters, as is having the inspections happen within a few days. A 2014 pilot program run in several counties in California last year sought to fix that issue. (Program coordinators found that they were better able to catch pin-hookers and keep track of produce.)
But Phil Blalock, the executive director of the National Association of Farmers Markets Nutrition Programs, thinks that California is over-regulating. His organization helps vendors at farmers' markets utilize federal food benefits like SNAP and WIC, which provides food assistance to women and children. He says that he’s less concerned about where the food is coming from and more concerned about people having access to it.
“I’ll tell you that people who buy wholesale and sell it are commonplace in every state, and the general public may not care in the long term,” says Blalock. If the only crop available to sell four months of the year is mealy potatoes and the last of the fall rutabagas, no one is going to come and shop, Blalock says. That’s bad for the sellers and bad for people who count on the markets as a place to spend their S.N.A.P. dollars.
What’s the answer? Perhaps what we need is clearer taxonomy for farmers' markets—what types of products are acceptable to sell, when and where. Until we get one, your best bet for figuring out where your plum came from is getting to know your grower and your growing season. Ask questions about his or her farm and if something seems too good to be true—like peaches in Wisconsin in January—pass.