The goal of farmers markets is simple: provide people with a place to buy relatively local produce and food products. Those interested in precisely where and how their sweet potatoes are grown can ask questions of farmers directly; those who don't care can still pick up fresh produce pretty cheaply and easily. And if some of that produce wasn't directly grown by the farmer selling it, does it make a difference? The state of California thinks it does.
The issue has been churning for a while now. In 2010, an NBC Los Angeles investigation discovered "farmers market fraud" afoot at L.A.-area markets, with some vendors "making false claims and flat-out lies about the produce they're selling." The station followed one farmer to a wholesale produce warehouse in downtown L.A. and watched him purchase items there to pass off as the fruits of his own labor. It tested berries marketed as organic and found pesticide residue. It bought broccoli allegedly from a farm where reporters later found no broccoli growing.
At the time of NBCLA's investigation, county departments of agriculture were already empowered to issue fines to those caught selling food fraudulently or suspend their market vending privileges. One of the fraudulent farmers NBCLA "uncovered" had already been issued a fine earlier in the year. But a slew of subsequent media reports on farm-market fraud kept the issue in the public consciousness.
Soon politicians needed to look like they were doing! something!, so they drew up and passed another bill, which Gov. Jerry Brown signed October 3. The new law, which goes into effect in January 2015, is aimed specifically at cracking down on faux-homegrown goods at farm markets. It requires farmers to conspicuously advertise the name and location of their farm, along with a sign saying "We grow what we sell." And it makes "false, deceptive, or misleading" advertising or assertions about produce a misdemeanor crime punishable by up to 6 months in county jail or a $2,500 fine.
Fining fraudulent farmers or revoking their vending privileges, as the county agriculture departments did, seems like a sufficient enough solution—but not for the criminalize all the things camp. Nothing is sufficient until we have the option of throwing folks in jail.
To add insult to injury, enforcement of the new law will come at the expense of non-fraudulent farmers. Starting next year, vendors participating and selling goods at California farmers markets must pay $2 each time they participate—up from 60 cents per market day previously. The new fees apply to all food and craft sellers at the market as well, whereas previously only agricultural vendors had to pay.
"That can be over $250 a year of additional cost, so it's just going to drive up the cost of farmers market produce for customers, and it's an additional regulatory burden on the farmers," Mark Larson, co-founder of San Diego's Hillcrest Farmers Market, told NBC San Diego. He insists that the county already does a good job of rooting out fraudulent farmers, and "the farmers also police themselves. If they know of anybody that's selling what they don't grow, they report it."
The market literally regulating itself? Blasphemy! (This is California after all.) Bring in the produce police…