Inspectors work to keep up with market growth


Issue Date: September 12, 2012
By Kate Campbell
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With the number of California farmers markets soaring—up more than 25 percent since 2010—and consumers lining up to buy, direct sales of farm products continue to increase. That surge of interest, officials say, has also made the job of protecting farmers and customers bigger and more complex.

Knowing there are some people who'd like to snatch sales based on false claims and not play by the rules, the California Department of Food and Agriculture Division of Inspection Services regularly inspects farmers markets to help ensure compliance with regulations.

"Funding to do certified farmers market inspection work has not kept pace with the growth of markets," said Division of Inspection Services Director Rick Jensen. "Finding resources to fully carry out expectations of the industry is difficult."

Last year, inspectors issued 866 notices of non-compliance to farmers market sellers and managers; 15 seller certificates were suspended and 35 fines issued.

Statewide, about 10 percent of inspections result in a notice of non-compliance, Jensen said. Usually, these are for minor issues such as not properly displaying a certificate to sell, but on rare occasions the violations are serious enough to attract the attention of the state attorney general's office.

There are about 800 certified farmers markets and about 2,200 certified producers, which usually means an inspector with a county agricultural commissioner's office has visited the farm where the crops are grown to verify production. Organic farm products are certified under National Organics Program rules, which are verified by accredited certifiers.

Due to the growth of farmers markets, CDFA convened a working group earlier this year to look at a broad array of direct-marketing activities, Jensen said, including certified farmers markets. The group, which includes farmers, market managers, farm groups and government officials, should submit a report to state Food and Agriculture Secretary Karen Ross as early as year-end, which identifies issues related to direct farm sales, including fees paid by sellers.

Under a proposal discussed late last year by CDFA and certified farmers market supporters, the portion of daily stall fees that funds investigation and enforcement, currently at 60 cents, could increase to as much as $4.

The proposal was made after a series of listening sessions held throughout the state, but no changes in fees have been adopted so far.

John Silveira, Pacific Coast Farmers' Market Association director, told CDFA officials during a hearing earlier this year that the consensus from the listening sessions, which included farmers, market managers and consumers, was that CDFA needed to enhance enforcement to protect market integrity.

Farmers said they're concerned that markets maintain a level playing field, meaning all produce sold at certified markets is grown by the farmers who sell it and, if it's organic, it has been certified by a third party as meeting requirements of the federal organic program.

Concern about sellers who might bend the rules was heightened about a year ago when Southern California media reported finding a few farmers selling "locally grown" and "organic" fruits and vegetables that appeared to have been grown conventionally, purchased wholesale or perhaps even imported from outside the U.S.

"We are faced with an overwhelming demand by communities throughout California for farmers markets," said Dan Best, California Federation of Certified Farmers' Markets general counsel. "In some areas, it seems demand has outstripped the ability to adequately supply. As an unfortunate consequence, there appears to be a growing trend of misrepresentations in all forms of outlets of agricultural product marketing."

It may be tempting to cheat, officials said, when the price difference between organic and conventionally grown produce can be significant.

In addition, Placer County farmers market advocate Joanne Neft noted that many growers "do not bother going through the process of becoming certified organic growers although they basically raise their crops in a very healthy manner."

From 2004 to 2011, organic food sales more than doubled from $11 billion to $25 billion, accounting for more than 3.5 percent of food sales last year.

Although the bulk of organic food is sold through natural food stores and conventional supermarkets, farmers markets are a growing sales outlet. A 2004 USDA survey of market managers found more organic farmers were needed to meet consumer demand in many states.

In California, 80 percent of small and mid-sized organic farmers say they face the challenges of matching volume to demand, obtaining organic price premiums from consumers, locating and accessing markets and maintaining the assurance of market integrity. But, challenges aside, CDFA reported about 500 newly registered organic program producers last year.

"Overall, producers appreciate what we're doing," said Marin County direct market inspector Susan Ventura. "Everybody wants assurance that people are growing what they say, farmers and consumers."

In addition to about 25 local producers, Ventura said, farmers come to Marin County from all over the state and paperwork from other counties must be reviewed.

"There has to be trust between counties," she said. "Our markets vary in size from five producers up to 80 at the Sunday Civic Center market at the height of summer. Overall, most farmers see our inspections as a benefit and sometimes, when customers ask about our clipboards and we explain our inspections, they thank us."

Information on the Certified Farmers Market Program is online at www.cdfa.ca.gov/is/i_&_c/cfm.html.

(Kate Campbell is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at kcampbell@cfbf.com.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.