More resources help market enforcement


Issue Date: May 16, 2018
By Ching Lee
A patron selects produce sold by Ge Moua Farm of Sacramento County at a farmers market in Sacramento. State law requires all farms selling at farmers markets to post signs that say they grow what they sell.
Photo/Ching Lee
Shoppers pass avocados being sold by Randy Shoup Farm of Riverside County at a farmers market in Sacramento.
Photo/Ching Lee

Farmers markets continue to be popular venues for locally grown, farm-fresh products, and those who assure the integrity of products sold at the markets have gained resources to try to keep pace with their growth.

Market regulators and operators say legislation passed in 2014 has proven significant, because it brought much-needed funds to boost market investigations and enforcement.

California continues to lead the nation in the number of markets, with some 800 certified farmers markets and 2,500 certified producers. Its certification program, which dates to 1976, is itself unique, said Ed Williams, deputy director for the Los Angeles County agricultural commissioner.

"No other state has that," he said. "There is a national program, and (the U.S. Department of Agriculture is) promoting this whole concept of direct marketing nationwide, but it doesn't have the same legal authority that California does."

He's referring to the level of enforcement and the paper trail certifying both markets and producers. The bulk of this enforcement is done at the county level, as agricultural-commissioner inspectors are the ones most often walking through markets and checking for potential violations.

Those who regulate the state's certified farmers-market program say efforts in recent years to bolster market integrity have led to significant changes, including improved resources and coordination between counties to root out bad actors.

Taylor Roschen, policy advocate for the California Farm Bureau Federation, said vendors misrepresenting and reselling products they did not grow continues to be the most common violation cited by county and state regulators. As farmers markets proliferate, she said, the goal is to be sure all regions keep pace with enforcement.

"There's been a rise of (certified farmers markets) because of interest from consumers and producers," Roschen said. "We want to be sure that counties continue to prioritize enforcement and education at CFMs."

Los Angeles County, known as one of the birthplaces of farmers markets, hosts the most certified farmers markets in the state, with 135. Due to the sheer number of markets, the county also reports the most violations, according to the California Department of Food and Agriculture.

Market regulators and operators say the 2014 law, known as Assembly Bill 1871, helped enhance enforcement in part by raising market fees from 60 cents to $2 per producer per market day. In addition, market fees were extended to other vendors selling nonagricultural products.

Los Angeles County has lots of ground to cover, though. Some 94 percent of its markets are year-round, Williams noted. His staff performs quarterly inspections of each market, with at least one annual inspection of the county's 130 to 140 farms, he added.

Other fees in the program help fund these activities, including fees producers pay to be certified, said Kevin Martyn, deputy agricultural commissioner for Sacramento County. The markets themselves also pay an annual fee to be registered. Even with this funding, he said, "it doesn't come near covering the cost of our inspections."

Despite the wide-ranging responsibilities of his staff, Martyn said farmers markets "carry equal weight with everything else that we do—unless there is an emergency," such as with an exotic pest.

Although enforcement activities are typically initiated by market-heavy counties such as Los Angeles, Williams noted it is typically rural counties that do follow-up field inspections when violations are suspected.

Scotti Walker, supervising agricultural/standards specialist with the Fresno County agricultural commissioner, credits AB 1871 for improving communication and coordination between counties to catch cheaters. Fresno County has only eight certified farmers markets, she said, but it regulates some 250 certified growers who market their products in other counties.

"If an LA inspector sees something that they're not sure or they don't think is the grower's production, they can take a picture of it and then they'll send a request up to us to go out and do a field inspection," Walker said.

Williams described Los Angeles County's disciplinary approach as "progressive": a $400 penalty for the first serious offense, $700 for the second, and a $1,000 fine and up to 18 months of suspension for the third.

Misrepresentation of products and fraud are considered serious violations.

"Generally, we have a pretty good network among the regulators and we pretty much know who's been suspended and who the parties are," Williams said.

Martyn said county authorities want to promote markets and "try to be reasonable" with minor violations, such as those related to paperwork, but they also want to "make sure that people are doing things under the law to make it fair for everybody."

Another change that resulted from AB 1871: Producers now must post signs stating that they grow what they sell.

Requiring producers to state this to the public has "created a lot of self-enforcement," said Dan Best, general counsel of the California Federation of Certified Farmers Markets.

"We've found that the amount of people who are trying to push the envelope has decreased," he said. "In some markets, they've actually stopped coming because now they have to make that claim."

He said market patrons also have become more sophisticated and educated about what's in season. The best enforcement, he stressed, is done by other farmers.

"I see a lot of integrity in what we're doing," Best said.

(Ching Lee is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at clee@cfbf.com.)

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