DOWNTOWN — Bringing locally-grown produce directly from the farm to the consumer is at the heart of the Santa Monica Farmers’ Markets’ mission.
So when Laura Avery, who oversees all four of the Santa Monica markets, received a tip that one of her regular vendors may have been selling fruit imported from South America, she was understandably concerned.
The tip came in the form of a picture taken at a Hollywood market over the summer showing Jonah’s Apples (a vendor that also participates in Santa Monica markets) hawking fruit that looked a little too good to be true.
The picture was taken in July and showed the vendors selling Gala apples, which Avery said aren’t harvested in California until the late summer or fall. And though it’s possible to store apples for long periods of time under the right conditions, Avery said these particular specimens had none of the telltale signs of having been picked the previous season.
While state law requires market vendors to sell only produce they grow themselves, the rapid proliferation of markets has made it difficult for state and county inspectors to enforce the rules. Often, the task of policing vendors falls to local market supervisors.
When the suspicious Jonah’s Apples picture surfaced, Avery and the managers at the Hollywood and Mar Vista markets decided to team up to get some answers. They sent the photograph to three leading apple industry experts. The verdict that came back was unanimous: The apples could not have been grown at the Kern County farm operated by Jonah’s Apples.
Armed with the evidence, Avery and her colleagues confronted the farmers and eventually received an admission of guilt. Though the farmers sought re-admission to the Santa Monica market, Avery said the breach was too egregious. Jonah’s Apples was banned from returning.
“They didn’t grown them and they weren’t organic, so that’s major fraud,” she explained.
The move was the most recent example of the steps Santa Monica officials take to ensure the integrity of produce sold at local Farmers’ Markets, and it came as state agriculture leaders are taking a closer look at how to regulate markets amid growing concern that some growers are flouting the law.
A recent investigative series on NBC news detailed the transgressions of several Los Angeles-area market vendors, showing footage of them purchasing vegetables from mainstream bulk produce sellers and then passing the crops off as locally grown.
The expose, Avery said, has had a big impact on the Farmers’ Market community.
“People want to believe that they’re supporting a farmer and this has really shaken people’s confidence,” she said.
In Santa Monica, she added, enforcing the rules is a priority.
Avery and her team conduct regular farm visits to verify that vendors at Santa Monica markets sell only crops they grow themselves. But with 200 farmers who participate in local markets, she acknowledged it’s a daunting task.
“We’re well known for being the people that do go out and check,” she said. “I think people are very confident when they come to the Santa Monica markets that they’re actually meeting the farmer.”
Consumers, she said, can do their part to make sure the produce they’re buying is legit by asking questions of the farmers. The people who sell the food should be able to confidently explain where their produce came from and exactly what variety it is.
The California Farmers’ Market Advisory Committee this week completed a series of four public hearings focused on updating Farmers’ Market rules that were held around the state, including one in Santa Monica.
Jay Van Rein, a spokesman for the California Department of Food and Agriculture, said the expansion of the Farmers’ Market sector to include more than 700 markets with 2,200 growers statewide has made it high time for a review of California’s so-called direct to market rules.
“It’s the first time since Farmers’ Market laws were put on the books that there’s been a statewide reconsideration of the rules,” he said. “These markets started out as fairly small and simple operations and have grown into fairly complex events.”
The advisory committee will begin considering comments made at the hearings in November and will then release formal rule-change recommendations to the CDFA. Recommendations could call for administrative changes or new state legislation, Van Rein said.
A major theme at the hearings, he said, has been a call for more formal training for market managers, who are consumers’ first line of defense against fraudulent vendors. By knowing which crops are in season and being able to spot signs a vendor’s produce may have been mechanically sorted, it’s possible to hone in on bad actors, officials said.
Another common refrain has been a call for a better process for referring complaints about vendors to the right authorities, Van Rein said.
While Avery said Santa Monica’s farm audit program, which has been in place since at least 2004, could serve as a model for markets throughout the state, she said toughening the penalties for transgressors could go a long way toward improving compliance.
Currently, state agriculture code calls for a penalty of between $50 for minor violations up to $1,000 for major breaches of market rules.
Avery said the threat of permanently revoking selling permits would be a better deterrent than the relatively minor fines.
Van Rein said the state currently has the authority to suspend a vendor’s license for up to 18 months, but added it’s possible the advisory committee could recommend stricter penalties for breaking market rules.