Farmers markets are designed to allow you to buy fresh, locally grown fruits, vegetables and flowers directly from local farmers.
But does it always work that way in San Luis Obispo County?
No one knows for sure.
A Tribune analysis of violations covering farmers markets and growers in the county from 2002 to the beginning of 2012 shows that there were 24 major violations — one-fourth of all violations — mostly for selling food the farmers weren’t authorized to sell or didn’t produce themselves.
In addition, there were 73 minor violations — all the rest during that decade — for failing to display market certification, and selling food with expired certification, among others.
That works out to about 2.5 major violations and 7.4 minor violations a year. Not many.
That doesn’t tell the whole story, however.
Lack of money and staff, along with expanding markets, have hampered the county’s oversight.
According to Brett Saum, chief deputy sealer in charge of local farmers markets from June 2009 to early 2012, required annual inspections of farms were put on three-year rotations because of budget cuts. Today, inspections of permanent crops — fruit, avocado and nut trees, for example — remain on three-year rotations, despite state law requiring annual inspections.
Furthermore, the county Department of Agriculture, Weights and Measures, which has one main inspector (several others do inspections from time to time) who spends a third of his time on the program, acknowledged that until recently the program had not been tightly run. For instance, regulators have failed to issue violations in at least 25 cases, issued verbal reprimands instead of written violations and did a poor job of keeping records, according to regulators.
Markets are responsible for upholding the rules, but few written examples exist to show they are reporting growers’ violations. Many violations are dealt with informally and internally, said Peter Jankay, the manager for the San Luis Obispo County Farmers Market Association. The Department of Agriculture, Weights and Measures only knows about violations that have been reported and documented.
“If vendors are saying there are big holes, well, there are some holes and it’s mainly because the regulations have expanded what can be sold at farmers markets, (and) who can sell at farmers markets,” Saum said. “To be honest with you, we just don’t have the manpower to go babysit these markets.”
Widely publicized cheating in farmers markets in recent years prompted the California Department of Food and Agriculture to form the Direct Marketing Ad Hoc Committee, which met in September to discuss ways to combat such fraud, according to the Los Angeles Times. The committee made little progress in coming up with ways to stamp out cheating. It involved vendors selling food they did not grow.
Jennifer Bradley, co-owner of 7th Heaven Organics in Cayucos, sells a variety of fruits and vegetables at markets in the county and elsewhere, and believes most local farmers are honest. But she thinks regulators aren’t catching a lot — everything from farmers selling food they say has not been sprayed when it has, to growers marketing food they did not produce. “It isn’t working in lots of ways,” she said of the program. For instance, Bradley has seen farmers advertise their food as “no spray” but knows that farmer’s fields were sprayed.
For Violet Cavanaugh, Pismo Beach Farmers Market manager and a local grower, the lack of regulation is the heart of the matter. “I know the system itself has issues. It’s obvious that they are big business; the markets make a lot of money. There’s not a lot of oversight or regulation.”
Saum believes the markets operate efficiently: “The fact that we receive so few complaints, in reality, says to me that the system is working relatively well.”
Violations from 2002-12
Major violations included everything from a farmer selling parsley he was not certified to sell, to a grower selling stone fruit from out of the county that he had not grown because his trees had been ripped out. One Nipomo grower was recently fined and suspended for selling blueberries, blackberries and raspberries he had not grown.
Regulators say cross-county oversight creates the biggest loophole in the system.
“If there’s a weak part in the farmers market program, it’s the ability for inter-jurisdictional working between counties. Sometimes that’s really difficult,” said Rusty Hall, the county’s weights and measures inspector for farmers markets. “What’s happened with the market is that it’s really developed rapidly — and, I think, faster than the regulators can keep up.”
For example, a certified grower in Tulare County can sell his apples to a grower in San Luis Obispo, who can then sell those apples in San Luis Obispo or Monterey counties.
Out-of-county farmers did not commit more violations in general than local farmers, but of 14 violations issued to growers from outside the county, nine were for selling things they were not certified to grow — a major violation.
State law requires that each time an enforcement action is taken against a farmer, the market involved be cited as well. But the Ag Commission issued only 36 letters of noncompliance to markets — just one-third of the total actions taken by regulators.
Saum said that doesn’t mean his department didn’t discuss the citations with the market managers.
“There is a hole in the documentation if your expectation was that for every producer notice of violation that there should be one in the records there for the manager,” he said.
Inspections cut back
Annual inspections were changed to once every three years. For example, 65 farm sites of the county’s roughly 130 certified growers weren’t inspected in 2009. By 2010, 71 weren’t inspected and by 2011, 80 went without inspection.
“That really opened the door a little bit if anyone was going to be fraudulent,” Saum said.
It wasn’t until February 2012 that some annual inspections resumed.
Today annual inspections only apply to some crops, such as lettuce and berries. Permanent crops — fruit, avocado and nut trees — are still inspected every three years, since the Ag Commission doesn’t believe annual inspections at all farm sites is a good use of time, even though it’s the law, Saum said.
The Agricultural Department doesn’t have the manpower or budget to watch everyone, Saum said.
Over the past year and a half, Saum said, things have been tightened up. Inspectors make a point to examine crops when they are in season and also check out food storage facilities, for example.
But markets themselves are only inspected twice a year, leaving a lot of wiggle room, Saum said. “We try to do a market inspection once or twice a year, so that’s a lot of markets that we’re not present at,” he said.
The decade of regulatory actions analyzed by The Tribune shows only one example of local market managers reporting to regulators any issues resulting in enforcement action.
“I’m sure there are some market managers out there bending the rules,” said Saum, but he added that, for the most part, the system works.
Jankay, who manages the San Luis Obispo County Farmers Market Association, said that despite the lack of records showing enforcement actions, he runs a tight ship.
“In the past we have kicked people out of our market” because they broke the rules, he said. He declined to identify violators. Such expulsions were for major violations such as selling food that a farmer did not grow, he said.
Jankay deals with many issues internally. “Do we give everything to the Ag Commission? The answer is no,” he said.
Regulators may not even know when a grower is removed from a market, Saum said.
But in many ways self-regulation works, Hall said, even if the Agricultural Department doesn’t know about it. “A lot of the time it’s so tight and competitive in these markets, if they get kicked out, it’s very hard to get back in,” he said.
Not judging from the revenue generated by one market association. Total revenue in 2012 at the San Luis Obispo County Farmers Market Association’s five markets was $3 million, showing a trend of increasing revenues, according to Jankay.
But some observers worry that could change.
“If you look at markets, they are more expensive than at grocery stores,” said Bradley of 7th Heaven Organics. “If people lose trust, they might just say, ‘If this is the same, I’m going to go to a supermarket. Why support them if I can’t trust it?’ ”
That in turn would hurt farmers who depend on market sales to boost their income.
Michael Cirone, who grows apples, apricots and peaches in See Canyon and avocados and mandarins east of Morro Bay, is confident in the local farmers markets.
Like most certified farmers over the last decade in the county, Cirone, a three-decade farmer, has no record of violating any market rules.
“SLO County is probably one of the strictest counties in the state,” said Cirone, who has sold at markets in Santa Monica as well as locally and is a board member of the San Luis Obispo County Farmers Market Association. “I think, in our county, especially in our market, I don’t think we have a problem.”
Still, his biggest concern is the few who try to cheat the system, who buy food they didn’t grow and resell it as their own — giving everyone a bad name.
“The offense is so bad (that) anyone caught selling food they did not grow at his association’s markets is thrown out,” he said. “For me, that is one of the cardinal sins of the farmers market.”