Fighting Farmer’s Market Fraud

The Lempert Report
October 24, 2014

The LA Times found several unsavory practices in Los Angeles County. 

Recently Jerry Brown, the governor of California signed a bill aimed at ridding farmer’s markets of fraud.  The bill authorizes about a million dollars that will primarily be used for hiring new state inspectors and reimbursing counties for local investigative work, as well as maintaining a database of markets and growers. This has been in the works in response to a few well-publicized incidents of farmer’s market cheaters. So how big is this problem?  Modern Farmer points out that there is no real surprise that fraud exists as small producers are notoriously strapped for cash, and farmers market profits can be the difference between making money and losing it.  So, farmers might be tempted to for example, bring in produce they didn't grow, or in more extreme cases produce they purchased but with a significant price bump. The LA Times did an investigation of this last year and found that there were several unsavory practices in Los Angeles County. 

So what do other states do? GrowNYC is the non-profit organization that runs and monitors the majority of New York City’s markets, including its largest ones in Union Square and Grand Army Plaza and they have a very strict inspection system.  Market managers can inspect the individual booths, and they also employ dedicated inspectors to head out to the farms and make sure everything’s legit. Every single year, all producers must submit a crop plan, which includes estimates of yield, specific products they intend to bring to market, and the dates at which they’ll bring them. Then there are random checks at the market themselves, which vary mostly based on quantity: Heavy producers get inspected more. The inspectors are looking for anything that doesn’t jibe with the crop plan, or anything suspicious, like waxed fruit or boxes from retailers. Modern Farmer spoke with Michael Hurwitz, director of the greenmarket program at GrowNYC who said that while their main objective is to help farmers, not annoy them, the inspections are very, very serious, and GrowNYC won’t hesitate to kick farmers out of the program or fine them if there are violations.

So as Governor Brown sets aside the money to start an equally serious set of rules here in Los Angeles county, it’s time for all Farmers and Farmers Markets to offer transparency.  As Michael Hurwitz points out, fraud doesn’t just reflect poorly on the individual offender; it really ruins the whole enterprise. As with their local supermarket, consumers should be able to trust the Farmer’s Market. Trust that by buying produce at the market, they’re supporting local agriculture, and that their money is going where they want it to go.