Food

Your Favorite Farmers Market Food Might Be a Scam

“I’m not going to get all Portlandia about it, but I honestly have no idea if I can trust these people” by Jesse Hirsch

October 31, 2016

Joe Newton fancies himself a real sharp customer. By shopping at the Grand Army Plaza farmers market in Brooklyn, this wry, thoughtful graphic designer is actively avoiding veggies “that are shipped 3,000 miles by boat from Brazil.” Instead, as he navigates the market’s dozens of vendors—offering everything from plain old potatoes to ostrich bones for your pooch—he scrutinizes everything and asks a battery of questions. But even Newton has to admit, there’s no way for him to really know where his produce came from. “I’m not going to get all Portlandia about it,” he says, “but I honestly have no idea if I can trust these people.”

Newton may be a New Yorker—blessed with his tribe’s deep reservoir of cynicism—but he hits on a very real issue. With little governmental oversight, how can he be sure his farmers market kale wasn’t purchased at a wholesale commodity market, stamped “Local,” then splayed out sweetly on a burlap-topped table? “The reality is, there are those who cheat,” says Michael Hurwitz, director of New York City’s extensive Greenmarket network (hosting around 240 producers at more than 50 markets around the city). “For us, it can be like a game of cat and mouse.”

Enter the fraud inspectors. At the NYC Greenmarket—unlike virtually any farmers markets nationwide—a small, tight-knit inspections crew roves throughout the Northeast, dropping in on dozens of vendor farms each year. Using a variety of tracking methods (not to mention good old-fashioned intuition), this team wants to ensure you aren’t buying supermarket produce in disguise. Their sleuthing brings them to maple syrup operations in the northern wilds of Vermont, apple orchards in the remote Finger Lakes, and herb farms in New Jersey.

“Sometimes we give them a day’s notice, sometimes just an hour,” says Lobsang Samten, a full-time inspections associate with Greenmarket. “Cheaters can’t have time to hide.”

Greenmarket manager of farm inspections June Russell has traveled to hundreds of farms throughout the Northeast. Here, she heads into the fields at Nolasco Farm.

On a recent visit to the idyllic, 60-acre Nolasco Farm in Hackettstown, New Jersey, Greenmarket inspector June Russell is a ceaseless interrogator. It’s an informal inspection—official visits are protected by confidentiality agreements—but Russell follows her standard protocol. A barrage of detailed questions allows little room for ambiguity. It’s a sizable operation—are Nolasco and his wife the only employees? There has been a drought this year—how is he maintaining productivity without irrigation? At the core of every query is one overarching question—is Nolasco selling products he didn’t grow himself?

Over the course of several hours, she and Samten tour the farm’s multiple leased properties as owner Sergio Nolasco eventually divulges every tiny operational detail. As the manager of farm inspections for Greenmarket, Russell has spent almost a decade convincing hundreds of the Northeast’s small farm owners to spill everything. “I feel like I spend more than half my time in the cab of a pickup,” she deadpans.

For us, it can be like a game of cat and mouse.

These inspections are only a sliver of the full transparency expected from Greenmarket producers. Vendors are also required to open up their ledgers periodically, showing inspectors all their financial records, income and outlay, business plans, and annual projected harvests. They must maintain and provide detailed records over the course of the growing season. And market managers subject vendors to regular spot audits, tallying exactly how much they sell on various days. For violators, there is a five-tiered penalty process, ranging from short suspensions to getting kicked out of Greenmarket altogether. It can all seem a bit draconian, for a network of markets with such a warm and homespun exterior. But farmers markets are big business, taking in well over a billion dollars per year, and they’re predicated on trust.

The vast majority of American groceries are purchased at supermarkets and other retail outlets, procured through a massive, opaque global food system. As a spate of exposés has revealed in the last few years, this system’s fractured nature can allow for large-scale exploitation. It seems that every month some new scandal emerges: your seafood is widely mislabeled; your extra-virgin olive oil is anything but; or your honey isn’t honey. Farmers markets are seen as an antidote, cutting out the middlemen between food producers and consumers.

In 2008, one of Greenmarket’s most popular vendors was an upstate meat purveyor called Dines Farm. Owner Jay Dines sold the kind of hand-crafted artisan hot dogs and slab-cut bacon that fetches top dollar at urban markets. There had long been whispers among Greenmarket vendors—Dines’ farm was too small to sustain demand; he was selling meat that he purchased elsewhere. Greenmarket inspectors were sent to his property, where they found no cows. Yet when a secret shopper was later sent to Dines’ booth, requesting a steak, they were handily able to purchase one. As the New York Times reported, Dines was suspended from the nine city markets in which he sold his meats; he opted not to return.

Sergio Nolasco at one of more than 50 farmers markets overseen by Greenmarket.

Just last year, a Connecticut goat dairy called Butterfield Farms left Greenmarket. It’s unclear whether they were forced out or whether they left voluntarily (Greenmarket keeps their punitive actions under strictest confidence). Accusations—from not raising their own goats to reselling Chobani dairy products purchased from Restaurant Depot—had plagued Butterfield for years. Not being able to sell at Greenmarket are the least of Butterfield’s concerns now; the owners are now in jail for goat neglect.

Cases like Dines and Butterfield are admittedly rare. Over the last nine years, Hurwitz says only 19 producers have left Greenmarket because of the stringent inspections. Then again, Greenmarket has a reputation as one of the strictest in the nation—if you are an ill-intentioned vendor, you might avoid it altogether. The vast majority of farmers markets nationwide don’t have the resources to police their vendors so thoroughly. In fact, many “farmers markets” are largely resale operations dressed up to look local.

“There are quite a few markets where the majority of items weren’t produced by the vendors,” says Hurwitz, though he doesn’t think customers notice.

California is the only state that expressly forbids selling farmers market goods you didn’t produce yourself, a marked allegiance to the original spirit of the system. “The premise of a farmers market is direct marketing,” says Ben Feldman, chairman of the California Alliance of Farmers Markets. “In shopping there, the public is expressing they want greater connection to their food. It’s very important they know what they’re getting.”

Honestly, I don’t think most customers know the difference.

But even in California, farmers market fraud has been a significant issue. A notorious 2010 investigation from NBC Los Angeles revealed market vendors were buying wholesale produce and pretending it came from their farms. A 2013 Los Angeles Times report uncovered similar dirty tricks. Today there is a clear enforcement mechanism to ensure your locally grown farmers market spinach didn’t come from Safeway. In October 2014, Governor Jerry Brown signed legislation that allocated $1 million to statewide farmers market enforcement, policing the exact same types of issues that Greenmarket inspectors deal with every day. Vendors in violation can receive stiff fines or have their producer’s license revoked.

Greenmarket employees surround Nolasco. Regular Greenmarket inspections insure your farmers market produce doesn't come from Safeway.

In other states, where farmers have grown accustomed to a more trusting, grassroots approach by market organizers, the Greenmarket inspection system may seem unusual. Russell said that when she began her inspections in earnest back in 2008, she ran up against some serious resistance. “They were not ready for all this,” she laughs. “We heard plenty of grumbling.”

Over the years, however, she says most Greenmarket producers have acknowledged the good sense of a strict inspection system. According to Russell, every other Greenmarket department is built to support and protect the farmer. Inspectors are the sole employees devoted to consumer protection. Still, like a Fair Trade label on a chocolate bar, it could benefit farmers and other producers to have that Greenmarket stamp of authenticity.

Hurwitz certainly likes that idea. Still, he admits that most farmers market shoppers probably don’t even know know the Greenmarket brand. He says there are other farmers markets in New York, with no site inspections and lax policies for their vendors. “Honestly, I don’t think most customers know the difference,” he rues with a shake of the head.

Do I think they can catch all the wrongdoers? Not a chance.

A straw poll at the Grand Army Plaza market bears that theory out—not a single customer knew that Greenmarket vendors were so thoroughly vetted. In fact, very few of them were even aware of the term “Greenmarket.” But maybe slick branding isn’t really the point. The inspections team provides a quiet, behind-the-scenes integrity insurance.

Back at the Grand Army Plaza market, a veteran vendor named Lynn Fleming is holding court. Her farm, Lynnhaven Goat Dairy, has been coming to Greenmarket for 11 years and Fleming knows how to work a crowd. Handing out cheese samples, recipe pointers and farm anecdotes (“I’ve got 20 goats in heat!”), Fleming is in peak form. In the midst of her easy patter, she takes a moment to wax philosophical about Greenmarket’s inspections process.

“Do I think they can catch all the wrongdoers? Not a chance,” Fleming admits. “Still, they need some way to ensure the integrity of the market.” She’s not wrong. Without an inspections mechanism, farmers market shoppers are largely left to rely on their own instincts; suspicions of vendor wrongdoing remain baseless gossip. But nationwide, for a billion-dollar industry, there remains a significant lack of consumer guarantees. At the end of the day, how do we really know that kale was grown locally? As Fleming quips: “Legislating morality—it’s a tough job.”

Photography by Peter Yoo

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