Keeping it Local
When we lived in Portland, Oregon in the early ’90’s, local coffee shops thrived. When Starbucks entered the scene, there were intersections downtown where one entered a swirling vortex of caffeine-laced temptation. Every corner offered a different twist on our morning cup of “joe” as local and corporate shops alike desperately competed for our daily coffee dollars. We enjoyed many a good laugh as each shop would lob its latest “coffee bomb” at the other over our heads. Now I can appreciate the raging coffee war with new perspective as I contemplate the state of northern Virginia/D.C. “producer only” farmers’ markets.
This past year I received invitations to no fewer than six new farmers’ markets in the area. Demand is incredibly high for “locally grown” product. So during the spring when farming concerns generally overshadow strategic planning sessions, we tried to do both. With little time to research and examine the organizations running these new markets, we went with our gut and took on two new markets for a total of six. Our choices made, we watched as community organizations, developers and “buy local” entrepreneurs launched “producer only” markets all around us. Fundamental to all these new markets was and is the desire to provide local produce to area residents.
On the surface, these markets succeeded to varying degrees, whether or not the produce was actually “produced by” some vendors remains questionable in our eyes. After all, it’s not many farmers who can quadruple their production at the last minute at their busiest time of year. With budget cutting and staff reduction, some new and existing area farmers’ market organizations have abandoned farm inspections and/or provide them only as a response to a specific written complaint. As it happens, I found myself on the July 4th weekend selling bouquets at one of my established markets, facing a vegetable grower who was selling, for the fourth week in a row, highly uniform lisianthus bouquets and commercially dyed sunflowers to name a few. Although it was not impossible that this vendor grew these flowers, it was just highly unlikely they were produced at that time of year without being hoop or greenhouse grown.
We questioned the vendor, who 1. Was unable to point out lisianthus in his own bouquets and 2. Insisted the commercially dyed (red for the holiday) sunflowers “grew that way in his field.” I decided to file a written complaint but realized to be effective my complaint needed “teeth.” It was not enough to simply request an inspection and pray the inspectors would understand what they were looking at once in the field. Our complaint included detailed production information as to what any inspector SHOULD be looking for IF the producer was in fact growing any of the crops in question.
We had all technical information reviewed by two neighboring ASCFG members. Another member, who lived near this vendor’s farm, even checked out a local produce auction and reported on what was being sold, and provided contact information and pictures. We also insisted on an inspection of our farm at the same time so that we could further educate the inspectors on typical flower-growing practices for the crops in question.
Ultimately, these vendors were found to be producing only a small handful of flowers at best and few of the flowers cited in our complaint. However, they were permitted to continue selling at the market IF they refrained from bringing flowers they did not grow. The market organizers insisted that since the complaint was only for flowers, their veggie production was not inspected at all.
Enter the “truck” farmer. With produce auctions ringing the D.C. area and high demand for produce, “producer only” markets that no longer inspect producers are definitely in danger of losing their credibility and ultimately their legitimate farmers/producers altogether. We acknowledge that somewhere a farmer is benefitting from all this demand for locally-grown product. Why then are we required to sign a “producer only” statement, supply crop lists/production schedules, and pay fees to participate in “producer only” markets and yet sell next to vendors who share none of the same risks or costs and engage weekly in defrauding the customer?
Many producers choose to turn the other cheek and merely worry about stepping on someone else’s professional toes by formally complaining. These producers may hope that the legitimacy and quality of their product will be obvious to consumers, and that ultimately consumers will make the choice. I would argue that though this may be the case, you may find that consumers look at the entire market differently if they believe even one vendor may be suspect and you may find decrease in attendance if they suspect they are being routinely defrauded. With so many options now for finding “locally grown” product, it’s increasingly easier for consumers to simply drive on down the road.
What’s a legitimate grower to do? We’re taking a hard look at all our markets (old and new) and examining the motivations of each market organization. We are interested in participating in and fostering markets where the trust between consumer and producer is paramount, and the “producer only” rule is truly upheld. Tops on our list is Freshfarm Markets (www.freshfarmmarket.org). They set the standard for running some of the most respected “producer only” markets in the D.C. area. Their success has spawned several similar though smaller organizations in the area, proving their model can succeed on a reduced scale. After a nominal application fee, they charge a percentage of sales without a daily minimum or maximum, thus rewarding the organization when sales are up without punishing producers when sales are down. A portion of the fees helps pay for regular farm inspections, during which every aspect of a producer’s operation is an open book. They also have a no-tolerance policy for any violation of the “producer only” rule. It’s a winning combination: producers are happy, organizers are in control and ultimately the consumer is not caught up in the crossfire.
The “producer only” war may not be so obvious to consumers as the coffee wars of old but it definitely percolates under the surface of the “buy local” movement in our area. We look forward to yet another season full of promise and growth. Though we may have our heads down in the dirt this time of year, our market eyes are open.