by Peter Mitham
VICTORIA – Consumers look to farmers’ markets as a trusted source of wholesome local produce.
But as an undercover investigation in Ontario last year discovered, not all vendors are honest about their sources. Sometimes, what they claim to grow is from a wholesaler, a phenomenon not unknown at some markets in BC.
The issue came back to national attention at the beginning of May with efforts by the Peterborough & District Farmers’ Market Association, which ran the Ontario market at the centre of the CBC investigation, to expel the long-time vendors that spoke to CBC.
By speaking out to CBC after failures to resolve the situation internally, the five vendors brought the association and its market into disrepute. The market executive deemed this grounds for expulsion.
Assuming the roles of market promoter and enforcer is “very difficult” for market associations, says Colleen Donovan, an outreach and education specialist with the Washington State Department of Agriculture in Ellensburg, Washington.
Yet promotion of the market will fall flat without the trust of consumers, and allegations against vendors can undermine a market’s integrity and reputation with the public. Therefore, there needs to be some verification, independent of vendors, to assure consumers that what they’re buying is the real deal.
“Farmers want this; they want it bad,” Donovan said in a presentation to the BC Association of Farmers’ Markets annual conference in Victoria at the beginning of March.
Through her work as founding co-ordinator of Washington’s Farmers Market Integrity Project, Donovan found that independent certification can take several forms.
GrowNYC, which operates a network of farmers’ markets in New York including the well-known one in Union Square, has an in-house inspection program.
California’s Department of Food and Agriculture levies a mandatory assessment to fund compliance activities, which the agriculture commissioners in each county oversee. However, commissioners are unable to cross county lines, meaning some vendors aren’t inspected.
Chicago’s Green City Market requires that all of its vendors hold certification from one of eight national certifying bodies, which ensures outside scrutiny.
Fulton Street Farmers’ Market in Grand Rapids, Michigan, has its own certification program that requires vendors to detail farm activities and receive an inspector but the program lacks enforcement.
Credible third-party scrutiny and enforcement is important, Donovan said, because there’s also a question of how reliable farmers are as witnesses to their own practices.
“Just because someone’s a farmer doesn’t mean they know everything about agriculture,” she says.
Nor does a site visit provide convincing proof that they’re actually growing what they bring to market.
“Evidence of production is never actually proof of production,” she said.
This is why trust is so important to the relationships at the heart of farmers’ markets – both those between market organizers and market vendors, as well as the vendors and their customers.
“We’re built on trust; that’s our mortar,” Donovan says.
This is where having clear, written rules about what’s allowed and what isn’t are necessary, as well as an ability to enforce the standards you want vendors to maintain. Keeping clear, consistent records of what comes into a market and what’s sold can also help ensure that everyone knows what the market is handling, what’s in season from year to year, and what might be unseasonable.
“You cannot do an audit if it’s not written down,” she said. “Only have rules that can be enforced.”
Donovan says enforcement must respect all vendors, including the alleged transgressor.
“Word of mouth works in a lot of different ways, so be respectful,” she says.
The emotional toll can be high for everyone so any investigation should give vendors the benefit of the doubt and also focus on the future. What’s past is past, but the market should focus on moving forward together as one.
“You want to speak as one and be constructive as possible,” she said. “The long game is trust and integrity.”
Vol. 104 Issue 6
STORIES IN THIS EDITION
Hog farm won’t face charges
Okanagan drives land values
Where’s the beef?
Minister defends Bill 15 changes
Back Forty: Farmers, not just farmland, need revitalization
Editorial: No peace, no order
ALR restrictions make commuting a fact of life
Johnston’s Packers targeted by activists
Sidebar: When is a crime not a crime?
Berry growers get long-awaited funding boost
Proteobiotics reduce poultry, swine infections
Greenhouse growth stymied by gas prices
Increase farm productivity with cover crops
Ag Briefs: Water fees not evenly distributed among users
Ag Briefs: BC Tree Fruits prepares to relocate
Farmland trust explored for Island
New owner, same faces
Fruit growers cautiously optimistic on bloom set
Honeycrisp key to success for Golden Apple winners
Changes to slaughter rules taking too long
Going! Going! Gone
Local meat deamnd creating opportunities
Sidebar: Compost in 14 days
Ranch takes pasture to plate at face value
Market Musings: Technology has its challenges
Oliver veggie grower prefers wholesale
Grocer offers tips to get a foot in the door
Greenhouse veggie days a hit with school
Haskap research may help berry go mainstream
Research: Bee sensitivity linked to neonic pesticides
Fraser Valley orchardist calling it a day
Worming his way to the top of the heap
Mushrooms a viable crop for small growers
Island 4-H beef show celebrates 25 years
Woodshed: Deborah starts her vacation a golf widow
Brewery’s food program spawns farm project
Jude’s Kitchen: Celebrate dads!