A Year of Idaho Food collaboration between Boise State Public Radio and the Boise Weekly
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Farmers markets are multiplying across the country faster than zucchinis in summer. That’s in large part because they promise consumers a personal connection to their food–a connection that chain supermarkets and faceless distribution systems can only feign to match.
That one-on-one contact with farmers–and the assumption that said meat and produce were raised sustainably, humanely and locally–is why loyal fans of farmers markets are often happy to pay a premium for those products.
But that premium price is also a magnet for fraud.
An investigation carried out by an NBC affiliate in Los Angeles last summer caught several so-called farmers actually buying produce from as far away as Mexico, then reselling it at L.A. area farmers markets as farm fresh and locally grown. Markets in New York and other cities have uncovered similar scams. In Boise, such problems appear to be less egregious, but they still have occurred.
Capital City Public Market managers noticed one vendor selling peaches with branded produce stickers still absentmindedly attached to his “locally grown” fruit. Another was busted when the vendor’s children veered off script, announcing proudly to passersby that the family had harvested some of their bounty at Costco.
In the past, the nearly 17-year-old Capital City Public Market has dealt with such incidents on an individual, informal basis. Lisa Duplessie, assistant director of the market, says in the seven years she’s been involved in the market, only three vendors–including the two mentioned above–have been asked to leave. That’s a low percentage considering that Boise’s market is Idaho’s largest, with around 50 vendors participating on any given Saturday during the season.
Still, Karen Ellis, the market’s executive director, says she wants to nip abuses in the bud.
“We have had a good reputation,” Ellis says of the farmers market advertised as selling 100 percent producer-grown produce. “And I don’t want to be made a liar. I don’t want the market to be made a liar, and I hope the individual businesses don’t want to be made into liars.” She paused, her voice quivering. “So the integrity thing is big for me.”
Without that integrity, Ellis said, farmers markets and the local-food movement could be co-opted into irrelevance. (In another type of co-optation, The Wall Street Journal reported a few months ago that Albertsons and Safeway chains in the Northwest had been posting farmers market banners over outdoor displays of produce, in essence declaring their open-air stands de facto farmers markets.)
That’s why Ellis and market board president and farmer Josie Erskine gathered a dozen local food leaders together on Jan. 11 to talk over the threats and solutions.
Erskine said at the private meeting that she didn’t want to look back in a few years and have to ask herself “Why didn’t anybody step up to the plate, create some standards, some certification? How did we all just sit back, ride the wave and just watch it wash away?”
It became clear as the group talked that the issue of integrity–of vendors growing what they sell–reached beyond farmers markets to the menus of restaurants that also tout local food. Dave Krick, owner of Red Feather Lounge and Bittercreek Ale House in Boise, chimed in.
“When we highlight on our menu things that are local, it would be better if that came with some kind of vetting,” he said. Frequently, he added, a restaurateur doesn’t have the time to do much more than take the word of the farmer delivering produce to the back door.
But trust only goes so far. In order to protect the integrity of farmers markets, restaurants serving local food, and the larger local-food movement, this informal working group decided it was time to move from the unstructured policing policy to a system with sharper, more precisely honed teeth: an actual local food verification and certification program.
To that end, the group asked Annie Berical, who does exactly that kind of work for the Organic Crop Improvement Association International, to join them. According to its website, the OCIA is one of the oldest and largest organizations in the world working on organic certification. As an independent contractor, Berical said she could apply to the Treasure Valley’s local-food movement the same verification techniques she’s successfully used to certify date orchards in the Mojave, Amish farmsteads in Iowa and food processing operations in Texas.
“One idea that I have is spending time in the farmers market and going around and looking at people’s booths and seeing what they’ve got for sale, and then going out to their farm and saying ‘show me where you grew those lovely radishes that I saw in your booth,'” Berical said.
She would also explore farmers’ records for anomalies.
“They would have to show where they purchased their seed, how much seed they purchased and how much they planted,” Berical said.
The idea would be to prove that the quantity of produce the farmer sold made statistical sense. It would also be possible to eventually expand the program to include verification of “no-spray,” “cage-free” and other common claims.
To the uninitiated, this may sound all big-brotherish and bureaucratic, but Berical was confident she could make the program far less cumbersome than the certification process that organic growers already have to follow. All but one of the farmers in the meeting (he worried about the legal implications of self-policing) embraced the extra work as a way to distinguish ethical players from the occasional bad agricultural apple as well as protect the integrity of the local-food movement as a whole.
Krick said he also saw the process as a business opportunity.
“I think an effort like this is going to be more successful if it’s less about what’s wrong and more about the promotion of what’s right; creating a brand around those things that we think are right would have a lot of value.”
Krick suggested a kind of Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval for the local-food movement, where businesses that opt into and pass a certification process could then display a logo that formally guarantees the food they sell or serve meets agreed-upon, verifiable standards.
Ellis nodded with enthusiastic approval.
“Everybody is on the local movement,” she said. “Everybody is on the green movement. Everybody is on the sustainable movement. We have to put some teeth behind it. We have to really do what we say we’re doing, or we’re useless.”
Guy Hand is a writer, public radio producer and photographer specializing in food and agriculture.