Friday, September 24, 2010

Uncover Video Exposes False Claims at Farmers' Markets

I started Heirloom Gardens because I believe that our current food system is unsustainable and we need to develop new ways of producing food for ourselves and others in our community. There are many people who give their valuable time to Heirloom Gardens because they also share that vision. We have NSA and market customers who support Heirloom Gardens with their money because they prefer to consume sustainably produced, organic local food when they can.

The explosion of CSAs and farmers' markets across this country is evidence that, more and more, people are beginning to care about where and how their food is grown. The people that support these endeavors are choosing to pay (usually) a higher price for what they consume, because it is food produced outside our industrial system.

But what if it's not?

I've written before (here and here) about some of our Denver farmers' markets allowing out-of-state produce to be grown without labeling it as such. But there's another, more insidious problem with many farmers' markets. Even if customers take the time to ask about whether the farmer did, in fact, grow the food... there's not really anything to stop the farmer from lying. Unfortunately, this is a practice I have seen happen here in Denver.

A television station in Los Angeles did an "undercover" investigation and caught farmers lying about growing produce, when in fact they were buying it from wholesale produce distributors (who source their produce from Mexico and other places). Click here to read the article and watch the video.

So, what is a farmers' market shopper to do? Here are a few ideas:

- Familiarize yourself with what is in season in your area. If you live in Colorado, check out this crop calendar from the Colorado Dept of Agriculture. If you're seeing "summery" crops like tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, melons, corn, etc on a market table before mid-July, there's a pretty good chance the vendor didn't grow it themselves. Some farms do have extensive greenhouses where these crops are grown year-round, but that is the exception and not the rule.

- Look for stickers! Some market vendors forget to remove the produce stickers from the items they sell. Even if there aren't any stickered food on the market table itself, take a peek behind and under the table. You may find a box of produce with the stickers still attached. Ditto for anything with a barcode.

- Ask a lot of questions. If the vendor says the produce is organic, ask what they use for fertilizer and how they keep bugs off their crops. Asked when the crop was harvested, and when it was planted.

- Ask to visit the farm. If the farmer doesn't seem to like that idea, it's a clue that things are not what they seem.

- Beware of a constant supply of everything -- all food, all the time. Real farmers experience ups and down.

- Talk to the farmers' market manager, and ask that he/she do annual farm visits to ensure that the produce sold at the market was actually grown at the farms. Better yet, join the board of your local market, and do the farm visits yourself!

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