Where'd those farm market veggies come from?
Get the best of out local farm markets by following a few guidelines. (Maureen Wallenfang/USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin)
It’s a growing problem: some of the vegetables for sale in farm markets may have come from a local grocery store.
Farmers might resort to buying vegetables from outside sources – including Amish wholesale auction houses, other farms and grocery stores – to supplement booths, or at times when their own farms aren’t producing.
In some instances, they’re pushed by the punishing need to fill up a table every week come hell or high water.
Granted, it’s not exactly a scandal. Shoppers might not care because they still like the farm market experience.
And after all, these outdoor markets are selling vegetables and fruit, which are good for you no matter where they come from and how they’re sold.
But if not properly labeled, they're giving a false impression that all of the produce was freshly picked out of local soil. Booths might be charging dearly for something that was trucked in.
It irks farmers who are following the rules, working on slim profit margins and sweating it out when Mother Nature throws them a curve.
“It’s like going to Napa Valley and they’re pouring ‘two buck chuck’ and charging $20 a glass for it,” said Nami Moon Farms co-owner Chris Holman.“We’re like the winemakers. What’s at a farm market should be an artisan product. It should be qualitatively better.”
Another farm, Olden Organics in the town of Rosendale, sells in Appleton, Oshkosh and Green Lake farm markets. Co-owner Tracy Vinz said she’s seen unlabeled outside produce at some booths for years.
“I think it’s gotten worse,” said Vinz. “Weather patterns are changing and it’s easier to buy it and sell it than grow it and sell it. Nobody has that much (to sell right now) because we’ve had such horrible weather.”
She doesn’t quibble with those who bring in things from other farms and are honest about it. She, in fact, will have blueberries from one Michigan farm because that’s something customers want that she can’t grow.
“My concern is that people are not labeling that they don’t grow it. The customer thinks they’re talking to the person who grew the stuff. In actuality, they’re not. They think they're supporting a local farm.”
Vinz is on the board of the Oshkosh Farmers Market, where farmers are allowed to have up 50 percent resale, meaning half of the food at the booth might not be grown on the local farms.
That lenient allowance was put into place so the market could have a wider array of fruit and vegetables.
“The intention is to bring in the Michigan blueberries, the Georgia peaches and things that don’t grow in our market,” Vinz said.
It’s the same thinking in the Downtown Appleton Farm Market, though the percentage is lower, 25 percent.
The Dane County Farm Market in Madison, the strictest of all, markets itself as “the largest producer-only farmers' market in the country,” and assures shoppers on its website, “All items are produced by the members behind the tables. No re-sale allowed.”
Vinz said even with the generous 50 percent rule in Oshkosh, there are violators.
The board is now starting to do farm visits to curb the practice of bringing in too much from outside.
“We’ve caught some vendors just buying it from Woodman’s,” she said. “A woman told us she saw a vendor in Oshkosh buy asparagus at Pick ‘n Save. Then she saw that vendor selling it here at the market. It had rubber bands on it that had a different farm name on them.”
Nami Moon Farm’s Holman was so concerned that he wrote a lengthy blog on his website called “The elephant at the market” addressing the sensitive issue.
“I think that most people don’t realize how pervasive it is and just how often they’re being lied to,” he said. “It’s a transparency issue. If they’re buying something that isn’t what they think it is, it can threaten the farm market’s credibility.”
Holman said it matters to farmers who are farming as a full-time job, not just as a hobby or a side venture.
“These farmers are trying to make farming their livelihood, and selling at the market is a way for them to get their farm into the local scene, meet people and to get direct markets eating their products and, ideally, coming back for more,” he wrote in his blog.
Farm market limits
At Appleton’s market, farmers can supplement.
“It can be Michigan peaches or items that are not grown on their farm so we can have a well-rounded market. You might see other value-added products, like shrimp and alligator,” said Djuanna Hugdahl, farm market director.
She admitted being a city girl who relies on farmers to spot violations and blow the whistle. While she’s had to talk to certain farmers about their practices, she hasn’t resorted to doing a farm inspection for two years.
She also says vendors know the rules, including labeling things brought in from out-of-state.
“If the melons are there, and they’re not from Wisconsin, they have to disclose that. That’s a state requirement. They have to have signage. Otherwise, everything is assumed to be from Wisconsin,” she said.
That means Indiana melons, Michigan blueberries and George peaches should be clearly marked with state of origin.
“They’re supposed to be following the rules,” Hugdahl said. “It’s still an education process. If a customer has a concern, I wish they could come to us as well as talk to the vendor. We’ll look at the booth and see if they meet the requirements.”
How to know
One tip-off of resale is if a booth has out-of-season produce and doesn’t operate a hothouse.
“I was always really, really irked when there was a big stand of broccoli in the winter farm market,” said Bob Wall, co-owner of the Green Gecko Grocer & Deli and a longtime local food advocate.
He stopped shopping farm markets and now works directly with farmers he trusts.
In the case of the winter broccoli, Wall said the farmer claimed it was from a hothouse.
“But I talk to my farmers and they said, ‘no way. It would be $500 a head because of the cost of energy to grow it,'” Wall said. “I’ve heard through the grapevine that they’re peeling stickers off stuff they bought wholesale.”
For consumers, knowing what’s in season is key.
The University of Wisconsin’s Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems has a detailed seasonal fruit and vegetable growing chart at http://www.cias.wisc.edu/foodservtools/2-Get-started/wisconsin-produce-calendar.pdf.
In short, early crops in farm markets include peas, radishes, beets, asparagus, salad greens, scallions, herbs, strawberries, rhubarb and hothouse tomatoes.
“Right now, there shouldn’t be any broccoli or cauliflower. No cruciferous vegetables because they take longer to grow. Certainly no corn. Shouldn’t be any green beans,” said Wall.
Exceptions might exist for storage crops, things grown in greenhouses or hydroponics, which can produce tomatoes and cucumbers outside the normal growing season.
“You’ve got to know your farmer. You’ve got to ask, ‘what are your growing practices? Did you grow those tomatoes?’” said Vinz. “If the farmer says he grows in fields, and he has tomatoes in May, then no.”
Nami Moon Farm’s Holman agrees that getting to know individual farmers is the best practice.
“You’ll have formed relationships that are lasting and based upon a lot more than just a simple transaction on a Saturday morning,” he said. “Good luck getting that at your typical big box stores.”