New Legislation to Stamp out Fraud in California Farmers Markets

What local farmers think about the new law

Last week Governor Jerry Brown signed the most significant farmers’ market legislation of the decade. Assembly Bill 1871 will effectively provide funding for farmers market enforcement by increasing the fee that farmers pay to the state of California from 60 cents to $2 per market. It also requires non-certified vendors who sell everything from popcorn to flowers to pay the fee as well. (Until this bill was passed, these vendors were exempt.) It may not sound like much, but when the fee hike takes place in January of 2015, it could mean an additional $1 million in revenue annually to fund the enforcement of farmers market regulation. An increase in state fees was first proposed ten years ago, but it wasn’t until a 2010 NBC undercover investigation exposed egregious vendor fraud that the idea gained steam in the state legislature.

At Wednesday’s Santa Monica Farmer Market, market manager Laura Avery was relieved that the bill had passed. “What makes a certified farmers market certified is you can be guaranteed that the people who are there selling are actually growing what they sell,” she explained. As a market manager who has witnessed fraud, Avery has been frustrated with the state’s inability to enforce regulation. “If there was an infraction we’d call Fresno or Tulare and (until now) those ag commissioners weren’t funded or they don’t have the personnel. This way they can go out and they can send inspectors and expect to be reimbursed.”

In addition to funding enforcement, the law requires farmers to post signage at the market stating the farm’s name and location. According to David Karp’s story in the LA Times, the signs must also read “We grow what we sell.”

In addition, ancillary vendors are no longer able to sell imported whole fruits and vegetables or flowers adjacent to the certified farmers. David Karp tells me this is a boon for California flower growers. “A good portion of the flowers that are sold in California are imported from abroad,” he explained, “and they have been gradually putting the California flower industry out of business.”

Overall, the passage of AB 1871 was a cause for celebration amongst small farmers and farmers’ market advocates who would like to see stricter enforcement, more transparency and an end to farmers market fraud.

What Are People Saying about AB 1871?

Barbara Spencer, Windrose Farm:
“For us, it was really necessary to raise the fee to a point where it could actually do something to support the system and provide some enforcement. The 60 cent fee that existed before was not enough to do anything to maintain the integrity of the system, which is what this is all about – the integrity of farmers markets.”

Phil McGrath, McGrath Family Farms:
“To me, $2 is still not enough money but I am so excited that it finally passed. There are a lot of blatant cheaters and there is a lot of gray area…It’s the wild west out there and it’s really hard for our ag commissioners to know what’s going on. This bill gives the ag commissioners more money in their bank to do more inspections and enforcement, and this is big news. There were a lot of farmers against this but the real farmers are going to say ‘Yahoo! It’s about time.”

David Karp, “Fruit Detective” and Farmers’ Market Journalist:
“It was clear that there was a crying need for this bill…It’s been more than a decade since some kind of increase in the fee in order to fund effective enforcement was first proposed…but the devil’s in the details whether it buys effective enforcement.”

Laura Avery, Santa Monica Farmers’ Market Manager:
“We’re really happy about the exclusion of the agricultural products outside the market because there are operators who will bring in imported fruit and South American fruit – pineapples that don’t grow in CA – but selling an agricultural product not grown by a farmer immediately adjacent to a farmers’ market was just wrong and finally we have legislation to prohibit that.”