Food

Farmers Markets: State bill would bring big changes

A bill recently introduced in the California Assembly, AB 996, would substantially change the operations and governance of the state's certified farmers markets, strengthening some enforcement provisions and weakening others. The bill would renew authorization for the state's role in the program, including penalties for cheaters, which are now scheduled to expire at the end of 2013. Its provisions, which will likely be modified in coming months, currently include:

• Raising the fee paid by market operators to fund the state program presently 60 cents per market day for each certified produce vendor. AB 996 would raise it to $1 in counties with 15 or fewer farmers markets; $1.50 for counties with 16 to 39 markets; and $2 in counties with 40 or more markets (currently Los Angeles, San Diego, and Santa Clara). The rationale for the tiered rate is that large urban counties require more enforcement, but it makes Los Angeles market vendors pay twice as much as those in Riverside or Ventura, which have similar issues.

• Limiting inspections by county agricultural inspectors for certified producers certificates, which list each farmer's crops, quantities and growing locations. Currently, on-site inspections are required annually, at minimum; AB 996 would reduce inspections to when a farmer first applies, and afterward only "as needed," if planting are significantly changed or if the farmer is caught violating agricultural regulations. County agricultural commissioners and many industry stakeholders support this move, which would focus resources; it would also, however, undercut a key enforcement tool.

• Allowing consignment sales at farmers markets. Currently a similar regulatory device, the second certificate, allows a farmer to sell produce at farmers markets for no more than two other growers. Dan Best, a veteran Sacramento manager who drafted AB 996, says a consignment sales provision is needed because currently second certificate sales are on an insecure legal foundation. However, the bill would not specify a limit of two consignors to one farmer. The limit could be written into future regulation, but opening the window to unlimited consignment sales could radically alter farmers markets. Another provision in the bill allowing direct marketing producer associations, which could compete with certified farmers markets, is also likely to be controversial.

• Prohibiting sales of fresh produce in non-certified sections adjacent to certified farmers markets. However, resellers of tropical produce, dried fruits and nuts, and processed agricultural products such as olive oil would still be allowed.

• Increasing penalties for cheaters from $1,000 to a maximum of $5,000; violators also could be jailed for up to six months. Most market stakeholders agree that current sanctions are too light.

• Requiring produce vendors to post signs saying "We Grow What We Sell." The idea is to make clear to shoppers which stands are in the grower-only section, and make fraud more egregious when it occurs. Some customers might benefit from the clarity, but some farmers and managers say the requirement is superfluous.

• Forbidding farmers or produce dealers to sell knowingly to illicit farmers market resellers. Currently it is a regulatory violation for farmers to resell produce at farmers markets, but not for the sellers who make it available to them. Integrity-minded managers applaud this provision.

• Allowing county agricultural commissioners to charge certified producers to recoup their costs for inspections. Currently state law lets the county boards of supervisors set these fees, and some choose no or low fees that starve inspections. Giving agricultural commissioners the authority to set fees would help to make available the resources needed for inspections.

• Allowing market managers to hire county agricultural inspectors to investigate a farm, if the county lacks its own money to do so. This could provide a path for investigations to proceed despite a lack of resources, a common obstacle; but paying for service might become increasingly common, and would place smaller and less affluent markets at a disadvantage in maintaining integrity.

• Forming a Direct Marketing Advisory Committee to advise the CDFA on issues including community-supported agriculture, farm stands, food banks and school gardens. As written, the bill could allow the current Certified Farmers Market Advisory Committee to end after 2014; its work would presumably be incorporated into the Direct Marketing Advisory Committee. Some managers and growers are concerned that the interests of the farmers market industry, which is large and complex, would be neglected if its advisory body were subsumed in a broader committee.

Best, a lawyer who manages 11 farmers markets in Sacramento County, wrote much of AB 996, with input from John Silveira, director of the Pacific Coast Farmers Markets' Assn. (which runs 68 markets in the San Francisco Bay Area), the California Farm Bureau and others. Many of the bill's provisions originated in discussions of the Direct Marketing Ad Hoc Committee in 2011 and 2012.

State Assemblyman Roger Dickinson (D-Sacramento) introduced the bill Feb. 22. It may come up for consideration as soon as mid-April, said Taryn Kinney, a spokeswoman for his office.

A group of Southern California market managers is proposing revisions of the bill to Dickinson's staff. Among their concerns, they are suggesting a flat $2 stall fee rather than a tiered rate; proposing that non-agricultural vendors such as prepared foods and crafts also pay this fee; seeking to exclude all sales of fresh produce in non-certified sections; and opposing unrestricted consignment sales and direct marketing associations.

"Those were scary," said Cynthia Ojeda, manager of the La Cienega farmers market, speaking of the consignment sales and direct marketing associations, at a meeting that the group held last Monday in Santa Monica to plan strategy.

"This bill represents progress on many fronts toward the long-sought goal of effective farmers market enforcement," said another member of the group, Greta Dunlap, manager of the Beverly Hills farmers market. "But it also contains what we feel are serious missteps that will force us to oppose the bill unless it is amended. I've had numerous conversations with Dan Best, and hopefully we can reach a consensus on some of these issues soon."

Another bill introduced Feb. 22, SB 599, would continue the current farmers market program without change for four years. If AB 996 does not pass, this may be a default option, but CDFA farmers market program leaders and county agricultural commissioners have made clear that the status quo is not viable.

The public can support, oppose, or comment on the bills, and track their progress, on the California Legislature's website.

food@latimes.com

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