Market Watch: Farmers market committee OKs plan to fight vendor cheating

It is not very often that meetings of the Certified Farmers Market Advisory Committee are the stuff of high drama. But such was the case Thursday at a meeting in Sacramento at which the committee voted to recommend a substantial increase in fees paid by market vendors, in order to fund a more effective market enforcement program.

The vote is the latest step in a process started last November in the wake of news reports of rampant cheating at Southern California certified farmers markets. In response, a special Technical Planning Committee was created to craft a proposal that would address those issues.

The special committee's report, presented to the market advisory committee Thursday, proposes increasing the fee paid by certified farmers market produce vendors at each market they attend, from 60 cents to up to $4 per market day. At the high end, that would raise about $1.5 million annually for market enforcement. For a vendor who sells $400 worth of produce at a market, the $4 charge would amount to 1% of sales.

From here it goes to the state Legislature, which has until late summer to vote on a plan. The fee increase, if approved, would take effect Jan. 1, 2012.

Photos: Take a look at what's arriving fresh at farmers markets this week.

The proposal almost died on the discussion table. Seven of the 15 members of the full advisory committee, composed of farmers market growers, managers and other stakeholders, voted to put aside the report for further discussion. That would have effectively killed any chance of enhanced enforcement until at least 2013, because of the legislative schedule.

The tension was great as participants expressed their opinions with passion and intensity in a discussion that lasted about two hours. It was the new advisory committee chairman, Fred Ellrott, a greens grower from Moorpark, who cast the decisive vote against tabling the proposal. The advisory committee then accepted the report by a vote of 11-3.

"My heart was pounding," said Amelia Saltsman of Santa Monica, a public member on the advisory committee who voted in favor of accepting the report.

News reports last fall highlighted instances of cheating at farmers markets, including vendors selling produce as organic that wasn't, and even selling fruits and vegetables straight from the wholesale market instead of from their fields.

The money from the program would be used to fund three full-time special investigators, one each for Northern, Central and Southern California, as well as associated staff. It would also go to help county agricultural commissioners' offices pay for additional investigations of suspected cheating. And some of it would go to overhead for the California Department of Food and Agriculture, which oversees the more than 700 markets in the state's certified farmers market program.

"I'm fine with $4," said Annika Knoppel, who raises chickens in Aguanga, in Riverside County, and voted in favor of accepting the report. "It's part of the price of doing business. Some farmers will cheat if given the opportunity, and we need to find funding for inspections."

Several of those voting to table the report thought that the proposed increase in fees was excessive.

"Farmers are going to riot at $4," said Jacquelyne Byers, a poultry farmer in Finley, in Lake County, who voted to table the report. "It's hard on the honest farmers — more money taken out of their pockets."

Asked after the meeting what fee she would be willing to accept, she said, "I think I could go for $2."

Dale Whitney, a veteran market manager in the Long Beach area who had voted to table the report, said that he was taken aback by the salaries that would be paid to the three main investigators, $70,788 each, plus benefits, for a total cost of just over $100,000 annually.

Whitney acknowledged the need to address the recent crisis in confidence in farmers markets' integrity by increased enforcement, but said, like Byers, he was more comfortable with a $2 fee. He suggested that the inspections could be performed more cheaply by private inspectors such as organic certifiers.

Several growers and managers expressed concern that the increased fees would be collected without resulting in an effective enforcement program. Most of the current 60 cents goes to fund the advisory committee's meetings, and bureaucratic supervision of the state's program; very little is left over for enforcement. If something like the proposed plan goes through, there would be, for the first time, sufficient resources to conduct and coordinate many substantial investigations of suspected cheaters.

From here, the report may be attached to Senate Bill 513, sponsored by state Sen. Anthony Cannella (R-Ceres), which extends the state farmers market program. The bill, if it proceeds through the legislative process, would come to a vote by late summer, and increased fees would be collected starting in January.

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