Farmers Markets: With respected leader back in L.A. County, attention turns to inspections on shoestring budget
For many years, when managers grew frustrated about lax enforcement at Los Angeles farmers markets, they would cry, “If only Ed Williams were here!”
Williams, who worked for the Los Angeles County Agricultural Commissioner’s office from 1987 to 1990, “could walk through a market and spot the cheaters in an instant,” said Laura Avery, supervisor of the Santa Monica farmers markets.
He did such a great job that he got a promotion to the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) in Sacramento, where until recently he served as the department’s liaison with county agricultural commissioners.
As peddlers proliferated at farmers markets, Southland managers begged for his return but were told, basically, Ed Williams is not coming back. Get over it.
Many jaws dropped, therefore, when Williams showed up Monday in South Gate at the market managers meeting held by the Los Angeles County ag commissioner and announced that he had been appointed in November as deputy director of the commissioner’s office, which supervises farmers markets.
In a talk about enforcement needs, he showed photos from a recent farmers market inspection, which showed suspiciously uniform potatoes, almost certainly grown in Idaho, sold by a vendor from Fresno, and flagrant kiwi culls. Given a specimen of dried apricots recently sold by a certified farmer at the Hollywood and Calabasas markets, he immediately identified them as grown in Turkey.
The problem is that many of the front-line inspectors in an urban county such as Los Angeles lack that detailed knowledge. To help develop their expertise, the CDFA has drawn up a manual of crops, growing areas and seasons, and Williams said that he will assist in training the Los Angeles County department’s inspectors.
In another talk at the meeting, Steve Patton, head of the state farmers market program, said that one possible enforcement strategy to make best use of limited resources would be to focus on problem counties and farmers, such as vendors with limited acreage who sell at many markets.
However, noted Williams, even a routine inspection is expensive, $112 to $1,280 yearly per vendor, and it costs much more if a serious violation such as cheating, meriting a fine or expulsion, needs to be proved.
“You mostly see us at the market, but we have to spend five times as much time to back up that inspection,” said Williams.
Accused vendors have the right to due process, which can involve appeals up to the U.S. appellate court, and can take a year or more. The maximum penalty counties are allowed to assess farmers market vendors is $1,000, compared with the $11,000 top fine for each infraction of national organic standards.
“If you want enforcement, we’re going to have to recover that money,” Williams said to the managers. “You may be looking at increased fees, although I’m not sure what path that’s going to take.”
Currently counties get money for farmers market activities from fees collected from farmers for renewing their certificates, but these amounts vary greatly among jurisdictions, partly depending on the political climate in each. One proposal raised at recent industry meetings would have the state reimburse counties for enforcement activities.
However, the state farmers market program currently collects just 60 cents from each certified vendor for each market visit; this raised $240,000 last year, just enough to pay for limited supervision but not enough to provide any real enforcement, said Patton, the program’s head. The legislation funding the state farmers market program, including enforcement authorization for counties, expires at the end of this year. So far industry participants from Northern California for whom enforcement is a low priority have dominated discussions concerning legislation to renew the program.
“It’s up to you,” said Patton to the managers. “If you think everything’s fine, leave it alone and wait for the next exposé of cheating on television.”
Meanwhile, managers were hopeful that Williams’ experienced eye would again help catch farmers market cheats.
“We’re thrilled to have him back on the beat,” said Avery.
Tip of the week: Lemonade citrus, a lemon hybrid originally from New Zealand, grown by Mud Creek Ranch of Santa Paula, is now at the Hollywood and Santa Monica Wednesday markets. With acidity lower than regular or Meyer lemons but higher than sweet limes, they’re delicious to eat fresh, with a clean, sprightly taste.
Eat your way across L.A.
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