The largest operator of Southern California farmers markets has protected a vendor who buys produce wholesale and misrepresents it as his own, alleged one of the company's managers, who made the claim at a listening session held by the California Department of Food and Agriculture last week in Santa Monica. The operator has denied the allegation, but the repercussions seem likely to reverberate in the farmers market world.
This article replaces an earlier online version of the story with the version published in the Nov. 11 Food section.
The bombshell came near the end of the session, from Shannon Reid, a market manager for Raw Inspiration, a nonprofit organization that runs 18 markets in Southern California in conjunction with a company called California Certified Farmers' Markets. She told the regulators that she had caught a vendor repackaging produce from Mexico for sale at one of her markets but had been discouraged by her organization from reporting such violations to authorities. She said that her employer later retaliated against her after she did so anyway.
Many venues call themselves farmers markets, but California's 719 certified farmers markets are part of a program established by the state in 1977 to allow farmers to sell directly to consumers. The agricultural commissioner of each county certifies growers and markets. Sponsors of farmers markets include municipalities, nonprofit organizations and certified farmers.
Each producer's certifiable items, listed on a certificate after an annual inspection, can include fruits, vegetables, nuts, honey, eggs, flowers and plants. Producers, along with their family and employees, are allowed to sell items from their own certificate, and -- in markets that allow the practice -- for up to two other growers (known as "second certificates").
Many markets also have nonagricultural sections, for items including crafts and prepared foods, which are supposed to be in a separate, clearly marked area. Reid started working at Raw Inspiration about a year ago, she said at the meeting, and until recently helped manage three farmers markets, at downtown's 7th and Figueroa, and Pershing Square, and Gigi's at the Americana in Glendale.
In April, Reid said, she caught Kirby Wyllie, an employee of the farm called Rancho Las Gordonises, repackaging Mexican cherry tomatoes at the Glendale market and documented this in photographs. She said at the meeting that Wyllie admitted to her that he was cheating and removed the offending items.
This was not the only time Wyllie or Rancho Las Gordonises, which sells at dozens of markets around Southern California, had been accused of deception, according to government records. In 2007, Tulare County sanctioned Wyllie for falsifying documents, suspending him from participating at farmers markets statewide for 17 months. Mary Lou Weiss, manager of the Torrance farmers market, said that she also had expelled him for reselling tomatoes.
When reached by phone, Wyllie said that the Tulare County sanctions were fair and that he didn't remember the Torrance expulsion, though he didn't dispute that it happened.
In 2009, Rancho Las Gordonises (then owned by Santiago Soto Ramirez of Fallbrook, according to the farm's certified producer's certificate) was fined $600 by San Diego County for selling sapotes that were grown by someone else. And on Oct. 9, as a result of a complaint made at the Big Bear farmers market, Rancho Las Gordonises was suspended for 18 months by San Bernardino County and fined $2,000 for reselling pears and cherries.
Complicating matters, Diane Young Cook, a vendor who had a financial interest in Rancho Las Gordonises was on the board of Raw Inspiration at the time Reid reported Wyllie.
State regulations charge farmers market managers with enforcing the rules. But Reid reported Wyllie's alleged violation to a Los Angeles County agricultural inspector, she told regulators, and she said the officer tried to be helpful but asked whether she was trying to get fired from her job by making the report.
Los Angeles County Agricultural Commissioner Kurt Floren, said, "We are very strict about maintaining confidentiality of any complaints that we receive. In fact, our managers do not supply our inspectors in the field with information regarding the complainant, only the facts of the allegation itself."
Since she reported the matter to an agricultural inspector, Reid said, her duties and pay have been cut, and she has been told that she will soon be transferred to another market.
When she started working at the markets, Reid told the group, "I thought I was going to be dealing with peace, love and hippies." Only later did she realize, she said, that the farmers market environment could be "like I'm dealing with Teamsters."
In a later phone conversation, Reid acknowledged that no one from Raw Inspiration had actually threatened her but said she still felt intimidated.
Raw Inspiration board President John Edwards denied that his organization had protected cheaters or retaliated against Reid. He said that he had not heard Reid's allegations that Wyllie was cheating; he thought the case concerned former board member Cook.
Because Cook was connected to Raw Inspiration, he said, this was a "very delicate" case.
Edwards strongly denied that he or Raw Inspiration had ever retaliated against Reid. One of the markets where she worked, Pershing Square, was always scheduled to close over the winter, he said, and before he knew of any issues with Reid, he had decided to bring in someone whom he considered a better manager to replace Reid at the Americana market in Glendale.
Edwards said that Raw Inspiration took the initiative to supply cameras to its market managers "because we wanted proof of anybody not doing the right thing." Raw Inspiration is investigating several vendors suspected of cheating, he said.
"We are trying to be better, and we are," he said. "We want to make sure that we're not cheating customers."
On Wednesday of last week, Wyllie was still selling at Raw Inspiration's Pershing Square market for Lim's Apple Farm of Tehachapi, Calif., another farm that was represented at some markets by former board member Cook. This farm was closely linked to Rancho Las Gordonises (until that farm's suspension) in a "second certificate" relationship, in which both were allowed to sell for each other at farmers markets. According to current CDFA regulations, Wyllie is allowed to work for Lim's because, though some of the farms he works with have been sanctioned, he is not currently personally suspended from participating at markets.
"I don't agree with that, but apparently it's the law," Edwards said.
"What I don't understand fully is they have all these relationships that are difficult to untangle," Edwards said. Meanwhile, he added, "we have taken the decision that Lim's has to go from our markets."
After this story appeared online, Raw Inspiration stated on its website that Wyllie had now been permanently barred from its markets. Wyllie said this was news to him: "That's funny, I was talking to John Edwards today. He didn't tell me that at all."