As the summer growing season nears its peak, farmers’ markets in Connecticut are more popular than ever. Each week, you’ll find at least 130 dotting the landscape. But some folks say not all of the produce is what it’s supposed to be.
“Free range veal; beef and chevon; eggs and nettles; tomato, steaks, and compost”
Matt Staebner’s chant from his stall at the New Haven farmers’ market is practically poetic as it lists the many items from the family’s fourth generation Blue Slope farm in Franklin.
“Anything else today?"
“No, that would be it.”
“1.9 lbs. 11 dollars even, please.”
Staebner is thrilled that interest in local food in Connecticut packs this market every week. But he worries that with so many markets around the state, competitive pressure is pushing some farmers to buy cheap out-of-state produce to re-sell – a practice commonly referred to as jobbing.
“I’m all for competition, but if the farmers are doing the work and putting their skin in the game, then I’m in favor of everybody bringing what they grow to the farmers’ markets & selling it, but I am not in favor of half the farmers growing the products and the other half purchasing them from a neighbor, or at the regional market, and then selling them as their own and undercutting everybody.”
Allegations of jobbing have been out there for years. It’s tough to prove says Rick Macsuga of the state Agriculture Department. He oversees most of the farmers’ markets in the state.
“The general feeling is that 99.9% of the farmers are doing the right thing here.”
But on a display table, New Jersey tomatoes pretty much look like ones from New Milford.
“How hard is it to catch stuff like that?”
“Near impossible. The difficulty of our job is that product loses its identity when it gets to the market.”
So consumers need to know the rules. First is that at the vast majority of farmers’ markets in the state it’s perfectly legal for growers to purchase produce and re-sell it. But the purchased produce must be grown in-state, and most of what that grower sells must be his or her own.
These rules only apply to state certified farmers’ markets. The few markets that are not can pretty much do whatever they want, as long as they don’t misrepresent products. But since markets don’t have to post their certifications, patrons may not always know which is which.
To avoid confusion and minimize fraud, some markets have declared themselves producer-only. That means no purchased anything.
The Litchfield Hills Farm Fresh Market is one. Even so, organizer Kay Carroll says she had to throw out a vendor who misrepresented how a product was being bottled.
“I believe there’s an assumption on the consumer’s part that if a farm is selling produce it’s something I think the consumer assumes that farm has produced that produce.”
The Coventry Regional Farmers’ Market – also producer-only - regularly inspects participating farms to make sure they’re growing what they say they are.
But market master Winter Caplanson had to throw out a grower who tried to pass off a field of cow corn as the sweet corn he was bringing to the market. “It’s really, really tough to police everything. Right now farmers’ markets have a tremendous amount of public trust and we have to make sure that the standards that we profess are the standards that we uphold”
Rich Macsuga says the State Department of Agriculturedoes follow up on complaints and farmers face stiff fines – $2,500 per commodity – if they’re guilty of jobbing.
“To totally game the system, by close to 100% jobbing, if you were in a certified farmers’ market would be difficult to do. On the other hand, to do a certain level of jobbing to boost your income to do other stuff, it would be almost undetectable”
“Absolutely. It would be. Is it a perfect system? No. Do we have the right procedures in place? Absolutely, yes”.
For WNPR, I’m Jan Ellen Spiegel.