August 27, 2014

Complications at the Farmers Market, Los Angeles

What are friends for, if not to show you a favorite farmers' market near them?  That's how I found myself at the Studio City Farmers Market with my friend Earl. I was pleased to note that many of the vendors were selling certified organic produce. The market was divided into two sections - California farmers who were certified and those who were not certified. This was baffling, since there were organic farmers in both sections. It turns out that being California Certified has nothing to do with being organic.  Rather California Certified means that the produce was grown in California by the farmer selling it. Do they do this to cause confusion?

We had a brief, but provocative, discussion with a third or fourth generation fruit grower, whose family was selling some delicious stone fruit. He had grown up working on the family farm. His parents had transitioned from conventional to organic practices when he was young. The change resulted in a 20% drop in yields. He did not see this as particularly problematic to the financial security of their farm. But he did see it as an issue for feeding the world's ballooning population. Before we could delve further into the issue, he told us about his winter job. For a chunk of the year, he works on the family farm. But for a portion of the year, he sources Chilean fruit for the North American market. In the winter, folks in the United States still want to eat summer fruit, so it is imported from Chile. He is suspicious about people's loyalty to the local food movement, since most people are unwilling to eat seasonally, if there are other options. I see his point. Although they do exist, I don't know any northerners who keep a root cellar stocked with carrots, beets, and cabbage to eat all winter. If blueberries and grapes show up in the grocery store in January, folks are likely to snatch them up, even if they travelled all the way from Chile. This young farmer had to take his leave, before we could dive into the details.

I asked most of the organic vendors where their farms were located. Where is Wasco? Where is Lompoc? I discovered that most were about two hours away. Some were in the San Diego area, a couple of hours south. Some were in the Central Valley, a couple of hours north. Others were a couple of hours up the coast. There may have been a few that were closer, but I didn't spot any trendy farmers raising produce in a basement. I didn't come across any vertical, rooftop, hydroponic farmers, either. The urban farmers of Los Angeles did not make a big showing in Studio City. I did find some mighty tasty hybrid fruits - pluots, plumcots, apriums, and more. I wouldn't expect to find them growing in an orchard nearby, given how expensive land is here. With some of the most fertile productive land in the world only a couple of hours away in the Central Valley, I suppose urban farmers would have trouble competing on the basis of price or quality.

Farmers from such a distance make a substantial commitment, when they decide to sell produce at the Studio City Farmers Market. They might be loading their trucks at 3am, on the road by 4am, setting up at 6am, and selling to the public at 8am. Yikes! Small organic farmers staff a booth here, because that's where the consumers are. These may be consumers who are willing to pay a bit of a premium for sustainably grown, super-fresh produce. And so, they make the long schlep to the farmers' market.

The USDA reports that the number of farmers' markets in the U.S. has more than quadrupled since the mid-nineties. But for farmers' markets to continue to prosper, it is crucial that consumers have confidence that vendors really grow what they sell. Organic farmers must have faith that conventional farmers and importers aren't underselling them by falsely claiming organic credentials. Back in 2010, NBC launched an investigation in the Los Angeles area that uncovered some farmers who were indeed telling flat-out lies. They followed one farmer's trucks on farmers' market days. Rather than loading up at the farm, they loaded up at big wholesale produce warehouses in downtown Los Angeles. Some of the produce had been imported from Mexico. They tested strawberries from another farmer who claimed to be growing them without pesticides. The tests revealed four pesticides on three of five samples that the lab said could not be explained by drift from a neighboring farm. Since this investigation, the state has dramatically increased enforcement activities regarding California Certification. In 2013, 19 vendors were fined and/or suspended for selling produce in Los Angeles County that was not grown on their farm. Now, the state needs to step up its enforcement of the organic certification program as well.

With so many farmers' markets to choose from in the Los Angeles area, there is one that has attracted more than its share of attention - the medical marijuana farmer's market. I was not able to visit. It opened in a Boyle Heights warehouse in July, and was ordered to temporarily shut down shortly thereafter. Soon, a hearing will decide its fate. Vendors sold marijuana lollipops, marijuana chocolate bars, and plain old smokable marijuana. You had to have a doctor's prescription to get in. And the reason I even mention it here is that the marijuana was organically grown.

I went down to the farmers' market to pick up some milk and eggs, but I got distracted along the way.