Fraud happens at Connecticut's farmers' markets -- but not often
Fraud happens at Connecticut's farmers' markets -- but not often
Friday, August 3, 2012
Rick Macsuga has heard the allegations for years. That "jobbing" -- farmers buying produce to sell as their own -- occurs regularly and illegally in the farmers' market system he oversees for the Connecticut Department of Agriculture.
"Does it happen?" he asks semi-rhetorically. "Most likely it does happen."
But not much, he and others agree.
"I think people should feel pretty confident that farmers' markets are abiding by all the rules," Macsuga insisted. "The general feeling is that 99.9 percent of the farmers are doing the right thing here."
Several farmers, however, say otherwise, though most do so anonymously. The truth? Well, it's a bit squishy.
With the state arguably at farmers'-market saturation --at least 130 markets compared with 22 when Macsuga started in 1986 -- some feel there are too many to monitor adequately with diminished resources and an inherently problematic dynamic: how do you distinguish New Jersey tomatoes from New Milford tomatoes in a huge pile?
Having many markets means more competitive pressure for farmers, a situation some think is pushing growers to take liberties in the interest of making a living.
That said, the rules for farmers' markets in the state are less stringent than many might imagine. In fact the vast majority of markets allow farmers to purchase produce and resell it. Up to a point, anyway.
It must be grown in Connecticut, and the "majority" (a vague term, the Department of Agriculture admits) of what a farmer sells at a farmers' market must be grown on his or her farm.
Not good enough, say the few growers willing to go public with their charges of jobbing -- though with scant hard evidence or specifics.
"I'm all for competition -- but if the farmers are doing the work and putting their skin in the game," said Matt Staebner of Blue Slope Farm in Franklin. He raises goats and cows for meat on 385 acres he owns and another 200 acres he leases. "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."
Fred Monahan of Stone Gardens in Shelton has leveled some of the most pointed criticism of farmers he feels are gaming the system, mentioning one who had strawberries, an early crop, in late summer.
Don't spoil the barrel
"He's telling us they're ever-bearing strawberries, so we talked to a couple of strawberry growers in the state and told them the story and they just laughed," Monahan said. "It's not everyone, it's just a few, but you know a few rotten apples spoil the barrel, or however the saying goes."
That is exactly what Macsuga said he tells farmers every year. "'You're one news story away from ruining it for everyone,'" he says.
Macsuga defended the farmers' market system and said he takes all jobbing allegations seriously. He cited examples of investigations he has run that include inspecting fields and production facilities, checking Google Earth photos and sending out people to try to make illegal product buys.
Without naming names, he ticks off cases where farmers were caught misrepresenting products. Fines are $2,500 per commodity though total payments are often negotiated down. Or, as happened in a case in Waterbury last year, a farmer, when confronted, often withdraws from a market before the situation escalates to a monetary penalty.
The rules are this: Most farmers' markets in the state are "certified," which is an outgrowth of the farm certification that began in 1989 to allow farmers to participate in the federal Farmers' Market Nutrition Program. Last year the state Agriculture Department began certifying the markets themselves in addition to individual farms.
Among certified markets, all but a dozen or so are classified as exempt, meaning farmers can sell in-state produce other than their own, though most of the produce still has to be their own. The other markets are self-proclaimed producer-only. That means their organizers have decided that participants may sell only what they've grown or made themselves.
Another handful of markets, including Westport and Cornwall Bridge, has chosen not to certify, in most cases because they are near state borders and want to allow out-of-state producers in. But because certified markets are not required to display their certification, consumers may not be able to tell the difference.
That's particularly troublesome in cases where farmers or jobbers simply park trucks filled with produce and call themselves "farmers' markets." As long as they're not claiming out-of-state produce to be Connecticut grown, they can do whatever they want. Complicating matters, farmstands and farm markets are not subject to certification rules so they can also bring in produce, as long as they don't misrepresent it.
A strained process
Then there are gaps in the certification process. New farms are certified with on-site inspections. But re-certifications, done every three years with all farms on the same cycle, are mostly done without visits, though farmers must submit crop plans so the agriculture department can compare them with what's sold at markets if there's an issue.
Another problem: There are only two inspectors. While that's double what there used to be, it's far short of what's needed to inspect about 300 farms and another 150 food operations participating in markets.
Macsuga admits that with three-year gaps, little time to visit farms and no practical way to distinguish farmer-grown from farmer-purchased produce, once it's on a display table, gaming the system may not be likely, but it's certainly possible and, in his words, "near impossible" to catch.
"The difficulty of our job is that the product loses its identity when it gets to the market," he said. "Is it a perfect system? No. Do we have the right procedures in place? Absolutely yes.
"I absolutely stick up for my farmers, and I give them the benefit of the doubt. But if they're screwing the system, that's where it stops."
The department admits it relies on the markets to police themselves, but even markets with some of the tightest controls admit they've been taken. The Coventry Regional Farmers' Market, in its ninth year, switched to producer-only status five years ago as a hedge against jobbing and a way to simplify who could sell what, said market master Winter Caplanson. She considers the constant rumbling about jobbing a "huge concern" so the market policy is to visit farms and send photographers to them several times a season.
Even so, she recounted what happened when a market committee went to inspect a farm that had been suspect. "He showed us a large planting of corn and said, 'There's my sweet corn,'" she said. "Later we learned that he showed us a field of cow corn." He'd been buying the sweet corn.
"I think it's more the opportunity to make money," said Caplanson, explaining why she thought farmers would engage in fraudulent practices.
'Skin in the game'
When East Granby started its exempt market last year, organizers discovered the hard way that in a competitive situation, farmers often point fingers at each other. A full investigation of one farm accused of jobbing turned up nothing, so this year Lee Sandora, chairman of the town's Economic Development Commission, said accusers will need "to put a little skin in the game."
Complaints will be in writing and the accuser will pay a fee. "If a complaint is true then you will get your money back," he said. "If the complaint is not true, then you will forfeit the money."
In New Haven where the nonprofit CitySeed runs five markets, complaints this year that purchased specialty produce, while allowed in the markets, was not being properly labeled, has its executive director, Nicole Berube, reconsidering a farm visitation policy that has grown lax over the years.
But she added: "I don't think there's a whole lot of farmers out there interested in pulling one over on the consumers."
At the Litchfield Hills Farm-Fresh Market, lead market manager Kay Carroll was blunt. "I do believe it's happening," she said of jobbing. "I can't tell you how widespread it's happening, but I do believe it's happening."
Litchfield is producer-only and the organizers do field checks. But they, too, had to throw out a vendor who claimed he was making jams in his own kitchen, when in fact it was being done for him.
"I believe there's an assumption on the consumer's part that if a farm is selling produce, it's something that farm has produced," she said. "But it's not always the case."
But she added: "I don't think at farmers' markets there's a buyer beware level. Yet."
Listen to WNPR for a radio version of this story by clicking here: