Happy Farmers Market Week

August 5th, 2010 | Simcha Weinstein | Comments Off on Happy Farmers Market Week

This week is National Farmers Market Week. Tom Vilsack, the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, has declared Aug. 1-7 the week of local, fresh, healthy food.  According to the Washington Post: The number of farmers markets jumped 16 percent in 2010, according to figures just released by the Department of Agriculture. There are 6,132 farmers markets in operation, up from 5,247 in 2009. The National Farmers Market Directory reported the greatest surges in the Midwest.

And while Farmers Markets are enjoying a boon with the surge in demand for locally grown products, there is also the issue that many markets are facing – ensuring that organic product that is being sold as organic is really what it claims to be. What many Farmers Markets are now experiencing is a microcosm of what the organic industry in general went through during the 1970’s and early 1980’s. During this time, well before any rules or regulations were strictly enforced, there were certainly those who took advantage of the system. To be fair, most growers were very legitimate organic farmers, leading the way and pioneering the organic industry to what it is today. As with any field (particularly without regulations) there will always be a small number who place profitability over integrity, and we certainly saw this occurring, particularly during the 1970’s. Fortunately these folks were rooted out, the National Organic Standards were put in place, and we are where we are today – tremendously improved, but not perfect.

The challenge that farmers markets face is that, while on one hand, most of the participants are community farmers who completely abide by the organic rules and whose farms are certified; there are some who are managing to take advantage of a fairly unregulated environment, and choosing to mislead the market goers about how their food was raised in order to charge higher prices.

You will also see some growers, particularly at the smaller markets, who can’t afford the costs of certification, and even though they have been farming according to organic methods for years, they can’t promote their food as organic according the the National Organic Standards. Dan Best, the coordinator of Certified Farmers’ Markets of Sacramento lays out the problem best when he said “I’ve got several growers who everyone knows to be organic, but they don’t use the label because they can’t meet all the regulation requirements. “We want to be sure people aren’t misrepresenting their produce, we want to be safe, but the current regulations are a huge cost to growers.”

In March, an internal audit of the National Organic Program found numerous lapses in regulation enforcement. Even as enforcement looks to improve, it is unlikely that Farmers Markets will be getting strong attention anytime soon. In the meantime, let’s celebrate Farmers Markets this week, and acknowledge what a great opportunity they provide for the growers, the consumers and their communities. We simply want to make sure, as always, that if someone is led to believe that they are buying organic food, then that is indeed what they are getting. I am not advocating against farmers markets at all – quite the opposite. It’s exciting to see that they are on the rise, but as can happen, it seems they are experiencing some growing pains, and how they manage this growth will go a long way towards their overall success.

Support your local growers, and if your shopping at a market and looking to buy food from someone you are not familiar with (who is claiming that their wares are organic) don’t be shy about asking a few questions. It protects you and it also protects the organic farmers who are legitimately raising their food according to standards.