Is Your Farmers' Market the Real Deal?

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How to spot a fake at your local farmers' market.

Robin Sweetser

You go to a farmers’ market for super fresh, local produce. You’re hoping to avoid shady characters. Here are tips on getting the best bounty and spotting the farmers' market fakes!

The town I grew up in had lots of farms, mostly dairy, but there were some truck farms too, that grew all kinds of vegetables for the city markets. Each one had its own farm stand where we could pick up whatever was in season for a reasonable price.

One family that lived right on the main highway did not have a farm, but they took advantage of the location by selling a few things they grew in their garden and many items that they did not grow. The dad worked at the racetrack in Boston and his wife and kids manned the stand during the week. (At that time, you could set up a stand without any kind of licensing or paying any vendor or business fees to the state if you had produced what you were selling.) My father, ever the wiseguy, would always ask questions like, "Where are the trees these cherries came from?" or "How did you get such big watermelons to ripen in June?" But he never received  more than a shrug in answer. He knew the dad was hitting the wholesale produce market in Boston to stock his stand. This fake farm stand was in business for years selling all manner of out-of-season produce until the day they started selling bananas. That was the last straw.

How to Spot a Fake

You go to farmers' market for super fresh, local produce. The fresher, the better. You're hoping to avoid shady characters. Here are tips on spotting fakers:

  1. Anyone selling produce that does not grow in your climate—like bananas or avocados in New England—are phonies. If you’re looking for a great deal, this may be your guy, but it’s not the farmer.
  2. If you see out-of-season items like corn in June—when everyone else's corn is not even knee high—it's definitely a phony farmer. True, some greenhouse growers can get a head-start on the season and have things like tomatoes or peppers way ahead of everyone else, but they will be happy to tell you all about their farming operation and may even invite you to visit if you are skeptical.
  3. Beware the vendor who does not answer your questions. A couple questions that can't be answered isn't a good sign.
  4. If you see labeled boxes of produce, plastic clamshells and fancy packaging, that's another cue that it's not grown on the farmers' land that morning!

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Fake Farmer Stories 

In a really small town market like ours, someone trying to pull a fast one is easily caught. Over the years we have only had two people try. One guy who felt he was very clever to have thought of this was another Boston commuter. He would stock up at the wholesale market on Friday and haul all manner of out-of-season stuff into the farmers' market on Saturday morning. When asked, he told us all about it as if to say, "See how smart I am, I don't know why everyone doesn't do this." He was gravely disappointed when we explained that this is not how a farmers' market works.

The second fellow was not as honest, telling us he really did grow those melons and perfect tomatoes that were ripe in June. Every week he would arrive in a big boxtruck with labeled boxes of produce. That alone was a big red flag! When the produce arrives in glitzy packaging you can be sure it did not come from a local farm. A search of his "farm" on the internet turned up the fact that he was a vegetable wholesaler, a middleman, who supplied restaurants and schools. He was bringing us the weekly leftovers after his order were filled. It was a struggle to oust him from our little market. Customers actually liked him and his produce, especially his cheap prices. But when we found that he had tried this same scam at other markets in the area and been asked to leave, he stopped coming.

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Frauds abound, so be on your toes and don't hesitate to ask questions if something or someone doesn't seem quite right. Don't go by the terms "local" and "native", they have no concrete definitions. How far away is still considered local? Native to where? Most farmers' markets have strict rules governing who can sell and guidelines about what can be sold. If you are trying to help farmers in your community and want to keep your food dollars local, be sure to vet the vendors you do business with, otherwise you could be purchasing vegetables and fruit grown on a large industrial farm many miles from where you live—the same produce as you get in the grocery store.

One of the best things about good farmers' markets are that they really do put a face on your food. A direct sale from farmer to consumer gives shoppers a chance to connect with the people who grow their food.

Do you shop at farmers' markets? Please share your experiences!

Also, if you do enjoy the fresh bounty, here are some Farmers' Market Recipes to make the most of it!

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Comments

Lonnie Selstad (not verified)

5 months 3 weeks ago

My biggest peeve here in southern California is that what they call "farmers markets" - even using the word "certified" - are virtually nothing more than flea markets. There may (or may not, even) be a booth or two that sell produce, and some that sell hand crafted items, but the rest just sell junk. None in my area are worth the trip to ship for anything edible. I prefer to stop at a roadside stand where at least the signage tells you what it actually grown locally.

Allyssa (not verified)

5 months 3 weeks ago

We have more trouble with the artisans bringing in cheap stuff made in China and passing it off as their own than we do dubious farmers. Unfresh produce is really easy to see with your eyes. We are less policing than the people in this article. If the vendor pays his/her/its dues and people want to buy what they have, it's okay with us. Usually the fakers leave after a week or two anyway.

Bob (not verified)

1 year 10 months ago

One of my neighbors started growing peaches, planting more and more trees until he started selling them from his garage. He just puts up a sign in front of his house, right in town. And he's got a list of people who come back each year for a bushel or two.

Another neighbor sold baskets of tomatoes to local restaurants to help pay for the cost of watering, which had become pretty hefty. I find both of those alternatives to the "market" are also worth considering. As to how you tell the phonies--thanks for the tip. You're quite right.

Catherine (not verified)

2 years 2 months ago

Our farmer's market offers farm tours so we know who the local growers are. Very fun!

Bonnie (not verified)

2 years 2 months ago

My son "experimented" growing veggies on our property deciding to attend a farmer's market. Prior to veggie's being available he grew micro greens. To avoid using plastic bags for packaging he sourced a plant based package that can be discarded into green bins.
They look like the clam shell type package so we have a notice at our booth which our customers comment on positively. All of the produce and greens that we sell is grown on our property.