When customers purchase fruits and vegetables at a farmers market, it is with the assumption that by buying local they’re getting a healthier, tastier product while also supporting the labor of small-scale farmers. It’s a transaction that, ultimately, is supposed to make people feel good.
But vendors aren’t always truthful about where their produce really comes from, says Frasier Block, co-founder of the Johns Island Farmers Market (JIFM), which is in its sixth year of business.
While working at farmers markets and stands for about three years, Block witnessed unsuspecting patrons get duped into buying produce that was intentionally misrepresented as locally grown when, in reality, it had been purchased wholesale and was being resold.
“People have the stereotype in their minds that farmers market means local or means everything is honest and I can trust everything,” Block says. “It’s just kind of this down-home thing that goes along with farmers markets. But farmers market fraud is a real thing.”
For Block, who is familiar with seasonality and growing patterns in South Carolina, fraud can be fairly easy to spot. If a vendor is selling the same kind of produce year-round, that’s one indication. Another is the produce’s appearance.
“There’s a different look between commercially grown produce and produce in a grocery store and produce that has been harvested yesterday,” Block says. “There’s a lot of little tidbits, you know. Do the carrots have the tops on them? Are they green? Does the broccoli and cauliflower have leaves around it? If they don’t have these things, then they were probably harvested a long time ago and have been shipped somewhere. So there’s just a lot of little things you can kind of tell, along with seasonality.”
The lack of honesty pushed Block and business partner Blue Laughters to create a truth and transparency campaign for the JIFM, which “guarantees that all produce, products, foods, and crafts are honest about how and where they are grown and made,” per the market’s website.
South Carolina, like most states, doesn’t have any laws on the books to combat farmers market fraud. In 2014, former California Gov. Jerry Brown signed a law that would allocate $1 million for inspectors to patrol farmers markets across the state and look for signs of fraud. Such a program does not exist in South Carolina.
Therefore, it is left to the discretion of individual markets to ensure their vendors are being truthful about the source of their products. Upon receiving an application, the Charleston Farmers Market, for example, reviews a potential vendor’s proposed crop list for the season, which is “monitored throughout the year based on what they bring to the market,” says market manager Harrison Chapman.
“We make visits to farms periodically to confirm they are growing the crops specified on their applications,” he says.
According to the 2018 vendor manual, the Charleston Farmers Market implements a 75/25 percent rule during peak harvest periods in the Lowcountry. Under this guideline, 75 percent of a vendor’s produce must be grown on their farm, while 25 percent can be resold Certified S.C. Grown Produce.
“All produce must be labeled with the farm name and city of origin if it is being resold,” Chapman says. “A certain percentage can be sold from a different farm depending on the time of year, which is to ensure a wider variety of product availability for our marketgoers.”
Any vendor that is suspicious of a product’s origins may file a challenge with the market if they believe another vendor’s offerings are being misrepresented, Chapman adds, and the claim is investigated by market management with assistance from an advisory committee made up of vendors and community members.
When JIFM receives a vendor application, Block’s first step is to conduct as much initial background research as possible.
“If they don’t have anything online, that’s a red flag to me,” Block says. “This day and age, anybody who’s proud of what they do and honestly do it has a web presence.”
The next step is a phone interview.
“I’ll feel them out, go through a series of questions, asking them about the history of their farm or business, what they do, why they do it, and how they do what they do,” Block says. “Between filtering the investigative background research and the phone call interview, by then I usually have a good feeling of the trustworthiness.”
If Block believes the vendor will be a good addition to the market, she arranges a farm or business visit.
“An average visit is about three hours. We’ll go out there and ask questions and document with pictures, and we’ll just really go through the entire process of seeing how they do what they do, whether that be driving through the fields, walking through the fields, picking some stuff, looking at their crop plan,” Block says. “As far as businesses, we’ll go on a day when they’re producing and making the product.”
When asked about the specific definition and limits of what can be considered local, Block confirms that the Johns Island Farmers Market does permit the sale of wares that aren’t 100 percent local but are still made or finished locally.
“There’s got to be some signage there explaining the origin of everything, because there’s some cases where there are really good-quality artisan products that if for any reason they are not local our part of the truth and transparency is the signage,” she says. “The signage gives you the truth. It gives you the transparency to make your own decision that if it’s not 100 percent created here that this is completely explained and then the customer has a truthful decision they can make if they want to get that product.”
The steps to effectively enforce the truth and transparency mission require a lot of extra work, to be sure, but it’s a reflection of the commitment Block and Laughters have made to their customers.
“Our goal is to really create an experience. That’s kind of what I’ve always envisioned,” Block says. “A farmers market is an experience for people. It’s not just a business that we run. Of course it is [a business], but our goal is to be creating an experience where people feel enriched and feel respected and feel trustworthy and feel good about being there and everyone that is there. So if I have a vendor who is lying and not doing the right thing, then it throws a wrench in our whole system, and we have to get that out. So a lot of love and a lot of thought has gone into who we have there, what we have there, and why.”
And monitoring vendors doesn’t stop when they get final approval to sell at the market; it’s an ongoing process.
“People can say anything that a market manager wants to hear in an application, but to go behind the scenes, go out there, check it out, but then stay on top of it at the market, that’s required,” Block says. “Because people who aren’t doing the right thing, they’ll try to sneak stuff in and slide stuff in. And we’ve had to let people go because of that, because we just couldn’t trust them and they weren’t following the policies that we have in place to be honest with our customers.”
Overall, the truth and transparency campaign has been appreciated by both market vendors and patrons, Block says.
“It’s kind of a filter; it’s a filter for folks who are doing the right thing and the folks that aren’t. And the folks that are doing the right thing, they deserve a good platform to connect to the community, and so they see that. They appreciate that people who are sliding by the rules aren’t there, because it hurts everybody’s image when there are things going on that aren’t honest. So they’re super appreciative.
“I don’t think there’s a Saturday that goes by that someone, customer or vendor, doesn’t come up and show their gratitude and just thanks us for putting on such a great environment. And that’s really rewarding, because that’s why we do what we do, to have an honest platform that connects people.”
The Johns Island Farmers Market is open every Sat. from 9:30 a.m.–1:30 p.m. at 2024 Academy Road on the campus of Charleston Collegiate School.