April 30, 2010

Food for Thought: Do You Need Farmers for a Farmers Market? Growers Try to Weed Out Produce Poseurs as Sour Grapes Taint Blossoming Trend

Filed under: Uncategorized — ktetaichinh @ 4:20 am
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TOMAH, Wis.—Farmers markets, with their hodgepodge of organic kale, artisan rye bread and peach preserves, have surged in popularity in recent years. But now authorities are questioning whether they’re missing a crucial ingredient: real farmers.

Lauren Etter/The Wall Street JournalGrower Ronald Waege believes vendors who resell produce should be banned from the farmers market.



Here in Tomah, where a farmers market has operated for the past decade in a grassy downtown park, a nasty dispute has cropped up. Local farmer Ronald Waege, who grows his own apples and blueberries just outside of town, says resellers are buying up produce at an auction and peddling it here, sometimes undercutting his own prices. Mr. Waege, who insists he’s looking after the interests of consumers, has prodded the Tomah City Council to decide whether or not to ban resellers from the market. The council plans to vote on the issue next month.

Resellers, some of whom have been operating here for years, are furious. Ralph Wendland, a vendor who grows his apples but also resells pumpkins, made “verbal threats to bash my head in while swinging a cane in my direction,” Mr. Waege wrote in a letter to city officials in January.

Mr. Wendland says he told Mr. Waege, “if he didn’t keep his nose out of my business, I’d knock him on his a–.”

Whose business is it?

The Farmers Market Coalition, a national group based in Martinsburg, W.Va, recently assembled a task force to come up with an official definition for a farmers market. There are some 5,300 farmers markets, nearly double the level 10 years ago.

“We really need to protect the image of farmers markets as places that foster community, that support local farmers and that provide access points for healthy food in neighborhoods,” says Stacy Miller, the group’s executive director. “Without all of those things, is it really a farmers market?”

A 2006 survey of farmers markets conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture found that 63% of markets stipulate that “vendors can sell only products they produced themselves.”

But enforcement can be difficult because markets often are run by municipalities or nonprofits that lack resources for policing and rely on vendors’ honesty.


At the Fondy Food Center in Milwaukee, market manager Jenni Reinke recently assembled a team that inspects farms to see if they’re actually growing what they sell. She plans to add a layer of enforcement by cross-checking farmers’ seed receipts with seed catalogs to verify that produce being sold is from the seed the farmers bought.

Ms. Reinke says she is motivated partly by an incident last year in which she learned a vendor was selling out-of-season zucchini. “This still really upsets me,” she says. The zucchinis “had wax on them.”

For the past few years, Luis Vazquez has been waging war against a popular baked-goods vendor from the Ann Arbor Farmers Market in Michigan. Mr. Vazquez suspects the bakery, Kapnick Orchards, is selling pre-made baked goods.

Mr. Vazquez, a former chair of the farmers-market commission, has lobbied Ann Arbor’s city council, written letters to the market commission and picketed the market with a sign saying, “No Faked Goods.”

Kapnick operator Scott Robertello won’t say whether his pies are made from scratch, but “we’ve been making our baked goods the same way for 35 years.”

Three years ago, Jody Hardin, a fifth-generation vegetable and livestock farmer from Grady, Ark., quit the Little Rock River Market and launched a rival “source-verified” market. He says he grew tired of competing with “entrenched peddlers” selling non-local food. He recalls a reseller who brought strawberries from California and repackaged them in green cartons with Arkansas-grown labels and a rock-bottom price.

In Tomah, nestled in central Wisconsin’s cranberry belt, the debate over market purity spawned a years-long battle that has pitted residents against one another. On Saturdays, the market attracts up to 25 vendors during peak months offering everything from pumpkins to pickles, raspberries to radishes.

Mr. Waege, 54 years old, began selling his produce there about 10 years ago. Around the same time, a produce auction formed in Cashton, Wis., about 35 miles from Tomah. The auction sells wholesale produce supplied by farmers in and around Cashton, many of them Amish.

Spurred partly by the auction, the number of vendors at the market started expanding. Mr. Waege says resellers started bringing truckloads of cheap produce, driving down the prices local growers could fetch. “We sell four cucumbers for $1 and they sell eight for $1,” he says.

One reseller, John Helming, 75, started buying most of his produce at the Cashton auction after his tractor exploded three years ago. His family had been growing and selling vegetables in the area for almost a century, he says. Mr. Helming says he’s tired of Mr. Waege trying “to tell you what to grow, what to charge, where you can sell it. He’s more like a dictator.”


The final straw for Mr. Waege came one summer day in 2006, when he learned a reseller was selling tomatoes that were sitting in the sun in the back of a pickup truck, along with some ducks pecking at them. Mr. Waege demanded that the city, which governs the market, kick out the resellers and transfer authority for the market to an association he headed.

Mr. Waege has support. In 2007, Tomah resident Debbie Thorpe wrote to the local Tomah Journal urging the council to ban “resellers” because, she wrote, the watermelons and tomatoes she bought from them didn’t have the “smell of summer.” But the council declined to yield control of the market.

Now the eight-member council plans to vote on a new ordinance that would set stricter guidelines for the market, including rules that would limit items for sale to those “that a farmer actually produces.”

City Mayor John Rusch—who doesn’t have a council vote unless there’s a tie—pitched a solution: Put resellers on one side of the market and on the other, he says, the farmers that “swear on the Bible they actually grew it.”


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