LocationAlhambra , CA United States
I’ve been a regular shopper at Alhambra’s Certified Farmers Market for many years and have enjoyed the variety and quality of its products. It’s a pleasant place to be on a Sunday morning, with people of all ages and backgrounds mixing together to find that perfect homegrown tomato or leafy green. But how do we know that the tomato is actually locally grown and not shipped here from some faraway location? I talked to Ibrahim Abdel-Fatah, the supervising inspector for all of the certified farmers markets in Los Angeles County. He explained how the County helps insure consumers like you and I are getting what we paid for.
At a certified farmers market, whoever sells agricultural products has to grow the product themselves in an area under their control, for example, in his own backyard or on land he’s leasing and do so within the state of California. Certifiable products include fruits, vegetables, cut flowers, nursery plants, eggs and honey. Each county in the state has an agency that certifies producers within that county. In Los Angeles, the county’s Department of Agriculture certifies producers who grow their product within the county.
According to Abdel-Fatah, for a grower to become certified, a county inspector visits the grower’s location to determine what is being grown and estimates when and how much will be harvested. The grower then receives a certificate from the Agricultural commissioner in their county that lists all of those products. The vendor must display the certification at their booth where an inspector can verify that the products being sold are what is listed on the certification. If a product is not listed on the certificate, it cannot be sold at a certified farmers market.
Certified farmers market producers harvest their own product and bring it directly to the farmers market. They are usually smaller producers and are exempt from labeling and standard container regulation that other growers must follow. They are also exempt from the requirement that each piece of a product be about the same size. At a regular retail store, all apples, for instance, are the same size because no size variation is allowed. The only thing a CFM certified vendor is not exempt from is quality and maturity. “If I don’t like the quality, I can write a notice of non-compliance and ask them not to sell it,” said Abdel-Fatah. “If the product is not ripe, they can not sell it.”
During his inspections, there are some things Abdel-Fatah looks for to determine if a vendor is selling a legitimate homegrown product. One indication that a CFM vendor’s produce is not certified is when all of the pieces are the same size. For instance, if a vendor’s oranges are all about the same size, it can be an indication that the goods were purchased from a wholesaler instead of the vendor producing it himself. A certified grower would probably have more variation in the size and shape of their product. Another clue is if each piece of a specific product in the vendor’s display has a defect. This may mean that the vendor purchased its produce for resale from a large scale producer that had rejected the produce.
A grower is certified by the county where the product is grown. For instance, a producer in Riverside County would be inspected and certified by Riverside County inspectors. If a Riverside County producer wants to sell in L.A. County, Riverside County will notify L.A. County and provide a copy of the producer’s certification. The copy would be compared to the certificate presented by the vendor at an L.A. County farmers market. If the inspector finds something that is inconsistent, he notifies Riverside County, which would go to the producer to investigate the issue.
L.A. County has certified about 170 certified producers to sell at farmers markets. However, there are about 2,000 certified producers selling in L.A. county each week. The remaining certified producers come from surrounding areas like Fresno, Tulare, Ventura, Kern, San Bernardino, San Diego, and Riverside counties.
“Many of the growers are from other counties because L.A. County has such a high population and much of the farming area have been taken over for development,” said Ken Pellman, public information officer for L.A. County’s Department of Agriculture.
The Alhambra certified farmers market
A certified farmers market can either be sponsored by a government agency, such as the City of Alhambra, the producer themselves can open an CFM, or a non-profit can sponsor a CFM. Pellman explained that sometimes you’ll find a non-profit organization like Kaiser Permanente sponsor a CFM to encourage people to eat a healthier diet, including fruits and vegetables.
There are about up to 150 CFMs in Los Angeles County, which are inspected quarterly. An inspection of a CFM that is about the size of Alhambra’s can take about two hours if there are no issues. On his last visit to the Alhambra Farmers Market, Abdel-Fatah found a vendor who was selling dill, an herb not listed on his certification. “By the way the product looks, I could tell it is his own product, but it is a violation,” Abdel-Fatah said. “Because even if you grow it, you can not sell it (at a CFM) unless it is listed on your certificate.”
He took a picture of the dill, documented his observations, and contacted the county where the dill was produced. That county sends an inspector to the farm to verify if the product was produced there and amend the vendor’s certification to include that product. In L.A. County, it is free to amend the certification, so there is no excuse for an LA county grower to have an inaccurate certification. Because other counties charge a fee to change a certification, Abdel-Fatah has noticed that many producers from outside L.A. County who have a new product will wait for a violation notice before they change their certification.
There are three different levels of violations that a certified vendor can incur. A minor violation would be if a vendor’s paperwork was incomplete. An example of a moderate violation would be the use of a scale that has not been certified by the county.
Scales should have a seal or sticker on it that indicates it has been inspected by the County’s Weights and Measures Bureau, said Pellman. The Bureau inspects any weighing or measuring device that is used commercially, such as grocery store scales, taxi meters or luggage scales at the airports. It’s most commonly known for its yellow seals on gas station pumps.
The most serious violation is a certified vendor who sells a product that they did not produce. The first violation is can result in a fine, the second violation can result in suspension from selling at CFMs.
Becoming certified organic
Certified farmers markets can also have vendors who sell organic products. While every agricultural vendor at a CFM must grow what they sell, not all of them are certified organic, which involves a costly and stringent certification process.
Organic doesn’t mean zero percent pesticides. Abdel-Fatah said there is some tolerance allowed since there can be minimal cross contamination when pesticides drift in from another growing area. However, pesticide levels must stay within guidelines and the contamination must be unintentional.
Each producer that sells organic products must be registered with either the State Department of Food and Agriculture Organic Program or with the State Environmental Health Department, which maintain a list of organic producers and the products they grow. Whoever advertises their products as organic must have this registration at their booth. If their annual sales exceed $5,000, the producer must be certified organic by a third party. At the CFM, county inspectors check for organic certification and state organic registration.
Abdel-Fatah’s county inspection staff also performs random inspections of organic vendors at certified farmers markets. If the inspector is suspicious of an organic produce, a random sample is taken and sent to Sacramento for testing. If it tests positive for pesticides, the inspector will visit the farm and take samples to determine where the pesticide came from.
Each year they take about 30 samples countywide, with about five coming back positive. Last year, one of the vendors who tested positive was from the Alhambra Farmers Market and was suspended. Abdul-Fatah has found that when CFMs are managed by a government agency, there tends to be stricter enforcement of the market rules. Vendors who don’t comply with the rules are more likely to be removed, as was the case in Alhambra.
The inspectors ensure not just consumer protection, but also marketplace integrity. “If a vendor is following the rules, the vendor knows the inspector is there to make sure everyone else is following the same rules so no one can have an unfair advantage,” said Pellman. “The people who are following the rules are happy to see us.”
“If anybody has an issue, we have our website. You can write us about any issue and we are really good about investigating and getting back to you,” said Abdel-Fatah. “Our job is to protect the consumer and to help people get the products they think they are getting.”
For comments or questions, contact:
County of Los Angeles
Department of Agricultural Commissioner
Weights and Measures
Pest Exclusion and Produce Quality Bureau
11012 South Garfield Avenue, Bldg. A
South Gate, CA 90280