When Fallbrook farmer Eli Hofshi of Eli’s Farms loaded up his truck in mid-December and headed for the Borrego Springs Certified Farmers Market, he decided to include some plump raspberries that his father grew across the street on his side of the family farm property.
The raspberries may have been sweet, but the $700 fine Hofshi got slapped with for including the fresh fruit, not-so-much. Officially, Hofshi was fined was for “selling product not of his own” making. Another time, Hofshi says he was hit for missing paperwork for avocados he was selling.
“We made an honest mistake,” he said. “People do sell stuff from Mexico and elsewhere. It happens. I guess the laws are the laws, but the inspectors are really strict. They don’t have to be that way.”
Accident or not, the incident was just one of 223 violation notices against markets and producers in San Diego County County this year between Jan. 1 and April 17, according to the Department of Agriculture, Weights and Measures. (There is a lag-time between when a violation notice is issued and when the case is closed and publicly posted, in part because producers are allowed to ask for a hearing to contest the fine.)
Other violations included a $250 fine paid by Stehly Farms Organic for not posting a valid organic registration at the point of sale at the Linda Vista Farmers Market in August and September 2013.
Grower Ivan Cobarrubias of I&M Produce in Ramona was fined for selling more than 25 pounds of avocados at a roadside stand in December without proof of ownership. That mistake cost him $903.
The most common violation among local vendors? Selling a product that’s not listed on the certified producers certificate, said Marco Mares, deputy agricultural commissioner. That certificate lists the produce farmers say they’re growing on their land. It’s certified by county inspectors, and in many cases, by the farmers market managers as well.
So when you’re surprised to see a vendor offering sweet corn in November, this is the list you want to see — and have the right to.
“It’s required to be posted. That list will tell the consumer the products that are grown by that farmer,” said Mares.
Since July 2013, other vendor violations have included:
• Selling non-ag product in certified section of Certified Farmers Market (If a farm wants to sell tote bags with the farm’s name, for example, or soap partially made from produce or ingredients from the farm, it has to do so in a certain section.)
• Selling a product not of their own production (Hofshi selling raspberries grown on his father’s farm, for example)
• Selling a product as organic without valid proof of organic registration
Farmers aren’t the only ones who can face fines. If market managers don’t post their own certificates or ensure producers post certificates, they can be written up and fined as well.
Market managers have been hit with:
• Failure to ensure producers are selling only certified & non-certified ag products within the Certified Farmers Market Section (This means letting farmers sell tote bags or soap inside the certified farmers market section of the market. At the Little Italy farmers market, for example, vendors can sell ready-to-eat food, earrings or dog treats but they’re not in the same area as the certified farmers selling produce.)
• Operating a Certified Farmers Market without a current valid CFM certificate
Catt White, who operates the Mercato Little Italy, Pacific Beach and North Park farmers markets, paid a $500 fine in April for “operating a Certified Farmers Market without a valid certificate in possession” at the Pacific Beach farmers market in June 2013.
White says she gets inspected frequently because she’s the largest market operator.
“San Diego ag department as a whole does a great job of staying on top of things,” she said. “We have not had a bunch of reselling issues like other parts of the state, and as a market manager, I can call them and they’ll come right out. We see them often so we know they’re on it.”
It’s true San Diego has far fewer violations than Los Angeles. Recent state reports show 46 incidences in Los Angeles County on the “Revoked, Suspended and/or Fined” list compared with just five for San Diego County over the same time period. Then again, San Diego has 53 certified farmers markets in the county, compared with Los Angeles’ approximately 152, and L.A. County ag officials have been stepping up enforcement efforts.
Vendors can be in violation of California law for everything from mislabeling to failing to use an approved scale. Serious violations, which could prompt fines as high as $1,000, include falsifying documents, refusing to allow inspection and not having a valid Certified Producer’s Certificate.
State Assemblyman Roger Dickinson (D-Sacramento) says serious concerns over farmers market fraud erodes consumer confidence. He’s introduced a bill (AB 1871) to tighten current regulations. Making false statements about the origin of ag products would become a misdemeanor — like using the term “California grown” for produce grown elsewhere. It would also require vendors to post signs stating, “We grow what we sell” and would direct farmers market operators to charge a $2 vendor fee, up from the current 60 cents. The fee increase would help pay for better enforcement by county inspectors, Dickinson said.
“The overriding motivation for the bill is to give consumers confidence that when they go to a certified farmers market, they can have confidence that what they’re considering buying, is in fact, what they think they’re getting,” said Dickinson. “We’re trying to increase the penalties so it’s a deterrent to the bad actors, and will increase the integrity of the market.”
The bill is set scheduled for a vote on May 23 before the Assembly Appropriations Committee. Should it eventually get a signature by Gov. Jerry Brown, it would take effect in January 2015.