The 6 Biggest Farmer's Market Scams

Don't let vague claims and lax rules ruin your favorite farmer's market.

May 8, 2017
farmer's market produce
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Farmer's markets are hot business nowadays. The number of markets has increased 60 percent in the past five years, and in a recent survey from Mintel market researchers, 52 percent of people said it's more important to buy local produce than organic, which will likely drive the growth even more.

And that's great—if you're more concerned about where your food comes from than how it was grown. People tend to equate farmers' markets and local food with clean, wholesome eating. That's true in many cases—but not all of them.

More: 8 Foods You Should Always Buy at the Farmers' Market

Farmers' markets have become so popular that they're being co-opted by wholesalers, retailers, and farmers who may be local but not so committed to a sustainable food system (find out how to make the most out of your local farmer's market). If you're looking for farmers' markets that sell the kind of healthy, down-on-the-farm food most of us equate with farming, arm yourself with this info to ward off farmers' market fraud.

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Myth: All farmer's markets sell local food.

Fact: There are two types of market models: real farmer's markets and "farm markets" where buyers resell produce they bought at wholesale markets. The produce is usually not local and often comes from faraway states or other countries. For a while, some grocery stores were even selling their own produce in their parking lots and calling those "farmer's markets."

To find the real thing, look for "producer-only" markets, meaning that the farmers at the market grew the food they're selling on their own farms, explains Bill Duesing, president of the Northeast Organic Farming Association. Find out if your favorite market is producer-only by asking the director or market coordinator. And use your own judgment: If your local market is selling watermelons in May, they're probably not local!

More: The 15 Grossest Things You're Eating

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Myth: Local = organic.

Fact: Local farmers that aren't certified organic are just as able as the big guys to use pesticides linked to ADHD, autism, diabetes, and hormone disruption. So don't assume that just because a farmer shows up at a small market, his or her produce is pesticide-free. Under the USDA's National Organic Program, farmers who market their product as "organic" must become certified by a USDA-accredited third party and keep very detailed records regarding their farming practices (find out what organic really means). There is an exception: If growers earn less than $5,000 a year, they can legally market their produce as organic, provided they keep records to prove they are organic. They just don't have to go through the certifying process.

There are some farmers who do use legitimate organic growing practices but choose not to enter the certification process, but technically, they're not allowed (legally) to say their produce is organic. Bottom line: If a farmer is marketing food as organic, ask if he or she is certified by the USDA. If the answer is no, ask how weeds and insects are controlled (more about that coming up).

More: Lose Weight on the Kind Diet

farmer's market produce
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Myth: "No spray" is the same as organic.

Fact: Farmer's markets are as subject to greenwashing as any grocery store is. Absent organic certification, there's no way to know what terms like no-spray, chemical-free, natural, or grown using organic methods actually mean.

"There are no regulatory requirements for 'no-spray' or 'chemical-free' programs. The terms are meaningless," says Don Franczyk, executive director of Baystate Organic Certifiers, third-party inspectors that certify farms under the USDA's National Organic Program. In fact, some farmers may completely spray a field with chemical pesticides to kill pests and then plant their crops. Since the produce itself isn't directly sprayed with chemicals, some less-than-up-front farmers may advertise this produce as "no spray." Ask any farmer advertising "no spray" produce what he or she means by the term.

More: What Pesticides Are Doing to Our Bodies

shopper looking organic
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Myth: Farmers aren't certified organic because it's "too expensive."

Fact: If your grower says he or she grows organic produce but is avoiding organic certification because of the cost, take that excuse with a grain of salt.

"I find that particular argument to be very frustrating," says Franczyk. "The smallest growers are exempt from certification under the National Organic Program." Beyond that, growers who gross between $5,001 and $20,000 a year generally only pay about $100 a year when it's all said and done because the federally subsidized program refunds up to three-quarters of the cost. "That is pretty cheap for putting a trained third-party inspector on farm every year," says Franczyk. Again, some farmers may be truly organic but opt out of the certification program. But you'll want to ask more questions to be sure that they're not talking the talk without walking the walk.

More: The Unbelievable Reason You're Gaining Weight

farmer's market tomatoes
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Myth: Food from the farmer's market is so clean, you can eat it right there.

Fact: Before you polish off that entire quart of cherry tomatoes on the ride home, think of all the people who may have picked over them before you got there. Dirty hands = dirty produce (though it's still not as dirty as the dirtiest produce in your supermarket). And although it may be free of pesticide residues, it could still harbor dirt and other bacteria that aren't good for you. Get your produce home, then clean it with this cheap and effective produce spray: In a spray bottle, mix 1 tablespoon lemon juice, 2 tablespoons distilled white vinegar, and 1 cup cold tap water. Shake well to mix it up, spray on your produce, and rinse before eating.

More: The 9 Nastiest Things in Your Supermarket

ladybug spinach
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Myth: Bugs on your food are bad.

Fact: Bugs in processed foods are bad. On farms, that's a totally different story. Biodiversity is a major part of organic farming. Farmers who install wildlife corridors and pollinator plantings, including meadows, will attract beneficial inspects into the field to prey on pests that like to eat crops, and that means they can use fewer pesticides, whether organic or synthetic. So if you see a worm in your apple, cut him out and be thankful you're getting truly organic, local food!

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