Shopping at farmer's market

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How to avoid farmers’ market fraud

Is that apple from north of Toronto, or farther afield? Here’s how to tell the difference

There’s something about going to the farmers’ market that makes us feel closer to our food and the people who produce it. With every trip along stalls stocked with fresh lettuce and bright berries, we can celebrate our role as discerning consumers, challenging the harmful effects industrial farming has on our environment. Heck, it’s a feel-good outing every time. But what if that apple you bought at the market wasn’t actually grown in Ontario? Or even in Canada?

Food industry businesses, like grocery stores and green grocers in Toronto, buy most of their produce from the Ontario Food Terminal. It’s a wholesale market that carries imported and local fruits and vegetables. Last fall, a CBC Marketplace exposé revealed that some farmers’ market vendors are passing off their goods as local even though they’re just buying imported produce from the food terminal. So how to tell if your local produce is legit? We called in the experts: Anne Freeman, who has managed the Dufferin Grove Farmers’ Market for 14 years, and Marina Quierolo, senior manager of public engagement and food at Evergreen Brickworks.

You might assume that vendors are mislabelling produce as local simply to mark up the price, but it’s actually more systematic than that, says Freeman. “The problem is more common at older markets,” she explains. “Especially the ones that have buildings all year round.” Not a lot of local produce grows here in the winter months (obvi), so some sellers may label imported as local to fill gaps and consumer expectations in the colder months.

In some cases, sellers have been at markets even longer than the managers, and while the vendor may have started out as a local farmer, the business could have switched hands to a next-generation family member, for example, who might find it easier and more lucrative to resell straight from the food terminal. Fortunately for the farmers’-market faithful, there are ways to tell if the produce you’re about to purchase is local.

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1Learn what’s in season

Sure, you can get blueberries in December at your local supermarket, but keep in mind that the Ontario growing season is from July to September. “If you enter a market in the middle of winter and you see red peppers, that would be a red flag,” says Quierolo. And if those red peppers have stickers? Major red flag for farmers’ market fraud. “The type of farmers that come to farmers’ markets don’t have a production line that puts stickers on vegetables,” she says. Foodland Ontario’s website has a handy seasonal chart that will help you learn when “good things grooooow in Ontario.” (We love that jingle!)

2Look for ugly ducklings

Misshapen produce is your friend, Quierolo says. Industrial farming pumps out fruits and veggies that are all the same size so they can be weighed and transported more easily. “Farmers who are producing organic food sustainably usually grow for flavour and diversity, and not for scale and efficiency.”

3Check for certification

You can find out whether the produce has been verified as local and/or organic by an independent agency. If a farmer displays the MyPick logo, that means Farmers’ Markets Ontario has visited the farm and confirmed that what the grower is selling is not only local, but produced right on the premises. Looking for organic? “Certified Organic” in Ontario is managed by seven independent agencies, including Pro-cert, Ecocert and the Organic Crop Improvement Association of Canada. Farmers will usually indicate that their product is Pro-cert verified with a red “verified organic” logo.

4Speak up and ask questions

Not all the organic certification bodies have logos you can see while you’re perusing a farmers’ market, and not all legit local farmers are MyPick verified. The best way to find out if a farmer is actually a certified organic operator in Ontario is to ask them.

“There isn’t a shortcut where you can instantly walk in and tell 100 percent who is selling local produce, and who isn’t,” says Freeman. Each market follows different rules and the only way to learn them is to get to know the market manager and the farmers. Ask the market manager what the guidelines are regarding reselling (and let them know that you want to support local farmers). For example, Evergreen Brickworks allows vendors to resell from neighbouring farms, to support other local growers, but doesn’t allow reselling from the terminal. In the summer, they allow up to 15 percent of a vendor’s produce to come from neighbouring farms, and in the winter, up to 50 percent. Other markets will have different restrictions.

“Part of the fun of going to markets is getting to know what’s in season and talking to the farmers to learn about what their lives are like and what they’re doing on the farm,” Freeman says. “Observe, talk to people — and don’t be shy about asking questions.”