You say tomato, I say Con-agra: a true tale of farmers’ market scam.

I was just at one of the local New Orleans farmers’ markets, to be specific the Mid-City Green Market that’s every Thursday in Mid-City. I’m trying to buy local more often, and support small farmers… those that have survived anyway after the assaults of agri-business and large supermarkets.

I was a little early and everyone was still setting up their tents and putting out their crates, baskets and baked goods in the brutal heat.

Having just come back from Western North Carolina, where I consumed some delicious peaches from the farmer’s market there, I went to the peach stand first and bought some peaches. The lady told me they were from Alabama, which seemed reasonable enough. I remember getting peaches from her before, and she telling me they drove in from Alabama.

Next I went to look for tomatoes, and there was a couple of guys—looked like a father and son team—putting out a remarkable assortment of vegetables. Tomatoes, corn, squash, cucumbers, peppers—a variety of vegetables that all looked beautiful, where most other vendors usually just had one or two varieties of produce. I had been under the impression from these markets in the past that either not too much grew in Louisiana, or that it was difficult to produce many varieties for small farmers, but these guys looked to have diversity and quantity, and from a superficial glance, quality. Maybe they had some really magic soil on their farm?

They asked what I needed and I said tomatoes, so they pulled some crates out and started filling the table.

“Where are these from?” I asked. “They grown in Louisiana?”

Folsom,” the older guy replied.

“Good. I’ll take a handful.”

“Get him a bag,” the older guy said to the kid, who looked to be about fourteen.

The kid pulled out a plastic grocery store bag, and I started looking at the tomatoes. They all looked good, but something was amiss. None of them looked bad, and none of them looked great. It was like looking at produce at the grocery store, and I started to wonder if these were hothouse tomatoes. The best tomatoes I’d had usually were less evenly colored, even less red in parts. I was about to ask, wondering if they had their own private hothouse on the farm, when my question was answered by a tomato.

Or rather a sticker on the tomato.

“Vine Grown in Arkansas” it read, complete with a supermarket PLU code.

It took me about 5 seconds to calculate the (un)likelihood that a supermarket sticker accidentally stuck itself to a farm-grown tomato, or that a tomato from a passing grocery store truck had bounced out on the highway and into their pick-up.

The kid came back over to see if I had made my selection.

“This one says it was grown in Arkansas,” I mentioned.

The kid snatched the tomato from me and looked at it, then quickly turned around and peeled off the sticker with his back to me as if I couldn’t see him and put it back in the crates. He then turned back towards me as if nothing had happened and his removing the evidence had returned the tomato to its farm-grown local status. Heck, it might have even been organic at that point!

He then nonchalantly (sort of) turned over a few more tomatoes to make sure the whole batch wasn’t spoiled then casually sauntered over to the older guy, who was unloading more crates at the truck. He looked back and I pretended to be still selecting tomatoes, then I looked up and I saw him whispering briefly to the older guy.

“Goddamn son of a bitch!” the older guy exclaimed under his breath but probably not at all as quietly as he wanted to. I suspect it was the kid’s job, or maybe his brother or sister’s, to remove the stickers after the dad bought them at Sam’s Club, and that the dad had told them repeatedly how important it was to remove all the stickers.

The whole thing, especially their reaction to my finding the sticker, was like a couple of small time crooks that got busted for heisting the March of Dimes jar, and I don’t want to make too much of it, but at the same time, I do want to support local farmers and the local economy, and if I can’t do this at the farmers’ market, then Wal-mart has already won.

In retrospect, I should have taken a photo with my iPhone, but I was too flabbergasted to think. There’s a part of me that thinks, maybe these guys are hard on their luck in this economy and they are just doing what it takes to get by. But at the same time, one of the main reasons we’re in this situation is people have put all their eggs in one basket (so to speak), and in the food world, we can break the cycle by buying local and breaking the chain with global food conglomorates who will ship you blueberries from Chile when they are growing in your neighbor’s yard, consuming more oil in transportation, working against diversification, encouraging large-scale use of pesticides, and many other reasons. I’ve seen the trailer for Food, Inc. and it looks like it will blow a lot of minds…

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16 Responses to “You say tomato, I say Con-agra: a true tale of farmers’ market scam.”

  1. aleatoric Says:

    Just wanted to add: What does “vine grown” mean anyway? Is it even possible to grow a tomato off a vine? I have seen “vine ripened” before which makes sense, and definitely produces tastier tomatoes, but “vine grown” seems like one of those bullshit terms to make you think there’s something exceptionally natural or even organic about it, when it means nothing — unless they are growing tomatoes in petri dishes now.

  2. aleatoric Says:

    I’d also like to say that I plan to support the market as there are lots of obviously legitimate vendors there. Apparently the best stuffed artichokes you can get….

  3. kevin dixon Says:

    Enjoyed reading this. Interesting, informative, and FUNNY!

  4. andrew dalio Says:

    Dude, that is absolutely FUBARed. Not sure where to go from there, though. But my Dad makes the best stuffed artichokes. Just sayin’…

  5. Nathan Williams Says:

    Well Hell.

    We go every Saturday to the market downtown (always felt good about the peaches – made several mean cobblers with them and have to beat R.M. off with a stick to keep him from eating them all first).

    Thing is – I’m pretty sure I know the guys you’re talking about – but never bought from them – not even a green pepper. Other folks had better looking heirlooms than their ‘better boys’ or whatever… even a simple pepper I wouldn’t buy (even if I needed one). Couldn’t put my finger on it until now, I guess.

    I always knew you should’ve been an investigative reporter! Thanks!

  6. aleatoric Says:

    Thanks Nathan! yeah, at one point, that was a career I was considering… glad i didn’t, though — investigative reporters are being laid off left and right these days sadly.

  7. aleatoric Says:

    A week later, still no response from the market’s organizer.

    However I got a Facebook message from him about a new vendor they’re welcoming, and went to the Facebook page for the group, and saw that he’s deleted my “Wall post” linking back to this article.

    I guess it goes to prove that Facebook pages are more marketing tools than places for the community to discuss things.

  8. jon smith Says:

    Alec,

    Thank you for your email and you’ll notice I took down your post off the Facebook group for the time being. I think that it’s only fair to get both sides of the story first and your blog is public enough of a forum for this discussion.

    I will say that the gentleman in question is one of the anchors of farmer’s markets in the area and was an inaugural member of the Crescent City Farmer’s Market. He is considered by many people in the industry in this area to be someone beyond reproach. Now certainly I won’t deny that you saw what you saw, but I will say that passing off store bought goods is so antithetical to the values of this gentleman (a third generation farmer) that it seems really hard to believe (and it doesn’t make good financial sense either). We have visited his farm, the Crescent City folks have done a site inspection as recently as May and he is the preferred vegetable vendor for several of the city’s top restaurants. Again, I will not deny that your experience was anything other than you say it was. Certainly anything is possible.

    Regarding our standards, our market follows the same rules and values of the Crescent City Farmer’s Market and absolutely forbids the sale of outside produce or anything that was not produced by the vendor in question. Certainly something like this is handled by our rules and regulations so I ask that you please allow me the chance to speak with the vendor in question and once I have a clearer picture of what happened I will reply back. I’m not ducking the subject, I just run three businesses and there’s only so much I can get to in the course of the day.

    Thank you again for bringing up this discussion.

  9. aleatoric Says:

    [note, as I received the above note from Jon in both email and on the blog, I thought I’d post my reply to him below…]

    Hi Jon,

    Yes I did notice earlier today that you took the post down from Facebook (when I got the message about the new vendor), and until I got your email was under the impression that I was not going to get a reply at all. So I was happy to see that you wrote back.

    Just to reiterate, I can say with 100% confidence that I absolutely found a tomato in one of your vendor’s crates with “Vine Grown in Arkansas” on it, and it came from this guy’s crate. He said he was from Folsom, so I presume there’s only one person we could be talking about here. He had the stall closest to the PJ’s last Thursday. I was the first customer of the day, and I watched him pull the crate out, so no one else could have put it there.

    His reaction — and that of the kid’s –made it VERY obvious to me that he’d been caught and knew he was doing something wrong. If they hadn’t expected a sticker on their fruit, surely they would have challenged me, but instead they practically hid from me, staying near the truck until I had left the market.

    Perhaps all of his produce is farm grown except that one tomato — but it seems very very unlikely. Or maybe he was just short tomatoes that day, and it was the first time he’d done something like that? Just guesses…. I can’t speak to anything other than my experience that one day, and that one day he tried to sell me at least one tomato that was from Arkansas, and had a grocery store sticker on it.

    I can’t speak to anything else about his values, except that he told me the tomatoes were from Folsom, and the tomato had a sticker that said it was from Arkansas.

    If he’s as important a farmer to the markets and restaurants as you say, then I agree he made a very poor business decision trying to pass off store bought produce.

  10. aleatoric Says:

    Update:

    Last Friday I was contacted very politely by Emery Van Hook, an organizer of the Crescent City Farmers Market (which has markets on Tuesdays and Saturdays, http://www.marketumbrella.org ), and she had me reiterate my story to her. I was reassured that ‘localwashing’ (as I saw it referred to recently in a Gambit story http://bestofneworleans.com/gyrobase/Content?oid=oid%3A58458 ) was not acceptable; in fact their standards even require that the vegetables be grown on the vendor’s farm: no middlemen allowed.

    Some farmers are required to put stickers on their own vegetables when selling to supermarkets, so the presence of a sticker itself was not damning, she said — it was the “Vine Grown in Arkansas” (Arkansas not being where Folsom, Louisiana is located) that was the problem.

    However she also told me that the vendor’s farm had been inspected — and while I presume they’ll be keeping a closer eye for Arkansas stickers, she all but admitted they’d already done everything they could and while she appreciated my very legitimate concerns, without saying as much, it was his word against mine, and well, he’s a well respected farmer and I am just some guy on the internet. I realized from the start that the call was just to see if I sounded reasonable… Fine, I guess I’d probably do the same.

    Hopefully someone with a chemistry and/or private investigator hobby will be able to provide some solid evidence… in the meantime I am very sadly going to cut out the unnecessary mark-up and buy my vegetables from the grocery store and not the farmer’s market…. until I can get my own garden growing that is.

  11. Colman Stephenson Says:

    Ah, Alec – you can’t punish all the farmer’s market vendors for the actions of the rogue.

  12. andrew dalio Says:

    Let me know if you like figs; Dad’s got a metric ton of them growing here. Although the blackbirds are making quick work of them… Sorry to hear the Market conclusion, but I guess there really isn’t much else for them to do…

  13. aleatoric Says:

    Colman — you’re right, and I will continue to shop occasionally at local markets…. I just won’t buy from that one guy. Problem is he’s the main vendor in terms of variety of produce. I guess the other farmers can stop wondering how he keeps everything in season all year long! I wonder if he knows when his farm gets inspected and he lays out vegetables in the field the night before, too?

  14. Bess Summerchild Says:

    Came here from a link on a forum I frequent, so you won’t have seen my name before.

    The cynic in me says that even if the powers that be at this farmers’ market knew for a fact that the vendor was cheating, nothing would happen, he’d still be there. Unless you had proof and made a fuss. If the vendor is a linchpin in the success of the market, they don’t want to lose him, even if he’s cheating.

    I haven’t been to the major farmers’ market in my city for years — it’s downtown and way too crowded and crazy for me — but I remember being told outright that some muskmelons had come from two states away. I guess market standards and rules vary widely. I go to the smaller markets around the edges of the city; the variety isn’t as great, but at then you know you’re getting what the locals can grow at the moment!

  15. aleatoric Says:

    Thanks Bess. I did notice from both market organizers that I heard from a reluctance to confront the situation head-on, and I suspect that it’s precisely as you say — ” If the vendor is a linchpin in the success of the market, they don’t want to lose him, even if he’s cheating”.

    This morning on the local NPR station WWNO the “local minute” guy from louisianarebuilds.info used a line about “local fresh tomatoes at local farmers markets” that were “green” and more “healthy” for you, too. Made me want to scream!

    Also I heard today from my pal Dan that (local grocery chain) Rouses has tomatoes with “Vine Grown in Arkansas” stickers on them, so my guess is maybe he gets his tomatoes from Rouses. Rouses is where we usually shop, and they do make an effort to stock Louisiana produce when possible.

  16. aleatoric Says:

    Update—since people have been asking, yes, I did hear back from the organizer at the Mid City market. He invited me to drop by for a chat and I hope to do so as soon as I have the time.

    He said that he’d spoken to the farmer in question, and the farmer confessed that he was using tomatoes that he hadn’t grown personally (which, apparently is against the rules of the market), and that sometimes stickers have to be put on produce so they can be sold in certain stores (something I’d heard from another organizer)…. but that still doesn’t explain how an Arkansas sticker got on the tomato.

    No one has accused me of making anything up here, but I reiterate that as a person who supports the idea of farmer’s markets and generally anything legitimately Green, I have no motivation here except to call bullshit on the vendor who is obviously bending the truth. I was told the farmer was “beyond reproach”, but now he’s confessed to importing produce from other “farmers”—who themselves may have gotten the produce from the grocery.

    Is the vendor in question just covering himself, like William Jefferson, by shifting the blame? Caught red-handed with the cash in the fridge, still pretending to be innocent? Whether or not he bought the tomato from the store himself, or got it from another person who did — his word is no longer “gold”.

    The organizers are in a bind though, and i know there’s not much they can do. I’m sure they’d love for all their vendors to provide the markets with home-grown, fresh, local healthy produce. They don’t have the resources to follow them around and see if they’re pulling out of Sam’s Club with plastic bags filled with industrial produce.

    Unfortunately, like everything else in Louisiana, the dirty worm of corruption gnaws away at the core. Keep your eyes peeled!

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