LIHU‘E — Farmers market organizers say they don’t want a few bad apples to ruin the whole bushel, so they’re putting the squeeze on vendors who buy commercial or retail produce to sell at local farmers markets.
“Cucumbers don’t grow wax in the garden and sweet onions don’t grow in December,” said Terry Phillips, the monitor for the county’s Sunshine Markets around the island. She describes herself as the eyes and ears of the operations.
The county’s rules for its farmers markets are difficult to enforce, according to Office of Economic Development representatives, so the county agency is working on some changes.
OED agriculture specialist Bill Spitz and OED Director George Costa hope the new administrative rules they are developing will shed a little more light on Sunshine Market operations, give OED some policing authority and improve safety.
“Right now, we get reports from Terry and the general public saying, ‘Hey, so and so is not selling produce grown from their farm.’ In fact, they don’t have a farm,” Costa said Thursday at Lihu‘e Business Association’s monthly meeting.
The new rules would require vendors, when they register, to provide an inventory of what they’re going to sell, Costa said. It would then be up to Spitz or Costa —or some other person brought in at some point — to actually go out and inspect the farms to confirm that what they are selling is what they are growing, he added.
“We have provisions so that if they’re not selling what they’re growing, at least they’re selling what other local farmers are growing,” Costa said. “If they’re selling something of Joe Brown’s, a farmer down the road, then we need to inspect Joe Brown’s farm to ensure there’s integrity.”
The LBA meeting was a panel discussion about Kaua‘i’s public and private farmers markets, featuring Melissa McFerrin, Kaua‘i Farm Bureau executive administrator, Dharma Wease, operations manager for Hanalei’s farmers market, along with Phillips, Spitz and Costa.
Wease said over the years, keeping commercial produce out of Hanalei’s farmers market has been one of her biggest challenges.
“We just decided to crack down,” Wease said. “It’s sad to watch people coming to market with dirt under their fingernails who have worked so hard to grow the things that are in season and to try to grow things that maybe weren’t quite in season, and then the person next to them has perfect tomatoes and big, huge sweet onions.”
So Wease and a colleague started going around to the local farms. Initially, it was a lot of work to gather the information, she said, but after a while they saw a pattern. They started being able to differentiate Mainland produce purchased from distributors like Young Brothers, Koa Trading and Esaki’s from produce grown locally. And, of course, some of it was just simple deductive reasoning.
“When I see mangoes and apple bananas, I know they’re probably not bothering to buy those at Esaki’s, especially when they’re in season,” Wease said.
Local tomatoes tend to be smaller and less uniform in shape, Phillips said. Other produce that’s often passed off as local include zucchini, pineapple, garlic and onions.
“I was sad to have to release two farmers that have been coming for a long time, but it was just so in-our-face blatant,” Wease said. “They admitted to throwing onions in their mix of produce, and I had to kick them out. We have a zero tolerance policy. It has to be Kaua‘i grown or Kaua‘i made.”
Wease added that she would like to see some coordination between farmers market operators in sharing information.
“We could save each other a lot of time,” she said.
McFerrin agreed with Wease about sharing information about farmers because “some of the same offenders tend to go to all the farmers markets,” she said. “It breaks your heart, because you see the farmers that come with one or two items they really grew themselves.”
Challenges in creating economic opportunity
McFerrin said the Farm Bureau is looking into making it mandatory for vendors to provide a list of which farms their produce or value-added products — such as jams and pies — came from to discourage vendor fraud.
“When you add value-added products, you also have an additional challenge because once something is fabricated, you really have no way to verify it sometimes where it’s coming from,” she said. “At the Kapiolani Market, you have to qualify that all of those participants are Farm Bureau members. We want people to join the Farm Bureau because they support it, not because we’re forcing their hand, but it is easier when you know the parties, what they do and how they deliver.”
She said she catches people trying to sneak stuff in to sell.
“Just last week, I had to remove some items from someone’s table. But having the will to say ‘You’re out,’ that’s the tough part. Do we give written warning first? How do we handle it? Because we are trying to create economic opportunity, but in the right way.”
Phillips explained to the LBA audience one of the reasons for the vendor deception. A farmers market benefit is “Grandma can grow things in her garden and bring it to market,” she said. But for others, it becomes a full-time business with economic pressures.
If they don’t have things to sell, they end up “maybe buying things from other farmers and taking them to other markets and selling them, which I don’t have a problem with because it allows for a more equitable distribution of goods in the marketplace,” she said.
“What I do have a problem with is people that go to places like Young Brothers or Esaki’s or whatever retail or commercial outlet and purchase produce and bring it, because it’s not fair to the other farmers,” Phillips said. “I know the main farmers, I know who grows the tomatoes. Farmers have a production calendar, so I know.”
With pineapples, it’s really hard to tell sometimes, she said.
“I know where the pineapples are coming from because there’s a couple of main growers on the island. So when somebody comes to market with 12 pineapples and they’re all the same grade and shape and size, there’s no way. I’ve worked on pineapple farms. Even the big farmers have off grades. If you’re a farmer, you’re going to try to sell everything not just the best.”
When she finds commercial produce, she said she approaches the vendor and asks them to remove the items from their table. However, she does not have the authority to enforce the rules, only to report to OED who is violating them.
“We have to have an administrative hearing before we can throw anyone out,” Spitz said. “The last (hearing) I was in took six hours. They have rules. The public agency doesn’t have the protections that a private farmers market does in that you can just boot someone.”
He said permanently removing a vendor would take 12 hours of OED time for documentation, a hearing and someone to transcribe the hearing.
“So I’m going to ask you to be aware of what’s growing in season and when you walk up to the vendors,” she said. “Find what is grown here. It’s very important. Sometimes you can’t get onions or white potatoes, but if you eat within the season, you can eat very well here. Help local farmers and agriculture remain sustainable.”
She said if shoppers are unsure what’s in season, talk with vendors and find out. High prices are also a good indicator that something is grown off island and out of season.
Brown onions aren’t grown here, she said, and garlic takes too much production work, making it cheaper to buy than grow. Generally, the summer months offer more fruit and the winter offers more vegetables, just like on the Mainland.
Other changes under the new rules may include closing times for Sunshine Markets. Right now, it’s open-ended, which Costa said is creating a safety issue.
“I’ve been getting feedback from some residents, but mainly visitors, that there’s no end time,” he said. “So some people show up thinking they’ve got a couple hours at the unofficial end time and there’s not that much produce and not that many vendors.”
Costa said there have also been some incidents where not having an end time creates safety hazards.
“Some of these vendors, because they go to other markets, come with their produce, sell what they need to sell and they’re done and they’re leaving,” he said. “So they’re actually driving through the market to leave, which creates another safety hazard. We’ve had a couple of incidents. Thank God nobody was seriously hurt.”
Under the new rules, vendors would have to remain in place from 15 minutes prior to start to 15 minutes after its end time.
“I’ve already gotten some feedback that some of the vendors that go to other markets aren’t really happy with that rule, but we’ll see as we go through our administrative hearings process,” Costa said.
The proposed rules are under legal review.
Visit www.kauai.gov for more information.
• Vanessa Van Voorhis, staff writer, can be reached at 245-3681 (ext. 251) or by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.