Bill would keep farmers honest about locally grown produce

March 03–While selling vegetables grown on his Plainfield farm at a local farmers market a couple of years ago, Paul Desrochers watched another vendor engage in some deceptive marketing.

“He was peeling the ‘California Grown’ stickers off peaches and plums and selling them as ‘Connecticut grown,’” Desrochers recalled last week. “We’ve faced a lot of difficulties with people basically practicing fraud.”

Episodes like that are the reason Desrochers, who sells his produce at farmers markets in Stonington, Ledyard, Mystic and other locations, is hoping the state legislature approves a bill this session that would require vendors at farmers markets and farm stands that use the state Department of Agriculture’s “CT Grown” logo to post an 8½-by-11-inch sign with the name and address of the farm where the fruits, vegetables, meats, cheeses and other products sold there originate. Violators would face fines of $100 per day.

State Agriculture Commissioner Stephen Reviczky, during a Feb. 19 Environment Committee public hearing, said the bill would help bring “transparency” to farmers markets at a time when they are becoming increasingly popular with consumers.

“Clear identification of Connecticut-grown products is an easy way to differentiate from products grown elsewhere,” he said. “It would allow consumers to more effectively support Connecticut farms and businesses.”

The department, he said, frequently fields complaints about vendors at farmers markets selling goods grown out-of-state, without identifying them as such.

“It’s something we deal with all the time,” he said. “You have farmers setting up next to somebody who simply backed their truck up to a loading dock and selling to consumers who are paying a premium to support Connecticut farms and Connecticut farm families.”

The Connecticut Farm Bureau supports the proposal for farm markets and farm stands, said Henry Talmage, executive director.

“It’s about fairness for the folks who do follow the rules,” he said. “We recognize that when consumers go to a Connecticut Agriculture Department-certified farm market, the expectation is that the products there are going to be Connecticut-grown.”

Currently, said George Krivda, legislative program manager at the agriculture department, vendors at farmers markets and farm stands are not required to tell customers where their fruits and vegetables come from, and most customers assume that everything sold there comes from Connecticut. While the majority of produce at these venues is from the Nutmeg State, he said, there are exceptions.

“The farmers in our state work very hard growing produce, and they end up at a table next to someone who just backed their truck up to a warehouse in New Jersey who is buying at high volume and can sell his produce for less than a Connecticut farmer can,” he said.

Each of the state’s 140 farmers markets, he said, sets its own rules about whether to allow vendors selling out-of-state produce. The proposal, he said, wouldn’t prohibit out-of-state goods at these venues.

“It would give the consumer the opportunity to make the choice,” he said. “Do you want to buy the New Jersey patty pan squash, or the Connecticut patty pan squash? One person might say I’m going to buy the New Jersey squash, because it’s 20 cents a pound cheaper, and another may want to buy the Connecticut squash to support Connecticut farms and Connecticut farm families.”

The bill would benefit Connecticut’s small farms, said Susan Mitchell, manager of White Gate Farm in East Lyme, by enabling customers to make informed decisions. White Gate sells its vegetables, poultry and other products from a stand at the farm and directly to local restaurants rather than at farmers markets. She nonetheless believes uniform identification signs at farmers markets would help build confidence among customers who make the effort to purchase locally grown products.

“We want our customers to know they’re supporting the farms in their communities,” she said.

Another East Lyme farmer, Teri Smith, agrees the proposal is a good idea, but would like it to be modified to make the sign requirement more flexible. Having an 8½-by-11 sign at every produce display might crowd tables and shelves at farm markets and farm stores, making them look too crowded, she said. More flexibility should be allowed in the size of the signs, she said.

At the Smith’s Acres farm stand she and her husband, Joe, run, they use 3-by-5-inch index cards next to displays to identify the type and origin of the fruits or vegetables. Smith and her husband sell produce grown on their farm both at local farmers markets and from their stand on Route 156. At times, she said, they supplement with produce grown on other Connecticut farms. As is, she said, the legislation would be cumbersome to follow when two different sources get mixed together.

“In theory it’s a great idea,” she said of the proposal.