Just Because You’re Shopping At A Farmer’s Market Doesn’t Mean The Food Came From That Farm

When you pull up to a farmer’s market, ready to stock up on locally grown produce, you’d probably assume that everything on sale was raised by the farmers doing the selling, or that it was at least from another local grower. But you may be buying food that’s actually been trucked in from hundreds of miles away, possibly from another country.

In a “confession” piece for Modern Farmer, a former farm intern relates his tale of realizing that he’d been deceiving customers when he told them they were buying locally grown produce at the market.

The author says he was happy toiling on a large New England farm in exchange for room, board, and on-the-job experience. He also enjoyed being part of the local farming community and working at the markets.

Then a customer asked him about the kale. That’s where it all started to go wrong.

The customer asked if the kale he was selling had been grown at the farm where he worked. He assumed it was; even though he’d never see any kale growing, it was a large farm so it was highly possible that he just hadn’t come across it yet.

Later, the intern came across the box that the kale had been in and found that it was actually from a farm several hundred miles to the south in Georgia.

Shocked, the intern spoke to the farm’s owner the next day and had his worst suspicions confirmed.

“I asked him where all of the products we were selling at the market were coming from, and he said that not all of it was coming from the farm, that some of it was coming from other farms, and I asked was it coming from local farms and he said some of it was not,” recalls the intern. “He was honest with me — he said that they had to do it to stay competitive, and that other farms did it as well.”

Things only got worse from there. The next day, his supervisor had the intern re-packaging salad greens from California into small plastic baggies with the New England farm’s label on them. Then there were the asparagus from Canada that were also going to the local markets.

That was enough for the intern to realize he didn’t want to be party to this deception.

“I felt claiming to be a sustainable farm but shipping products in from all over the country was wrong,” he writes. “I also felt as though they were lying to their customers. I actually watched folks knowingly lie at markets. Other coworkers of mine told customers that the products they were buying were grown on our farm, when in fact they were not. And this all came as a realization to me very quickly, which was why I quit very quickly.”

He’s now back in Wyoming, working a few days a week on a farm that doesn’t sell food grown by people thousands of miles away.

This is the dilemma facing some farmers who sell directly to consumers at markets. Shoppers want the freshness that often comes with buying local, and they want to support farmers in their region, but many consumers also want the variety and one-stop shopping aspect they’ve come to expect from going to the supermarket.

So a farmer who is constantly asked “Do you guys grow kale?” may be tempted to go out and get some to have on sale just so they never have to tell a shopper no. But do you tell that customer that the kale is from 800 miles away and is probably the same stuff that could be bought at the megastore in town? Or do you try to keep up the veil of sustainability by repackaging the product to appear locally grown?