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Produce at Farmer's Markets really from farmers?

I wanted to bring up this topic because I've noticed this when shopping at farmer's markets.

A friend recently told me that while shopping at the Square One farmer's market, her husband started chatting with one of the vendors who spoke his native language. During the course of the discussion, it was revealed that only some of the produce that vendor was selling was actually grown on his farm. The rest was purchased (I would assume from the food terminal where supermarkets/restaurants etc. get their produce) and resold. When asked why, the vendor said that people want these items and if they don't grow it they want to meet the demand.

I can't be sure but I often shop at the Nathan Phillips Square farmer's market and I've seen vendors taking produce (cherry tomatoes/berries) from plastic clamshell containers and re-packaging the produce in the cardboard "farm" containers. I've also seen trays with the brand name of a well-known tomato producer in the back of the truck. And English cucumbers shrinkwrapped in plastic being sold.

I'm not saying that all the produce being sold is not actually being farmed by the vendor - I'm just saying that I think some vendors, particularly the ones with a huge variety of produce, may not be selling all farm-fresh produce. I think I can be fairly sure that the stand that only sells melons, corn and berries actually farms all those items. And the guy that only sells apples. But some of the others, not so sure.

I feel pretty confident that the vendors at the Evergreen Brickworks farmer's market are all selling freshly picked produce that they've grown themselves. There's an obvious just-picked quality in all the produce sold there.

I just wanted to bring this up to see if others have noticed this as well. I don't think it's right that I pay more to buy a tomato at a farmer's market that is the same this I would have got at the supermarket. The reason I shop at the farmer's market is to get produce that is fresher and of a higher quality than I can get at the supermarket. If it's the same tomato, what's the point? I'm a pretty savvy shopper and I inspect the produce very closely before I buy, and I think I've been able to identify the "real" stuff but I think there should be some regulation or something, requiring vendors to identify the resale items.

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  1. At 200 Eglinton West Market, in June a vendor was selling USA-grown strawberries, explaining that it was not yet the season in Ontario.
    On Saturday's SLM some produce is from the USA, as well.

    1. You're right. If there are no regulations governing the selling of 'organic farm-fresh produce' there should be. That said, I think commonsense has to come into play here. I would pass on the shrinkwrapped english cucumbers -- I don't think a legit farmer at an outdoor market would go to the trouble of shrinkwrapping the produce. For me I look for the ugly imperfect stuff. Heirloom tomatoes are a good example. If there are a good amount of blemishes and malformations then that's most likely the real deal.

      I recently went to the Riverdale Farmers' Market and purchased some ugly but tasty heirloom tomatoes (beauty being in the eye of the beholder), and some zucchini that were a mottled green and yellow. I've never seen anything like them in a supermarket and to me that is a good sign.

      Aso take the time to talk to the person behind the counter. If they are scammers it is usually obvious. Some dirt under the fingernails is usually a good sign too!

      1. i agree there should be some regulation for this, in the states you have to produce a certificate that certifys the produce being sold is from your farm, most farmers market produce around toronto comes from the food terminal. and your right whats the point of paying a bit more for the same tomato from the supermarket, the tomatoes they get from the terminal are picked green then artificially ripened with ethylene gas when they arrive at there destination, a farmers market tomato should be ripened on the plant, there is a big taste difference between the two, even the tomatoes on the vine you see at the supermarket are picked at the breaker stage (green just about to ripen stage). the only way i get farm produce now is to drive up north a bit and actually get it from a farm, i dont trust the markets anymore.

        1. There are definitely people selling stuff at some of the markets that they did not grow. However, you might want to check out My Market (http://www.my-market.ca/index.html) - a website featuring all of the 'certified farmer's markets' in city. This mean that the vendors are all real farmers, selling what they grow. I've been going to the East Lynn one for the last couple of years (Danforth/Woodbine). The selections are more limited than some of the other markets but at least I know I'm supporting the farmers directly.

          1 Reply
          1. re: ms. clicquot

            Another agree here. Certified Farmer's markets are just what they say they are. Go and talk to the people who grow and raise the food. Ask them how they do it. And don't just ask "is it organic"? Many small farmers, often the type that come to markets like these, cannot afford the certification process but will gladly explain to you what they feed their animals or how they manage their crops.

            Just ask.

          2. Agree entirely!
            I went (once) to the Weston Road 'Farmers market' - just couldn't bring myself to buy those 'local' bananas!

            2 Replies
            1. re: estufarian


              Which raises an issue I've had with the local 100-mile(km)-diet. I don't want to eat turnips all winter, and I enjoy eating tropical fruit often. And shrimp sometimes. Etc.

              With peak oil and other problems either here now or on the horizon I don't know how feasible this will be in the future. Our diets may have to change drastically. Strange days indeed.

              1. re: DrewStar

                I'm of the distinct impression that management of the Saturday north St. Lawrence Market, which I frequent, rides herd on the farmer-vendors there to make sure they're selling what they say they're selling. Indeed, I recall reading some years ago that one vendor was booted from the premises when he was caught peddling imported produce as local. But then, it's easy to patrol such a year-round market, where everyone - customers and vendors alike - soon get to know everyone else, and it's hard to sustain a scam for any length of time. In the late spring, summer and early fall, I'm reasonably confident it's overwhelmingly local foodstuffs that are available there (aside from the obvious exceptions like the nut vendor). In the dead of winter, the rules change somewhat - after all, farmers have to make a living year round - and imported produce is allowed if it's identified as such. For sure, though, I've never seen citrus fruits or bananas for sale there. That'd be too much to handle. For those things, you have to go across the road to the south market, where the professional marketers flog their goods, local and imported alike. I'd take it real hard if I ever discovered if it were otherwise at the north market, which is probably why that market is closely supervised. Someone faking the origin of his produce - and getting away with it because of sloppy oversight - would instantly damage the market's reputation.

                I suspect it's more difficult to judge the authenticity of local goods at the smaller markets that spring up only during the summer months, and probably aren't supervised all that well.

            2. Not to stereotype, but you can tell just by the vibe of the place. I see dreads, hackey sack, smell nag champa, then I know it's legit, haha.

              Places like Wychwood and Dufferin Grove have this vibe. Places like Nathan Phillips Sq, do not.

              1 Reply
              1. re: aser

                I was at Wychwood yesterday, and from what I observed, everything sold there was local.
                I spoke to one of the people involved and was told that nothing but local is permitted inside.
                I was looking for a particular Vendor from the Barrie area who will bring real Beefsteak tomatoes to this location when they are ripe.
                Spoke to them last week at the Barrie Market, which unfortunately,does sell produce not locally grown.
                So much for driving to the Country.
                The Family told me that their Beefsteaks are grown on a slope, and were not affected by the heavy rains.
                They said that they would be ready in a week or two.
                I will be overseas by then, but if anyone else is interested in these beauties, the Son should be at Wychwood. .

              2. It's an old, abiding fraud that's ironically easier to pull now when more--but not always savvier--people are looking for quality, local produce. Square One market has a large quotient of resellers--some obvious, others not so obvious when they sell mixed source product. I've shopped there for 10+years and have seen the number of growers dwindle to a handful, thanks to bad market management, high fuel costs, poor weather and cutthroat resellers. I try to buy farmgate along the northwestern GTA fringes and generally avoid the farmers'(sic)markets. Caveat emptor still applies.

                1. You have to ask- if you are familiar with the seasonality of crops in the area you can really make some sellers squirm-if something seems a bit "early" then it probably is from outside the area (Ohio is a month earlier than here for example)-just ask the farmer and the answers come easy if they are the ones growing it- I've seen it all over and outside of the GTA as well- bought some things in Niagara a few weekends ago and the crops were right behind the guy selling them- didn't need to ask questions that time.

                  1. Even the venerable Dufferin Grove isn't immune. You can get bananas there. BUT.........

                    That's OK by me. They are all very upfront about where their food comes from, and in-season it's largely either their own produce or produce from local partners. The trouble comes in the form of winter. DG market is year-round, and it'd be quite difficult to keep it going if every table sold only potatoes and apples come February. At that time, much of the produce is imported (although this is changing as farmers adopt greenhouses for year-round production). So, is this disingenuous?

                    I think not. I sent in a submission to the city when they were proposing to create 'farmers market rules' (I shudder at the thought...) specifically because they were contemplating enforcing 'farmers produce ONLY'. I disagreed and here's why...

                    At Dufferin Grove, I can buy the farmers produce when it's in-season. It is clearly marked as such and, as others have mentioned, it LOOKS like it was just pulled from the ground. If they also have imported produce (bananas etc.) then I can get ALL my veggies there, without having to visit the dreaded No Frills across the street. But the most important reason I support farmers' ability to sell imported produce is this: They make more money. They take that money and invest it in their farm. They then grow more local vegetables next season. Plus (and don't discount this), they have a higher income, and thus are more likely to stay in business doing what they do best: growing local food.

                    As others have mentioned, ask where it comes from. If their asparagus is imported from Peru and it's June, go elsewhere. If their table is piled high with their own produce and they happen to have bananas and avocados, I say support your local farmer.

                    2 Replies
                    1. re: goofibulator

                      Farmers are eagerly signing up for a plethora of new markets because of higher profits. More work, but the family is involved. Cutting out the middleman, and delivery charges is important, but I find also that there is a lofty market price level established, often set by SLM purveyors, to get as much as possible with low overhead.
                      One well known organic farmer, Robert Kerr, actually said in his website that he converted to organic because of the profit motive.
                      I don't deny farmers this opportunity for increased profits, but some can be too greedy, and some will buy wholesale produce to maintain a constant supply.
                      In the final analysis, it's caveat emptor.

                      1. re: goofibulator

                        I definitely believe in supporting the farmers. That's one of the reasons I go out of my way to shop at the farmer's markets.

                        It's not particularly convenient for me to go to the Nathan Phillips Square market - it's not too far from the office but it's difficult to go before work and hard to get away at lunch. But I make a concerted effort to go every Wednesday because I do want to support the farmers so they can continue to grow the quality produce I'm looking for.

                        However, when I go to a farmer's market, I am looking for that freshly picked produce, not bananas and other imported items. I expect the combination of local and imported produce at the St. Lawrence Market - it's not a true "farmer's market" and I go there often to do my shopping but I don't go there expecting that everything I can buy is from local farmers. I do expect the offerings at a farmer's market to be freshly picked local produce.

                        Let's face it, I will inevitably have to go to Loblaws to buy other groceries - why would I pay more at the farmer's market for a banana when I will be able to buy the same banana at the supermarket, where I will have to go anyway?

                        Yes, the farmer could use the extra money I pay for those bananas to grow more produce and provide even better tomatoes and berries for me next year but paying more for the same item is not good sense for my wallet. I will gladly pay more for freshly picked tomatoes or strawberries but not imported tomatoes and strawberries sold at farmer's markets.

                        I guess the thing for me is, I assume when I go to a farmer's market, I'm getting the farmer's freshly harvested produce. As I will take for granted when I go to the SLM, it will be a combination of local and imported. Yes, it is up to the buyer to ask about the origins of the produce but sometimes you only have limited time to get what you need and rush back to work.

                        I'm not saying all the vendors are trying to pass off California strawberries as local - I'm just saying it would be great if it was clearer to to consumer when imported items are being sold at these markets, so that the buyer, who might not have the time to ask about the origins of every item, doesn't feel duped. That being said, I think I've been able to identify the "real" stuff when shopping at the farmer's market.

                      2. You are right. I noticed it at the Apple Tree Market. Regulations? I did not hear of any. Even checking the truck registrations in the parking lot does not guarantee that what they bring only organic food from Ontario. To my regret, I am going back to Metro & al.

                        1. As consumers there is a downside to the overly rigid MyMarket rules. Sure none of us want produce that is misrepresented and honest labelling is very important.

                          I have direct contact with a number of Southern Ontario grassfed bison farmers that for logistical reasons (time, distance, other local market commitments, can't be everywhere at once, etc.) can't attend Toronto farmers markets. Over the last year or two, I applied to a number of Toronto farmers markets to sell this local and natural product. I would bring the product directly from the farm to the market.

                          I was immediately branded as an 'evil reseller' and rejected. There seems to be a blind spot for resellers of local products vs resellers of imported produce. There was no intent to defraud or mislabel, just the chance to sell a great Ontario product in the Toronto market. Too bad the rules require an original farmer/grower to be onsite. The farmer/grower should be concentrating on producing the product and it's unreasonable to expect them to also be excellent marketers too.

                          Resellers provide a value added service as long as they are honest as to the source of their products.

                          4 Replies
                          1. re: longolame

                            "MyMarket" always looked like an inept branding effort that just restricted entry, sold comfort, and made money for the franchisers--no more.Not sure how farmers profitably fit-in to this tidy scheme. Fronting a local product and re-selling a local product--hmmm. What's the difference? Your bison-raising pals--if the story's legit-- need to wise-up and front their wares themselves and/or organize an ad hoc marketing presence. Marketers too often assume food producers aren't very smart about their products and customers.

                            1. re: Kagemusha

                              The story is legit. Here's the quick overview of my bison-raising pals. Type One has full time employment and the bison farm is secondary income. He does market weekends at a couple of his local farmers markets and he has his product part of the menu at about a dozen local restaurants. There is no way he has the extra time to commute 3-4hrs to Toronto to attend our farmers markets. Type Two farms full time and this year has been able to sell all their available meat as 1/2 and whole animals to long time customers and new high end butchers (eg. Healthy Butcher). So now they have nothing to sell at the farm gate, but you can pay high prices to buy it at boutique butcher shops.
                              There is no way that I think these people are not smart about marketing their products. They are selling all that they produce. I had simply hoped to share this great product at Toronto farmers markets by buying direct and transporting it here. The farmers just don't have the time or resources to drive to Toronto to market their product 1 on 1. The rejections I got while trying to set up a Toronto presence was not just MyMarkets, but also other more independent ones. If you really want to see details on the responses I got just let me know and I'll publish them.

                              1. re: longolame

                                I have talked to "vendoes" at St lawrence who are not the farmers but were hired by the farme to man the stall. The kid was actually in Med school and had a lot of information about who the farmer was and where the farm was but of course was not as knowledgable as a farmer would be. the baskets were labeled as the farm so I was sure I was not beeing part of a bait and switch.. but you never know.. To me a farmer should be allowed to hire people to man the stall as long as the money goes to the farmer and the product is direct from them. This allows bigger distribution but still only one step away from the farm...

                                1. re: longolame

                                  I'm on your side. My sarcasm was for the "MyMarket" scheme and marketeers who treat ag clients like chumps--I know thru friends and family. I just don't think the channels exist yet to sell it the way you describe. There are more reasonably priced butchers who would probably be happy for a new product that sells as easily as bison.