by Kimberly Rivers
kimberly@vcreporter.com

Ventura County loves it’s Certified Farmers Markets (CFM). These community markets provide a direct link between the grower and the consumer. On the designated market day, a local parking lot is transformed by bustling farmers setting up tables and booths, from which they sell fresh vegetables, fruits, nuts, herbs, eggs, and any number of locally grown products. There are no middlemen, grocery stores or distribution chains. 

There are also no size, packaging or label requirements. But there is one very important requirement for farmers market sellers: They must have grown and produced what they are selling. 

A seller cannot go, for example, to a local packing house and purchase seconds wholesale from a big grower and pass it off as something they grew. A beekeeper cannot buy a barrel of honey from another beekeeper or another country, pour it into their bottles, slap their label on it and sell it. An orange grower with a small ranch of 50 trees that is selling year round at CFMs in quantities that would require 100 or more acres sends up a red flag. Even if a product is produced in the state or county, if the grower selling a potato didn’t grow that potato, it’s fraud. 

This requirement is at the heart of the history of farmers markets. 

A Certified Farmers Market.

“Back in the late ’70s there was a cannery strike,” said Ed Williams, Ventura County Agricultural Commissioner (AgComm). Williams worked for 30 years with the state’s agricultural department and for six years with Los Angeles County. He said the state’s peach growers were hit hard and their “crop was falling on the ground” as the canneries were closed during the strike. The peach growers wanted to market their fresh fruit directly to the consumers, but they were restricted by labeling and packaging requirements. The state authorized “emergency relief” that allowed the growers to sell their peaches directly to consumers — and thus sowed the seeds that would become “the Certified Farmers Market program in California.” 

In 1978, Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law the Direct Marketing Act, which created the certification rules touted as a way to promote state-grown produce being sold locally and help ensure that growers would always have a way to sell their products directly to the public regardless of what was happening up the processing or distribution chain. 

That act also designates the local AgComm as the agency responsible for certifying growers to sell at farmers markets, and lays out the penalties for violations. 

Sell only what you grow

Farmers markets are a booming business. In a 2002 agricultural census report, Ventura County ranked 20th in the nation, with $3.3 million in annual direct sales through farmers markets and Community Supported Agriculture. 

To get certified, a grower applies to the local AgComm and lists the various things they grow, produce and want to sell at a farmers market. An AgComm inspector will come out to the farm and visually verify that a person applying to sell, say, Meyer lemons is not actually growing Eureka lemons. Certification is very specific. 

Wendi Mitchell of Ventura-based Blue Ridge Honey was cited in January 2019 when a staff member packing up for the market inadvertently grabbed one jar of honey infused with cannabidiol (CBD) oil, extracted from the cannabis plant. This particular product was created in partnership with 101CBD. Blue Ridge did not produce the CBD oil itself. It was only supposed to be sold at Blue Ridge Honey’s storefront in Ventura, but accidentally ended up at the market. Blue Ridge was cited, attended a hearing and ultimately paid a fine for the mistake. 

But Mitchell points to an issue with how certifications are issued. “On my ag certificate, I don’t just have the hives, but every fruit tree growing in my yard. I have one tangelo tree. It’s basically my husband’s vodka screwdriver tree. But I could easily drive down, fill up a box truck of tangelos, go to all 16 markets and sell from my one tree.” 

She said it’s the same with a “producer with one tree, one beehive, one garden box,” because the system lacks any limits.

Blue Ridge Honey hives in Ventura County.

“Our job is to verify they are actually growing” the product they are certified to sell, explained Williams about certification inspections. “We make sure they have the product in the ground, and list all [products] on the certificate.” 

Growers are recertified each year. AgComm inspectors also verify that the grower is still growing what they are certified to sell during the selling season. Once certified by a county AgComm, growers can sell those products at any CFM in the state. 

“Truth in advertising”

Mitchell said that with the growth in revenue possible at farmers markets, some people are finding ways to “cheat the system and turn a higher profit with less work involved.” 

Williams noted that growers do get caught for trying to boost quantities, for example by buying a product wholesale from a packing house and then selling it at a CFM “representing that they grew that product.” 

When asked if there are certain products that the public should watch for not being grown by the vendor, he said “all agricultural crops” are potentially being grown by someone else. He listed honey, eggs, fruit and vegetables are of particular interest. 

“Our job at a farmers market is to make sure the products they are selling are listed on the certificate,” said Williams. Growers must also use a “sealed scale” that is accurately weighing items sold by weight. “Our key objective in the entire program” is to ensure a vendor is “not misrepresenting the products they are selling.”

Inspectors look for certain things that could mean a product wasn’t grown by that seller. Potatoes that are all the same size, with very few blemishes. “Certain things pretty obviously have gone through commercial processing.”

Frequently a grower will buy a product from a packing house for wholesale prices, remove the labels and put them out on their table at a farmers market. The product was grown in California, but not by that grower. Williams emphasized that is still misrepresenting and goes against the intent of farmers markets. 

“It’s fraud . . . Truth in advertising, that is the key.” 

Due process in the face of violations

On April 25, two vendors at the Channel Islands Harbor Farmers Market were cited. One was selling a product not listed on their certification. Williams explained that often, this sort of citation is simply a “fix-it ticket.” AgComm will verify the grower had that product in the ground and add it to the permit.

The other vendor cited was selling an item they didn’t grow or produce — a much more serious issue. Williams said they “have reason to believe” the grower was selling a product they didn’t grow, and his office expects to levy a civil penalty fine, but the investigation is still active. 

The violation process includes an offer of a hearing, and the grower can appeal any finding. The fines are a civil penalty and can be “minor, moderate or serious.” Fines range from $400 to $1,000 per violation, said Williams. According to state law, fines can range up to $5,000. 

“We very rarely suspend a certificate on a first violation,” Williams said. But his office has the authority to do that “for up to 18 months, that would be most likely for a repeat violation.” 

Williams said parts of the law limit AgComm’s discretion when it comes to granting certification to growers who have had violations and even fines in the past. “As long as the fines are paid, if they are qualified, we are required to issue the certificate.” 

As for verification that the amount being grown can support what is being sold, that gets called out by the grower on their certification application. 

For example, the current permit for Underwood Family Farms is six pages long and lists 164 different agricultural products, from artichokes to watermelon, with acreage and estimated quantity in weight or units listed. 

Williams said inspectors can deny a certification if an estimated amount to be sold doesn’t add up based on space allocated for growing. But they would most likely ask for an adjustment on the application. 

“Sometimes what looks like an infeasible amount may be feasible if they have multiple cropping patterns or greenhouse production,” explained Williams. 

William’s office also has to be able to prove the violations or fraud in court. “Proving some of the violations is a lot more complicated. It’s a legal action that has to stand up in court.” 

When a violation is issued, due process must occur. Notice is given, including a statement of what the vendor is being accused of. “We give them an opportunity to review the evidence, present their own case,” Williams said. An official from another county will act as an “unbiased hearing officer” and the entire process is “subject to review by the California Department of Food and Agriculture, and then the Superior Court.” 

There have been 112 violations issued since 2017. According to Williams, most were rather minor issues, such as selling with an expired certificate or selling products the grower forgot to list. About two thirds of the violations issued had fines levied. Seventeen violations involved a vendor selling a product they didn’t grow or otherwise produce. 

“It’s lying to the consumer”

Any grower, big or small, can sell at a farmers market. 

“1,000 acres or two trees, there is nothing wrong with any size operation selling at a farmers market,” said Williams. Bigger growers often take “seconds” — odd shapes and sizes and blemished items — that won’t be accepted at grocery stores and sell them at farmers markets.

But if inspectors see a small grower with, say, just two 200-foot-long rows selling “nice uniform potatoes, all the same size that show up six months after the season is over, it’s unlikely they grew them . . . two rows of potatoes is not going to produce 10,000 pounds of potatoes.” 

State law requires that markets are inspected at least once every six months. But Williams said, “We have been doing three to four inspections per year at each market. But that still leaves 90% of the year with no inspectors checking,” 

Inspectors also respond to complaints from the public, growers and managers of the markets. 

“Right now, cherry season is on us,” Williams said. Commercial packing operations are busy; Stockton and Kings County are bustling. “Their practice is to sort out all of the doubles” — one stem with two cherries — which get sold as seconds. 

“One of the signs is that somebody is getting those doubles and selling them at a farmers market,” Williams explained. “Maybe it is legitimate.” He said a smaller grower could conceivably take their fruits to a packing house for sorting, and there is nothing wrong with that . . .  but due to cost that’s typically not done. So seeing a bunch of double cherries at a farmers market is usually either a larger grower selling their seconds, or a person trying to pass them off as something they grew, when in fact they bought them from the larger grower. 

This “cuts into other legitimate growers’ opportunity to sell their products… and it’s lying to the consumer. It’s fraud.”

Honey laundering

The U.S. Department of Agriculture reports that in 2017, imports of foreign honey were three times that of domestic production, with Argentina provided about 20% of the honey in the American market that year. 

Local honey is, nevertheless, in high demand, and a growing number of sources with “local” on the label are popping up across Ventura County. 

According to the American Honey Producers Association, “Honey fraud is a criminal and intentional act committed to obtain an unfair economic gain by manipulating honey and selling a product that does not meet globally accepted standards for honey.” A honey research group has reported that honey is the third most faked food — behind milk and olive oil — in the world. But the fact that there are no standards in labeling make honey ripe for being adulterated. 

Various ways to manipulate honey include “masking and/or mislabeling the geographical and/or botanical origin of honey,” and “dilution with different artificially manufactured syrups,” such as corn, sugar beet, rice and wheat syrups. 

Just last month Assemblywoman Jacqui Irwin (D-Thousand Oaks) introduced legislation, Assembly Bill 519, that would require clear origin information be included on honey packaging.

“Californians deserve to know where their honey is coming from and what they may be ingesting,” said Irwin. “Ignorance stings and not knowing where your honey is coming from could pose a real threat to one’s health.”

“The proposed legislation could impact producers from Ventura if they are blending honey from other countries,” said Williams, but he clarified that, “Our office does not have information that honey sold at any local farmers markets has any foreign honey in it.”

As of press deadline, AB519 is stuck in assembly and is not moving forward during the current legislative session. 

A bee on Clover flowers. Clover Honey is not produced in Ventura County.

Williams pointed to challenges in enforcing honey requirements. The amount of honey being produced is decreasing due to the drought, so some Ventura County beekeepers take hives out of state for part of the season. In addition, some sell on the national market through retailers like Amazon. Sales records are sometimes poorly kept and “producers who don’t want to get caught may not be very accurate in their reporting. We have a limited number of [farmers] markets in our county and we don’t always know how many markets a seller is in every week.” 

Only honey sold at Certified Farmers Markets with origins that are outside of the state violate the law, including honey from overseas that may be blended with local honey. Since no other legislation exists, consumers are unlikely to know what they are actually buying and it’s up to the honey producer to properly label any foreign-sourced honey on their containers. But with the popularity of “local” honey, there is little incentive to be transparent about the true origin of what’s in the bottle. 

“Know your beekeeper”

One way to find out what’s in the bottle is to test it by examining the pollen (from sage, wildflower, orange and other plants) under a microscope.

“Foreign producers, and probably domestic [beekeepers], can filter [the honey] so clean that it removes any pollen source. It’s kind of like washing away your fingerprint,” said Wayne Scott of Ventura County-based Api Vida. 

Api Vida doesn’t make honey to sell, but it breeds queen bees and honey bees to sell to beekeepers and they conduct research and development into products to help keep bees healthy and alive. Simply put, they make nutritional supplements for bees. They are looking at honey and bees at the genetic level. 

Scott said really good honey will only be coarsely filtered, just enough to remove bees, bugs and similar debris. A coarse filtering process leaves all the pollen in the honey and can result in a cloudy final product with some wax that has risen to create a “sheen on top. We know that coarse filtered is raw and pure.” 

Scott said it’s hard to tell the difference between real, pure honey and adulterated honey. “You have to test for different sugars. You might find high fructose corn syrup, or rice syrup . . . That is not good. It’s getting harder and harder to detect. Only a few can track it down at the molecular level.”

He said it’s akin to the problem of global olive oil fraud. Honey labeling requirements are  essentially nonexistent, and without enforceable standards, the label “local” has no meaning, unless you’ve verified with the beekeeper. 

“The best thing to do if you’re buying local honey is to get to know your beekeeper,” said Scott. “Find out where they have their hives, how it’s extracted.”

Like Williams, Scott says noting a discrepancy in the size of the producer versus how much product they offer can be illuminating. Right now, under drought conditions, it’s typical to get 20-30 pounds of honey per colony. “You can kinda know. Someone with four colonies, how can you sell 1,500 pounds?” 

Why is it important to know if the local honey you’re buying really is local? 

Scott points to the various things killing bees today: viruses, bacterial infections, parasites, pesticides. 

“I know in China and SouthEast Asia they use antibiotics that you can’t use here,” he said. “There are only three or four that you can use on bees in the United States, and their use is restricted. You have to get a prescription from a veterinarian.” 

And Scott says that those antibiotics from China can be found in the foreign honey. “That is not good, it is not supposed to be in there.” 

He added that if the honey is coming from elsewhere, “you don’t know what’s in it . . . [some] people selling honey don’t care. They buy bulk from someone else, from who knows where, pour it into their containers and relabel it.” Scott credits “greed” with the practice of buying “white label” honey and putting another label on it. 

Scott knows a handful of beekeepers in the county who are doing it right. “They are just beekeepers, out in the field, harvesting the honey. They sell a good product in Ventura County. Not everyone adheres to that concept.”

Mitchell of Blue Ridge Honey emphasized that inspectors from the AgComm office only have to see one hive for certification and the applicant doesn’t have to prove the hive belongs to them. 

She said that for over 20 years, her hives were set on a local citrus orchard to pollinate orange trees.

“It was a trade agreement. By placing our bees on their ranch they had a bountiful orange crop and we got an orange blossom honey crop. We didn’t take any of their oranges and they didn’t take any of our honey.” 

Early each spring, that citrus grower would apply to be certified to sell honey. The inspector would come and certify that farm to sell oranges and honey. Mitchell came to realize the citrus grower was passing off Blue Ridge Honey hives as their own, in order to be certified to sell honey at the farmers markets. She stated that she knows that citrus grower would obtain “unlabeled” honey at wholesale from a local packer that gets foreign honey. The citrus grower puts their own label on it and sells it as local honey.  

Remember, even if it is locally produced, the vendor selling it at a farmers market has to be the producer.

“I think there may be some of that. It’s really difficult to prove, once they harvest and bottle,” said Williams. “If they have bees, theoretically they can get honey. Unless there are receipts that showed they had bought [the honey] from Oregon,” for example.

Impacts of budget and drought

Testing products can help, but AgComm is hindered by financial constraints. The total budget for the AgComm office, with a staff of 55, is $7.2 million. The budget for lab testing related to direct marketing (CFM) complaints is a mere $7,500 annually. And tests are expensive: one for pesticide residues (which can indicate a product comes from a different farm) can cost around $600 per lab test. 

“It’s expensive for us to do that with a limited budget. If there are other ways of proving things, that’s where we’ll go first.”

Williams said they “try to rotate our inspectors around. They get assigned for a year or two to a specific program.” Testing fruits for maturity, checking organic certification, or the farmers markets. “We do all those programs.”

But without easy, visual hints that something isn’t quite right, it can be hard to catch violations. And with honey, you can’t tell where it came from by looking at it.

Mitchell said that consumers should do the math. 

According to Mitchell, very wet years with a prolific rainy season can support bees making a maximum of about 420 pounds of honey from one hive with a large colony. A beekeeper would need 25 hives “producing at miracle levels” to sell at just four markets a week, selling an average of about 50 pounds each day. That’s just over 10,000 pounds of honey a year. 

Ventura County is seeing honey production levels decrease due to the drought, however. Mitchell said in an average year a typical hive would produce more like 120 pounds of honey. “In dry years, you might get 30 pounds of honey out of a hive, if you are lucky.” 

When you run the numbers, it doesn’t add up, added Scott. He and Mitchell know the local beekeeping community intimately and know where the local hives are placed, and which beekeepers send hives out of state for pollination. It’s unlikely that the county is fully supporting the quantity of “local” honey sold on the market.

Boosting local quantities with imported honey, but maintaining the local label, is occurring a lot, said Mitchell, who claimed that the local farmers markets are “saturated with this [foreign] honey.” 

Foreign . . . and cheaper. Organic wildflower honey from Brazil is still cheaper at $1.84 per pound than wholesale California sage honey at $2.08. Mixed flower honey from Vietnam is cheaper still, at $0.95. (USDA Honey Report, May 24, 2021). So far in 2021, the United States imported over $58 million dollars worth of honey from multiple countries that was not packaged for retail sale. That honey comes in drums and will be incorporated into food products, or it can be bottled and relabeled as is. 

Where is your jar of “local” honey really from? 

Api Vida: api-vida.com

Blue Ridge Honey: www.blueridgehoneyca.com 

May 24, 2021, USDA Honey Report: www.ams.usda.gov/mnreports/fvmhoney.pdf