By Gregory B. Hladky
10:35 AM EDT, March 27, 2013
For Connecticut's "locavores," the coming of spring means the return of outdoor farmers markets and farm stands and all the delightful "Connecticut Grown" veggies they have for sale.
The problem is that some of those "Connecticut Grown" offerings may not have been grown in Connecticut at all. They could be coming from New Jersey, or California, or some other state with warmer weather and earlier growing seasons, according to complaints that are voiced every year by farmers around here.
Or those early squash and tomatoes could be the products of some of the new technologies that innovative farmers in Connecticut are using to get a jump on the growing season, according to experts. All of which is making it tough to be sure where those veggies are coming from.
Connecticut's Department of Agriculture, which is responsible for promoting locally raised crops, doesn't have the staff or the authority to try and investigate all the allegations about underhanded veggie sellers.
For one thing, there are a hell of a lot of farmers markets out there. State officials say about 130 state-certified farmers markets were operating around Connecticut last year and they expect about the same number in 2013. And there are lots of uncertified farm stands that don't need state certification.
For some of those operators, going to New Jersey or some out-of-state wholesaler and bringing back a truckload of produce to sell at a vegetable stand in this state might be a fairly profitable and quite legal gig, says George Krivda, an Agriculture Department spokesman. He says these operators might also be able to undercut the prices of Connecticut farmers who spend a lot of time and effort to grow things here.
There's nothing wrong with selling produce from outside Connecticut, he says. "There's nothing wrong with that unless you've sold it as Connecticut produce."
That's the sleaze factor that a lot of farmers in this state are pissed about.
And anyone can download the familiar "Connecticut Grown" logo off the state's website and use it to sell produce.
"No one goes around right now checking on the use of the Connecticut Grown label," says Mark Zotti, one of two agriculture agency officials involved in monitoring and promoting farmers markets.
State certification of a market is supposed to offer consumers a pretty good level of confidence that the vegetables being sold there are actually grown in this state. And most participating markets do try to self-police their farm stands, says Zotti.
But that hasn't stopped farmers from accusing rivals of misleading consumers by failing to tell the truth about where their produce was raised. "Farming is a business, and it's very competitive," Zotti says. "Farmers are always looking to get a bigger piece of the pie... So we get a lot of complaints."
Krivda says he hears the same thing over and over. He says most of the allegations come from farmers who argue, "I don't have that, how can he have it?"
Bill Duesing is head of the Connecticut chapter of the Northeast Organic Farming Association (NOFA) and a longtime organic farmer from Oxford. Duesing is well aware of these sorts of allegations.
"I have heard them almost every year," says Duesing. "Many farmers who do go to the farmers markets... they complain that some people who have everything [in the way of vegetables] all the time must be getting it from wholesalers" who bring in out-of-state produce.
"That's against the spirit of Connecticut Grown," says Duesing.
Not all the farm stands or farmers who are selling out-of-state produce are trying to trick people. Some, Duesing argues, are simply attempting to offer consumers a broad array of veggies because that's what customers want. "It's because they're trying to be everything to everyone," he adds.
There is one state program where farmers do have to prove that they're growing their crops in Connecticut soil. The "Farmers' Market Nutrition Program" provides healthy local veggies to seniors and low-income families at participating farmers markets. Once in the program, a farmer can accept payment by state-issued vouchers.
In order to take part, a farmer has to submit a crop plan demonstrating that she or he actually has the land to grow the produce to be sold. Zotti says his agency then sends someone out for "produce area verification" and to offer some training in filling out forms and other stuff.
Zotti says about 250 Connecticut farmers have qualified to take part in the state "supplemental nutrition program," as it's also called. About 120 of the state-certified farmers markets are also involved.
So there's a pretty good chance that any consumer going to a certified farmers market will be able to buy Connecticut-grown products with confidence.
Complicating the entire deal is the fact that some enterprising Connecticut farmers, using new techniques, are "stretching the limits" of our traditionally short New England growing season, says Duesing. These new techniques can in some cases bring Connecticut-grown produce to market much quicker than in the past, which might explain away some of the suspicions about out-of-state veggies being sold as Connecticut products.
Many people invest time and money in early-season extension, agrees Zotti.
One method that's apparently hot right now is called the "high tunnel." Duesing says these inexpensive, unheated, plastic-covered greenhouses offer a protected environment that can give plants like tomatoes, eggplants or peppers a real early start. They offer just enough cover to hold off late frosts and trap early spring warmth.
The high tunnels can be 30-50 feet wide, 100 feet long and 20 feet high, explains Duesing. The plants, he adds, "enjoy the extra heat you get with that layer of plastic."
So this year, if you enjoy buying and eating locally grown produce and other farm products, just be a little careful.
Chances are you'll be fine buying from one of the many state-certified farmers markets around Connecticut. And if you're stopping at one of those roadside stands, keep in mind that old warning, "Let the buyer beware."
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