Evanston residents and Northwestern students alike wander the parking lot at the corner of University Place and Oak Avenue on Saturday mornings, lugging canvas bags filled with crunchy Honeycrisp apples and bunches of organic, non-GMO, pesticide-free kale. Signs everywhere read Local, Fresh Produce.
The 41-year-old downtown Evanston Farmers’ Market boasts 58 different vendors (a third of whom purportedly sell produce from their own local farms) and 5,000 weekly visitors on average, according to market manager Myra Gorman.
Two other farmers markets, the Ridgeville Park District Market and the Ethnic West End Market, also reside within Evanston city limits, and Chicago offers almost 70 other markets around the city. According to the USDA, the number of farmers markets exploded by more than 350 percent between 1994 and 2013 – consumers’ lust for local produce has been on the rise.
For market-goers, including NU students, having the choice to buy local produce helps them feel more connected to the sources of their food – and the nutritional, environmental and economic benefits don’t hurt.
“I like being able to talk to the people who grew my food,” says Communication senior Kali Skatchke, a frequent visitor of the farmers market. “That’s where I want to give my money to: the farmers who live around me, who cultivate the land around me.”
But sometimes that feeling of authenticity is just that – a feeling.
With increased interest in farmers markets and eating local come more opportunities for producers to cut corners. In other words, your supposedly local fruits and veggies could have been bought from a far away farm and resold at your neighborhood market.
As Laura Reiley, a food critic for the Tampa Bay Times, addressed in a feature during spring of 2016, most of the “local farmers” at markets in the Tampa Bay area were actually re-sellers, who buy produce from across the country and sell it as their own for a large profit.
Although the Evanston Farmers’ Market works hard to keep its vendors honest about the origins of their produce, some farmers have seen questionable practices, and market manager Gorman has experienced problems with vendors selling non-local produce.
According to Gorman, in 2015, she caught a Michigan vendor selling New Jersey peaches and made the vendor put up signs alerting consumers that their peaches were being shipped from halfway across the country. However, Gorman says, the vendor objected to her “putting pressure on them,” causing customers to complain to their local alderman, Peter Braithwaite of Evanston’s 2nd Ward, who couldn’t be reached for comment.
In short, Gorman was forced to “lay off” and let the vendor continue to sell non-local produce without being honest about its origins. “When politics get involved, rules are no longer followed,” she says.
One Evanston Farmers’ Market vendor also recalls the incident from last year.
“The manager went around and did spot checks on peaches, and there was only a handful of [vendors] who actually had peaches they were picking. The rest of them were getting them from somewhere else, which is ridiculous,” says Corban Koster of Geneva Lakes Produce. “Somebody had figured out a way to continue to bring that stuff because nobody could prove it against them.”
Gorman says only two of the vendors were selling peaches that they hadn’t grown themselves, and she claims that this year, vendors are no longer selling any non-local produce.
“This market, all farmers are required to grow their own crops, but it’s not a perfect system,” Koster says. “I wish we were a little bit more strict on it sometimes when there’s someone here who’s questionable … I’ve seen it at all the markets that I’ve been to.”
There’s also no national consensus on what “local” means. For the Evanston Farmers’ Market, local means from any Midwestern state. Some may think their “local” produce came from a mom-and-pop farm up the road, but in reality, it could have been trucked in from over a hundred miles away. Even though Henry’s Farm, a vendor at the market, is in Congerville, Illinois, the produce needs to travel 120 miles to get to Evanston every Saturday morning. And it’s still labeled local.
Skatchke has some choice words for farmers who dare misrepresent the origins of their supposedly local produce.
“I don’t like being lied to. I’m coming here on my Saturdays, spending my money here for a reason, and it’s not so you can be shitty and lie to me for a quick buck.”
“It’s probably up to each individual to do some auditing on their own, to ask questions, to be aware that if someone’s selling long-stem roses in June or tomatoes in May that they’re probably not produced locally,” says Susan Cleverdon, co-owner of Kinnikinnick Farm in northern Illinois.
Cleverdon also notes that, if consumers want something that’s out of season locally, allowing a re-seller into the market can increase overall traffic.
“I think some of it is a balancing act for the market,” Cleverdon says. “If people want sweet corn, and there’s only sweet corn available locally for four or five weeks, it helps to build traffic in the market if some of these products are around for a longer period of time.”
Gorman declined to comment on Cleverdon’s claim, but says the Evanston Farmers’ Market coordinators don’t just take every vendor willy-nilly. Vendors must provide affidavits or written proof to ensure they grow and sell their own local produce, or that they are entered in a cooperative grower agreement, meaning that another local farmer simply brings their produce to the market for them. Market officials are supposed to make farm visits to prove a claim’s legitimacy as well.
“The farmers market management does quite a lot of investigation,” Cleverdon says. “You actually have to own or rent land locally; you have to be willing to accept an inspector to come and see that you’re actually growing what you say you’re growing.”
However, Koster says managers are limited by time and money when making these farm visits to verify the vendors’ claims.
“In all honesty, it’s not done enough. They need to do it more,” Koster says. “And I wouldn’t put that on the managers, especially here they’re great, but I know that whenever I ask them about it, they say, ‘Yeah, we just can’t get the funding for it.’”
Despite some disparities, the Evanston Farmers’ Market still works hard to vet its vendors and takes steps to hold them accountable. After Gorman insisted two years ago that one vendor give her the address to his allegedly local farm, the vendor ended up leaving the market.
“Keeping up with this can be a full-time job,” Gorman says.
The farm administrators also hang maps that mark the location of each farm on the front of every stall, post daily Facebook photos showing farmers picking produce from their fields and outline all of the rules and regulations for vendors on their website. Gorman says that transparency about the origins of their produce is a necessity.
But Koster says it’s still frustrating to see other vendors cut corners.
“You’re putting all of this work into something, and someone else is getting your business,” Koster says. “I would like to figure out a way to get to the bottom of it, fix it all, not just for me but for all of the other vendors who are working their butts off at this market.”