Farmers' market fraud bill bottled up in talks
By TIM HEARDEN
SACRAMENTO -- A bill that addresses a seemingly universal desire to crack down on fraud at farmers' markets is bogged down in negotiations in the state Legislature.
The bill by Assemblyman Roger Dickinson, D-Sacramento, would increase penalties for misrepresenting how and where fruits, vegetables and other food items were grown.
However, Assembly Bill 996 was held up in the lower chamber's Appropriations Committee after the California Department of Food and Agriculture reportedly demanded more money to operate the program than market participants are willing to contribute.
The state wanted $4 per booth to pay the costs of prosecuting violators under the new law, which it asserts would cost $1.5 million a year, said Dave Runsten, policy director for Community Alliance with Family Farmers in Davis, Calif. The state now collects 60 cents per stall per day, he said.
"This bill set it at $1.50, and the state said it wasn't enough," Runsten said. "I think we have general agreement on $2, but I don't think that's going to satisfy them. Then there's the question of if it's just for farmers or for all the vendors. Some want to charge all the vendors and some people don't. That's a major sticking point."
CDFA spokesman Steve Lyle said the agency doesn't comment on pending legislation.
The California Farm Bureau Federation is involved in discussions with the state, and the bill could be resurrected later this year or next year, Runsten said.
"What we're trying to do is make sure everyone's on the same page as to what size a program is necessary and what costs the industry can bear," said Noelle Cremers, the CFBF's natural resources and commodities director. "We're having those discussions."
The bill was introduced after a Los Angeles television station did an undercover story several years ago exposing a farmers' market vendor who was not producing what he was selling.
The bill used a CDFA task force's recommendations to restructure and expand the requirements for certified farmers' markets and producers, according to an Assembly Agriculture Committee bill analysis.
It requires producers to declare that they are "selling what they grow," creating a claim that can be pursued by district attorneys or consumers if it turns out to be false, the analysis explains. Among its provisions, the bill increases fines for violators and designates the money to be used for future prosecutions.
However, passing such a measure has proven elusive, Runsten said.
"This has been going on for years now," he said. "We can't seem to get this bill done because farmers' markets can't agree on what they want to charge.
"I think eventually we'll get it done," he said. "It needs to get done. I just don't know if it can get done this year. We'll see. I'm not in charge of that. I'm waiting to see what's going to happen."
AB 996 is one of two state bills aiming to improve the marketing environment for small farms. A bill to enable community-supported agriculture businesses, or CSAs, to prepare and ship their own products without having to obtain expensive state food permits or have commercial facilities is in the Senate after breezing through the Assembly.
The bill by Assemblyman Rich Gordon, D-Menlo Park, would instead require CSA programs to register annually with their county agricultural commissioner and meet certain other standards, including properly labeling their products and keeping records.
The legislation, Assembly Bill 224, faces an Aug. 8 hearing before the Senate Appropriations Committee.
Community Alliance with Family Farmers: http://caff.org
California Farm Bureau Federation: http://cfbf.com
California Legislature bill information: http://leginfo.ca.gov/bilinfo.html