MUCH of the popular farmers' markets movement has been exposed as a sham.
A special Weekly Times investigation has revealed a large number of bogus stall operators appear to sell farmers' produce, but instead buy from supermarkets.
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And weak market rules and lack of legislation means the fake farmers can get away with duping unsuspecting buyers.
The investigation has revealed:
- One major market organiser admitted some stallholders re-sell produce purchased from the Melbourne Markets.
- Unscrupulous vendors agree consumers likely believe them to be farmers.
- Many "value-adders" are selling jams, chutneys and other goods made from supermarket-bought produce.
Farmers' markets have long claimed any primary produce sold must have been grown by the stallholder.
Any ingredients in food such as jams should be purchased directly from farmers.
But these are just guidelines, with nothing to stop re-sellers filling market stalls and value-adders sourcing from supermarkets.
One prominent stallholder at Kingston and Boroondara Farmers Markets admitted he sold strawberries, apples and stone fruit that he bought from the Yarra Valley.
He said some customers likely believed he was the grower.
"I've been involved with orchards for 20 or 30 years . . . I only know one person, a hippy market gardener, who creates everything himself," he said.
A stallholder accused by several growers of operating outside the spirit of the markets, who lives in Melbourne and works full-time, claimed his uncle grew the produce he sold.
He said some stallholders were annoyed he undercut them on price.
"I get it from my uncle . . . it doesn't cost me anything," the stallholder said.
"It's blatantly obvious one guy buys all his stuff from the (Melbourne) market."
A North East Victorian grower said he had "kept my farm going by selling other people's stuff at farmers' markets".
"Trading (produce) is far more lucrative than growing the things," he said.
The grower said authenticity could be determined by viewing the farmer's rates notice.
Woori Yallock grower Len Rayner said he had boycotted the Templestowe market over authenticity concerns.
"Farmers have a lot of sympathy in the city, and these people are taking advantage of that," Mr Rayner said.
Jindivick chilli grower and manufacturer Geoff Love said some managers "think 60 stalls is better than 40".
"They (unscrupulous stallholders) present as if they're farmers. Organisers get complaints but they never do anything, they're like toothless tigers," Mr Love said.
Regional Farmers Market manager Peter Arnold said the conditions required for VFMA accreditation were "too purist".
The conditions will require the seller to have a genuine association with the production of the food or be extended family of the farmer, and will mean a property inspection for fruit, vegetable, meat and dairy producers.
Mr Arnold said many stallholders "get stock from somewhere else".
I know at least two go to (Melbourne Markets); we try to tell them not to," he said.
Mr Arnold had no problem with value-adders selling product made from supermarket produce.
VFMA president Miranda Sharp, who also manages the Collingwood, Albert Park and St Kilda farmers' markets, said being called "too purist" was a compliment.
"Because there's been such growth in the markets - there's now conservatively 60 - we want the public to trust where and what they're buying, and support farmers," Ms Sharp said.
The success of the accreditation required consumers to check which markets were accredited on the VFMA website, she said.
Grower stallholders spoken to by The Weekly Times said three markets run by service club Rotary - at Lilydale, Nunawading and Templestowe - had fewer farmer-stallholders than other markets.
Organiser Eva Anderson said those markets were run "as close to VFMA guidelines as we can".
"The public won't come to a market for just carrots or onion . . . a couple source produce from surrounding markets and we're happy with that," Ms Anderson said.
Ms Anderson said her group went "out to the farms to check all of them", but when asked about a specific stallholder she said there had been no check.
Australian Farmers Market Association chair Jane Adams said it was up to individual market managers to ensure authenticity.