In Greenwich there were screaming disputes at the farmers' market. The real farmers were angry. The jobbers were defiant. Even the tax-paying local merchants felt they were being undercut.
All over Fairfield County, farmers agree that "jobbers," or re-sellers, have long profited when consumers assume the vendors are all indeed farmers.
The problem is a national one and nothing new. But, in lower Fairfield County, where consumers might pay a premium to support a local farmer, the temptation is obvious.
"There are 100 cars at any given time and the turnover is rapid," said Jim Carr, longtime volunteer market director at Greenwich's farmers' market. "There's a huge number of people...when you have a crowd, you have a huge opportunity."
What is a Jobber?
"To me, a jobber is a farmer who is buying and selling produce that is not his own and claims it is," said Patti Popp of Sport Hill Farm in Easton. "The jobbers are ruining it for the real farmers. It just needs to stop."
In Greenwich, Carr reviews vendor applicatons. "The rule is if you don’t produce it on your farm, you don’t sell it," though, he said it wasn't always this way. "When we cracked down, they threatened to sue...saying 'You’re cutting off my livelihood.'"
Still, lucrative farmers' markets in lower Fairfield County entice new vendors. "Last year 53 applied and only 3 were farmers," said Carr. "We are one of the only markets that are a producer-only."
Farmers' Market, Street Fair or Flea Market?
"Because people have exploited loopholes, we don’t allow a baker, a caterer, or anyone who does prepared foods, gives yoga lessons, sell cookbooks," said Carr. "We are flooded with applications that have nothing to do with farming. We don't want a street fair. We don't want a flea market.”
The loopholes to which Carr refers spring from Connecticut Dept. of Agriculture exemptions to farmers to sell other farmer's produce when they cannot otherwise meet consumer demand.
"It's a gray area of the law," said Stacia Monahan who runs Stone Gardens Farm in Shelton with her husband. Explaining that the exemptions are tied into the WIC (food stamp program), she said, "They are basically taking advantage of the WIC system."
Monahan relays a story of her frustration as a farmer. "Six years ago, if we couldn't sell the tomatoes at the going rate, instead of letting them rot in the field, we'd go to a wholesaler in Waterbury. We'd get $4 a box. That box was sold to a Trumbull farmer...for $15 or $20. The guy from Trumbull would come to the same farmers' market, set up next to us, and sell our box of tomatoes for $60 a box."
"How'd I know those were my tomatoes?" Monahan exclaimed. "I recognized our cardboard boxes. Once those tomatoes left my hands, there's no ties back to the farmer."
Kathy Augustin of in Greenwich is dismissive of farmers' markets altogether.
"Oh yeah, they say, 'This will take the hot sun,"' she said, mimicking a jobber talking about his plants. "You're selling something without the proper knowledge. Farmers' markets were supposed to be what each farm grew. Now they're selling other people's produce and they don't have the slightest idea what they're selling."
Up in Bethel at Holbrook Farm, John Holbrook agreed that jobbers are a problem, but, gesturing to his shelves lined with jars of honey, and dairy products in a refrigerated cabinet, explained the difference. "They're all made locally. They're all labelled. That's not the same as a jobber. I know all these farmers. It's nice for real farmers to support each other."
Farming As a Lost Art
Monahan says the consequences of jobbers goes beyond their unfair financial advantage. "The person selling another farmer's produce at the market can't tell you anything about how that produce was grown, whether it's organic, whether there were pesticides or IPM (Integrated Pest management)."
"They're not teaching the next generation how to grow food. They're only teaching the next generation how to resell," said Monahan. "Farming is a lost art."
"There is one farm that does farmers' markets and they hire summer interns. They meet the owners in a commuter parking lot and then the owner pulls up with a truck loaded with vegetables. You're not getting anything different than if you go to Whole Foods," said Monahan.
"I know of a farm in Trumbull who has hired a high school girl whose job was to peel stickers off the tomatoes so that they can sell them at farmer' markets. They even load up a truck at Restaurant Depot or Hartford Regional Market, or even Hunt's Point in New York."
How Can you Spot a Jobber? Why is it Important to Support Real Farmers?
Many farms host open houses. Visit one. Get to know the farmers. You can also quiz the vendors at the farmers' market. Ask them their growing methods. If they have nothing to hide, they'll be delighted to answer.
"Connecticut supplies only 15 percent of its food, 85 percent comes from out of state. It’s very scary for food needs to be dependent on a 3,000 mile lifeline to California,” said Carr in Greenwich. "The reason our farmers market are allowed to use town property is to support Connecticut agriculture."