CARMEL, Ind. (AP) — In the nitty-gritty underworld of bootleg veggies, the investigation often is pretty cut and dried — a California sticker found on an apple, boxes of tomatoes imported from Canada.

But when the source of fruits and veggies at your “local” farmers market are not so clear, that’s when it’s time to call in a group of investigators — “the produce police,” if you will — who must determine the sincerity of “Hoosier-grown” produce by actually visiting the farm.

“The brand for farmer’s markets in Indiana is food security and food safety,” said Ron Carter, who founded the Carmel Farmers Market, known to be one of the most adamant about enforcing strict rules.

“Locally grown produce is the key. When you start letting in stuff from Illinois or Michigan, that takes away from that locally grown branding.”

Dozens of farmers market in central Indiana offer Hoosiers a chance to gobble up fresh-grown melons, sweet corn and other favorites. And vendors often come dressed for the part, decked out in overalls and boots.

But they are not always real farmers. A growing number of “middle men” are buying items from a variety of sources — including large farm auctions with produce from other states — then passing it off as their own, The Indianapolis Star reported.

At the Carmel market, average distance from farm to booth is only 26 miles, which, according to Carter, guarantees a freshness that consumers can’t get from large, multi-state auctions.

“The average supermarket food is trucked in from something like 1,500 miles away,” he said. “Our food is much safer, fresher ... and the dollars stay here in Indiana.”

Some markets are not as aggressive and tend to let middle men set up shop, knowingly or not.

“Last year, during the drought, there were people around me that had sweet corn every week,” said Jonathan Lawler, a Greenfield-area farmer who lost about 90 percent of his corn. “They went through the same drought as us, but they had it every week and they claimed they were growing it. Until I saw them at the auction buying their sweet corn.

“The worst people are the ones that don’t grow a damn thing. And there are a lot of them. They are outright lying to the consumers.”

Carmel’s “produce police” hit the road and make visits to every farm vendor as they come into the market, and then repeat visits whenever new products are brought in.

And it doesn’t always end well.

Like the lady farmer last year who set up her booth with a beautiful assortment of vegetables — perhaps too beautiful, when compared to other vendors, who ratted her out.

“Our vendors were telling us that her produce was just so perfect ... they figured she was buying it instead of growing it herself,” said Deborah Schmitz, a Realtor who chairs the “vendor relations committee” — or, the enforcers — for the Carmel market.

On the day of a scheduled visit, Schmitz and two other volunteers headed to western Indiana to find the woman’s farm — which she declined to name — and find out the truth. When they go there, they quickly learned the farm was not even hers.

“There was a farmer there with beautiful produce,” Schmitz said, “and he told us the whole story.”

He had been supplying the produce to the woman, who was selling it for a premium price at the market.

Three weeks into the season, she was booted out, joining a handful of other vendors who have been caught over the past four years, including a pork producer who was importing most of his mature pigs.

Lawler said he pulled out of one local market that allowed a reseller to stay.

“There was one guy on the end who had cantaloupe, peppers, beans … everything you could find in Marsh. Which makes me ask myself, why don’t you just go to Marsh?” Lawler said. “At some point, this is going to cause the farmers markets in this state to just go away.”

A few weeks ago, Schmitz and two of her volunteer produce police members took a 40-minute drive east to Henry County, where they visited Caprini Creamery, one of the newest certified dairy operations in Indiana — and a new vendor at the Carmel market.

Owner Kristi Kikly, an Eli Lilly scientist who bought 57 acres with her husband and developed the goat farm, met the group and gave them a tour of the barn and pasture — where more than 200 Nigerian dwarf goats and Oberhasli goats were milling around, alongside a pack of llamas used for protection.

Kikly did not seem to mind the inspection and was proud to have her state dairy permits taped prominently to a door that leads to her work room, where she makes the goat cheese.

“We are very supportive of that (rule on Indiana products),” she said. “Our goal is to build our business through local and regional distribution. We don’t plan to be a nationwide distributor of goat cheese. We like to keep things as local as possible.”

The tour included an inside look at the aging room, where cheese matures, and the milking parlor, where she gave the visitors a tutorial on how goats are milked and how carefully the milk is handled afterward.

Schmitz, a self-described city girl who grew up in Toronto, loves to see a farm like Kikly’s that seemed authentic, if not a little old-fashioned.

“We want people who are honest at our market,” Schmitz said. “And we want people to trust us that we are doing all we can to make sure they are honest.”


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