Produce is on display at the Encino farmers market. Los Angeles County is… (David Karp )
On a recent Saturday morning, Ed Williams stood off to the side at Santa Monica's downtown farmers market, scrutinizing a bright red mango like a detective trying to solve a mystery.
"It looks damaged by hot water treatment, which is only used on imported mangoes," Williams said to market supervisor Laura Avery. Pointing to tiny white specks on the fruit, he added, "I think these are dead scale insects."
Williams is deputy director of the Los Angeles County agricultural commissioner's office. Avery contacted him because she suspected that the vendor was buying the fruit, not growing it at his farm as required by state law.
A county entomologist later confirmed that the spots were white mango scale, a pest not present in California, but common in South America — clear evidence that the vendor was reselling imported fruit.
The vendor will probably be fined, officials said, in part of a crackdown over the last year on those who buy produce from neighbors or packinghouses and sell it as their own at certified farmers markets. It has led to 20 vendors being fined in Los Angeles County in 2013, up from two last year. San Diego County has sanctioned five vendors, and more Southern California cases are pending.
The crackdown came after Los Angeles County Agricultural Commissioner Kurt Floren, stung by media reports of farmers market cheating, hired Williams in November 2012. Williams, who has a degree in botany, inspected Southern California farmers markets for the state in the late 1980s and 1990s. Managers said he had a knack for spotting violators.
After 14 years in Sacramento, he's back in the Southland, with in-depth knowledge of the rhythm of the seasons, the growing areas and the tricks of market scammers.
Williams said he is training his inspectors to recognize tipoffs, such as produce that has a commercial appearance — being waxed or uniformly sized — or is out of season for a growing area.
If an investigation determines that vendors have violated state laws, they can face fines up to $1,000 for each offense. For serious or repeated violations, producers can also be suspended from farmers markets for up to 18 months.
"The whole point of farmers markets is that you know who you're buying from, and what their practices are," said Robin Holding, a regular shopper at the Santa Monica market who unknowingly bought one of the bogus "local" mangoes. "It was not inexpensive, and of awful quality. I was really turned off," Holding said.
Williams says the punishment fits the crime.
"I want compliance, but I don't want to take everybody out and damage the markets," Williams said in an interview at his office in South Gate. "You see how many violators we've caught. We're going to give them enough rope to hang themselves."
To avoid being sanctioned, investigators say, some farmers go so far as to plant dummy crops to deceive inspectors on the lookout for sales volume that far exceeds a grower's capacity.
"They plant [crops], but they never harvest, they're just for us to see," said Korinne Bell, who supervises farmers markets for the Ventura County agricultural commissioner.
Los Angeles County, which has 153 farmers markets, spent $243,000 on the program during the fiscal year that ended June 30. That figure far exceeded the $81,000 the county received from farmers market fees charged to farmers and market operators.
Floren tapped his department's general funds to boost enforcement, but it is unclear how long that can continue.
"We're spending a lot more money on this program than we can sustain," Williams said.
One of the sanctioned farmers, Victor Gonzalez of Atkins Nursery in Fallbrook, did not contest that his vendors had on three occasions sold produce not grown by the farm, records show. But he appealed the penalty to the California Department of Food and Agriculture, asking that he not be suspended from participating at farmers markets because that would "cause him and his employees a great hardship."
In a decision issued Tuesday, the agency's staff counsel affirmed his suspension for six months.
Speaking by phone Thursday night, Gonzalez said his workers had mistakenly placed fruit from another farm on his farm's tables at markets. "I fired those people, and I'll pay the fine, but please let me work, or I'm dead," he said.
Officials declined to identify the vendor who was selling the suspect red mangoes in Santa Monica, saying that the administrative process had not been completed.
Avery, the Santa Monica market supervisor, said she welcomes the oversight.
"I'm thrilled that the Los Angeles agriculture department is going after the cheaters," Avery said. "For farmers markets to continue to prosper, it is crucial that consumers have confidence that vendors really grow what they sell."