In my produce manager days, a customer approached me one day and asked, “Where is the nearest farmers market?”

Farmers market or not, portray yourself accurately

Armand Lobato
The Produce Aisle

“You’re standing in it.” I said. “All these fruits and vegetables came from farms, large and small, all over the country.”

OK, I was being a bit of a wise-apple. I knew she was asking about actual roadside-stand, farmers markets, like those seen in photos in Sunset Magazine, complete with the festive atmosphere and the old truck farmer with the straw hat, overalls and tanned, leather skin. That farmers market.

Mind you, I don’t have a problem with any open-air produce market. These guys work hard to make a buck too. It’s simply another retail format. The questions arise, however, when someone presents their produce as their own, when, as the old George Gershwin song goes, “It ain’t necessarily so.”

I recently read a blog that discussed this very issue. Those contributing their thoughts pointed out that they witnessed produce vendors passing themselves off as genuine truck farmers in a co-op weekend market.

Selling things like bananas. In Detroit. In March.

I even recall one nearby grower who wanted items he didn’t have to supplement sales for his roadside stand. So he purchased cucumbers by the pallet from out of state. Later on, when asked by customers if the repacked cukes were his, he replied yes (with fingers crossed behind his back).

They were “his” all right. He had the purchase orders to prove it.

So in these examples the produce purveyors were not what most would consider a true farmers market but simply street peddlers. Among these are some that take advantage of what is known as the halo effect — capitalizing on the image of local, or homegrown.

Traditional brick-and-mortar retailers play this image to a fault as well, intentionally or otherwise. For example, some organic grocers sell plenty of conventional items too. In such cases the signs are often only subtly different, and many customers are left with the impression that everything offered (produce and grocery items) is organic, when it’s actually a mixture of both.

Sometimes the goods seen at open-air markets are purchased for resale as any supermarket would. Sometimes what is sold is rejected product from nearby warehouses or terminal markets. Other times the product may actually come entirely from a single source, such as a local small grower — or any combination of the above.

The main two points: There’s nothing inherently wrong with selling second-party or nonlocal produce, and produce purveyors in all formats have a responsibility to identify themselves, their banner and the goods they sell all in one manner: Accurately.

Armand Lobato works for the Idaho Potato Commission. His 30 years of experience in the produce business span a range of foodservice and retail positions. E-mail armandlobato@comcast.net.

How do you make sure your produce and your store are represented correctly? Leave a comment and tell us your opinion.