I have a soft spot for my neighborhood farmers market, located in downtown Overland Park, Kan. We’ve taken our kids there since they were babies, jockeying for position in the narrow aisle with the other strollers.

Farmers market sows local controversy

Andy Nelson
Markets Editor

When they got a bit older, the boys splashed in a fountain next to the market while we listened to the bands that played on Saturdays.

We’ve also bought a few bushels’ worth of peaches, watermelons, tomatoes, green beans, sweet corn, etc. over the years.

In the past few months, the Overland Park Farmers Market has been, improbably, the subject of two unflattering stories in our local newspaper, The Kansas City Star.

The first story concerned a man accused of branding as “local” fruits and vegetables grown far from Kansas, Missouri, Arkansas or any other nearby states. Eventually, the guy was kicked off the market.

The second story was about price fixing. Allegedly, vendors at the market have colluded to raise prices outside the range allowed under Kansas law.

Some vendors who were denied licenses this year have picketed the market, saying they didn’t get licenses because they knew about the price-fixing and threatened to blow the whistle. Overland Park’s city manager and Kansas’s attorney general have subsequently launched investigations.

As a neutral observer, I find this tempest in a teapot fairly amusing. You don’t tend to associate price fixing, picketing and multi-level government intervention with suburban farmers markets.

As an Overland Park resident and longtime patron of the market, I’m a little disappointed and annoyed.
As an observer of the produce industry, however, I have to admit to feeling a little gratified.

Over the past few years we’ve been bombarded with stories about the virtues of locally grown. This trend has been accelerated by the Obama administration, which has been a big advocate for produce (good), but an even bigger advocate for organic and locally grown (not always good).

Whether intentionally or not, local has been too often portrayed as the good guy, and Big Produce — that is, the grower-shippers who provide us with the vast majority of hundreds of fresh fruits and vegetable every day of the year — as the bad guy, or at least the less-good guy.

So it’s with some satisfaction that one reads about the possibly unseemly business practices of the holy, lily-white locally grown industry.

The price-fixing scheme caught me by surprise. As for the guy caught selling stuff from Georgia or California or wherever as local, that shouldn’t surprise anyone with the slightest knowledge of farmers markets.

Such people know they can dupe those so eager to be holier-than-thou locavores that they’re more than willing to suspend disbelief for their dream of year-round local sourcing.

Dream on.

Email anelson@thepacker.com

What's your take on the local produce movement? Leave a comment and tell us your opinion.