Farmers markets are in! The Kansas City metro has at least 70.
Over the past few years, attendance at the City Market has skyrocketed, recently expanding to Wednesday evenings.
Most customers don’t know the produce they’re putting on their plate is rigorously inspected, checked and loved by a woman named Deb Connors, the City Market's farm inspector and market master. Many who work within the City Market say the success is thanks to her hard work.
Connors goes the extra mile, hopping in her truck to inspect the farms that sell produce at the farmers markets. All the farms have to be within a 500-mile radius. Sometimes her inspections take her to Arkansas.
The day 41 Action News followed Connors, she went to Farley, Missouri, a tiny town about 30 minutes north of Kansas City. The Oberdiek and Horn farms were her first two visits.
Armed with a clipboard and a friendly smile, she gets to work. She asks a lot of questions.
“It gives me a feel that he’s doing this,” she says as she looks at the Oberdiek’s greenhouse full of tomatoes. When she sees them selling tomatoes so early, she'll know why.
She asks how many plants they have, how they’re planted, when they're planted.
“I look to see if they have a cooler, I ask them where their water comes from, where do they wash their produce?” she said.
Before a vendor can even step foot in the City Market, they have to meet Connors' long list of criteria.
“My policy at the City Market is, I take pictures of their stall, what they’re selling,” Connors said. “And they don’t know I’m coming, I just go out to their farm and inspect the produce. It should match up.”
Those are standards that Connors says weren’t there when she got the job 13 years ago.
“There was a lot of produce that wasn’t necessarily grown by the person selling it. I think there was some deception to customers,” Connors said.
The whole point is to make sure vendors are growing most of what they’re selling. Farmers can supplement, meaning they can buy from other local farmers, but at least half of the produce must come from their own farm. If it's not, Connors can tell. She will give a verbal warning, then a written warning, then could ask the vendor not to come back.
Watch below to hear what Connors says to look for when shopping at farmers markets. If you cannot see the media player below, click here.
Connors doesn't inspect the wholesalers at the market, so that's why you'll see those stores selling avocados from Mexico, for example.
Connors is not a USDA certified food inspector, but she has an extensive background in food safety. She managed the GSA Cafeteria on Bannister Road and the Federal Cafeteria in the Federal Building in downtown KC. She’s currently on the board of the Missouri Farmers Market Association and was appointed to the Food Protection Advisory Board. She’s also a part of AgriMissouri, NAPMM and the Farmers Market Coalition.
After working for the City Market over the past decade, she’s seeing the fruits of her labor. She championed the successful Sunday market, and each weekend customers can visit nearly 150 farm stalls.
The heartbeat of the market, though, is her relationship with the farmers.
Gary Oberdiek, whose farm has been in the family since the 1800’s, says the inspections assures there are better farmers at the market than ever before.
“I like that she comes out and looks,” Oberdiek said.
“You get to know the farmer,” Connors said. “You know their practices, there’s that one-on-one conversation you have. It gets the right questions asked so that the produce quality is better at the market.”
That ultimately translates to how people think about their food.
“Since we do have more and more people wanting local produce, it does connect customers to their food. For them to meet the farmer and know somebody’s accountable, I think that’s huge,” Connors said.
Connors says people are surprised when she tells them she inspects every single farmer that sells at the City Market. She writes down what she sees during her weekly inspections here.
Watch to hear what Connors needs from farmers who sell baked good items or processed food items. If you cannot see the media player below, click here.
To see the City Market Farmers Market vendor handbook, click here.
For a complete list of farmers markets in the KC metro, click here.
Sarah Plake can be reached at Sarah.Plake@KSHB.com