Leah Thompson/Santa Maria Times
John DeBruin walks with his son, Hudson, 9, through cattle grazing on their property.
Farmers Market Harvests Discontent
New Plaintiffs Join Antitrust Suit
Thursday, January 31, 2013
Mary and David Wellington built their reputation on jams, jellies, and preserves homemade with fruit from their Goleta orchards. Participants in the Santa Barbara Certified Farmers Market since 1983, the Wellingtons even taught the current board president, Molly Gean of Harry’s Berries in Oxnard, their jam-making process. Now, Cat Moss, the Wellingtons’ daughter — who has run Wellington Farm since 2005 — alleges in an amended lawsuit filed with the Santa Barbara Superior Court last week that Gean is treating her as competition and deliberately limiting her access to markets, thereby violating antitrust law.
The original complaint was filed last month by Jeff Hendrickson and Roxanne Renner, a married couple who own Santa Rita Flower Farm near Lompoc, but new plaintiffs — Moss and John and Nadine de Bruin, owners of Dey Dey’s Best Beef Ever — have joined the suit, which is being pursued by Christman, Kelley & Clarke.
In violation of California’s Cartwright Act, the lawsuit alleges, “Local, certified organic producers are excluded in favor of corporate, out-of-town operations that falsely claim their product is ‘organic.’” Furthermore, the plaintiffs argue, members of the Farmers Market board — seven of the nine members do not live in Santa Barbara County — protect each other and their cronies, thereby fixing prices.
Leah Thompson/Santa Maria Times
John DeBruin admires 2-day-old chicks at his family’s farm.
“It’s like an old boy’s club,” said John de Bruin, who began raising grass-fed, hormone- and antibiotic-free cattle in the Santa Rita Hills west of Buellton in 2003. The de Bruins joined the association in 2009. They sell beef and chicken at the Wednesday Solvang market and Sunday Goleta market. Initially, they were forbidden from selling chicken, which they also raise on their ranch.
They were put on probation in 2010, presumably for selling chickens at the Thursday Goleta market, an accusation they deny. Nadine explained that they sold three chickens after the only chicken vendor at the market ran out, and only then with the express permission of market manager Sam Edelman. John was prohibited from running for the board during their year probation, he said. (One of the other litigants, Renner, ran unsuccessfully for the board.)
None of the plaintiffs in the suit have gained access to the lucrative Tuesday and Saturday markets in downtown Santa Barbara. Wellington Farm lost its spot after its kitchen flooded in 2005, temporarily precluding the owners’ ability to make preserves. Around the same time, Moss took over the farm from her mother and went on the wait list. To improve her odds of moving off the list, she developed products like sugar-free jams not offered by other vendors. All of the plaintiffs claim that the wait lists maintained by the Farmers Market are inaccurate and nontransparent, and that the board does not follow a consistent protocol when deciding who moves into open slots.
By Paul Wellman
Cat Moss in her Goleta home with some of her jam.
The suit names the board, as well as Gean specifically and Sam Edelman, the nonprofit’s general manager. Gean did not return calls from The Santa Barbara Independent. Edelman did but said he’d been advised by legal counsel not to publicly address the allegations — a more insinuating one being that Edelman uses Farmers Market equipment for his personal wholesale business. Edelman has worked at the market since he was in high school. The Farmers Market lawyer, Tim Trager, said he would prefer to let the legal process play out rather than to comment on the case.
It remains to be decided whether members of the same organization can “conspire” or whether the Farmers Market is subject to the Cartwright antitrust law. The most interesting questions raised by the suit, however, may lie outside of the legal process. Namely, does the market reflect the desires of the community?
Market rules prioritize proximity to the market location but say nothing about “organic” products or the size of the farm, even if folk wisdom says that the market was initially created for family farms that have no other means of reaching their customers.
Some farmers believe that the board should include a non-grower who would have no financial conflict of interest when reviewing applications. One 30-year veteran suggested two such boardmembers — one from the Santa Barbara area and one from outside the county. The lawyer for the plaintiffs, Matthew Da Vega, suggested that when the board is deciding whether the inclusion of a new seller will saturate the market with a specific product that they allow for a trial period.
Sandy Newman, who grows off-season blueberries at Forbidden Fruit Orchards in Lompoc, said she has been trying to get into the Farmers Market for five years and that her customers are “so angry” she isn’t a member. Instead, she sells in Los Angeles–area markets. Summing up the question of competitiveness that it is now up to the legal system to disentangle, she said of the markets, “They’re all restrictive in some regard.”