ATLANTA — When you buy organic, how do you know you’re really getting organic?
Channel 2 consumer investigator Jim Strickland spent weeks digging into a local store’s claims about its organic and all-natural produce and found a so-called farmer planting seeds of doubt.
After a tip, Strickland checked out business owner Kim Shelley’s claims that inventory at his Farmer’s Produce Market in Cumming came straight from his own farm, and that the products were certified naturally grown, organic and produced without genetic engineering.
When Channel 2 went shopping at Shelley’s tent at the weekly farmers market in downtown Alpharetta, he backed up his website’s claims.
“Most everything we grow is certified natural grown,” Shelley told an undercover producer. “We don't use any GMO seeds of any kind; we don't use any herbicides, chemicals, no sprays. All of our soft fruits are certified organic.”
He told producers that he drove his big white box truck down to the family farm on the south Georgia-Alabama border twice a week, nearly a nine-hour round trip, to pick up farm-fresh produce.
But investigators didn’t find Shelley harvesting fresh fruits and vegetables in fields; they found him at the Atlanta State Farmers Market in Forest Park.
The undercover investigation
For weeks, Channel 2 shot video of Shelley loading his truck with goods at the market, then unloading the boxes at his red barn in Cumming.
Vendors at the State Farmers Market, including Alexander’s Produce, confirmed that they do not sell organic, naturally grown or GMO-free produce.
“People will pay a little bit more for certified organic food,” Michael Wall of Georgia Organics said.
Wall said true organic producers could be hurt by imposter produce.
“That's their money potentially going to a farmer who's kind of playing outside the rules,” Wall said.
Down the street from Shelley’s stand, produce vendor Leslie Callaway said she’s lost 75 percent of her corn business to competitors who make false claims about how their goods are grown.
“I have customers come in all day long and say, 'Is this organic?' And I tell the truth: 'No, it's not,'” Callaway said.
Of the others, Callaway said: "They’re taking advantage of the consumer's wallet."
Organic farmer Charlotte Swancey said being certified organic involves a lot of record keeping and hard work.
“We have an inspector, and you keep track and records of everything that you do. From the time you plant the seed to the plant, there's traceability,” she told Strickland. “People buy organic things because they don't want those chemicals.”
Strickland visited Shelley’s store in Cumming to ask him about his trips to the State Farmers Market.
“I wanted to ask you about claims that you grow organic and naturally grown produce. Is that true?” Strickland asked Shelley.
“Yes, we do,” Shelley replied.
When Strickland asked why he couldn’t find any evidence of Shelley’s farm being registered on an organic or naturally grown registry, Shelley said he should be registered organic in Alabama, and did not know why his farm and store were not listed on the naturally grown list.
USDA shows no listing for Shelley's organic farm.
“We've watched you, sir, at the State Farmers Market buying conventionally grown produce,” Strickland said.
“No, sir, you have not, sorry,” Shelley said. “Are you sure we're loading or unloading? We sell to vendors down there.”
The Georgia Department of Agriculture inspects every vehicle that sells at the market in Forest Park. Records obtained by Strickland indicate Shelley has not supplied the market since 2010.
When Strickland asked Shelley for the address of his farm to verify his claims, Shelley refused to give it. Neither the USDA Farm Service Agency nor the extension office where he claims the farm is located have any record of his farm.
Channel 2 reached Shelley’s mother by phone. She said their family does own a farm in Henry County, Alabama, but they do not grow vegetables and are not organic.
She said they grow row crops, like cotton and peanuts. Records show that the farm is operated by Shelley’s brother.
In a 2008 bankruptcy filing, Shelley listed no farm ownership or partnerships. He indicated in the file that he was a builder who had gone under.
“I've been doing this a long time and I see people like that come and go all the time because this is such a tough business,” Swancey said. “People know. People begin to catch on and realize what's real and what's not.”
Strickland learned inspectors from the Department of Agriculture have warned Shelley to stop making unsubstantiated claims about his products, but he only complied after Strickland’s investigation was made public.
Shelley has altered his website to drop the word organic, and speaks of his "support farms," rather than implying that he owns the farm.