Changes, hope on tap for Farmers’ Market

Warren Farmers’ Market is looking at some changes heading into its 40th year.

But, there is good news – “there will be a Farmers’ Market.”

There is always some turnover among the vendors, but there will likely be more than usual this year.

Newly acknowledged rules requiring inspections of kitchens where foods are processed for sale have led to the loss of some vendors. “When a vendor signs up now, they’ll have to show their certification,” Coordinator Josie Gerardi said.

The state requires kitchen inspections to ensure sure food preparers are conducting business in a safe and sanitary way.

The inspection is not an onerous one, according to Gerardi. And she would know. She has been undergoing the inspection process because she sells products at other locations.

“I’ve had my kitchen inspected for six years now,” she said.

“The state inspection costs $35. That’s very reasonable,” she said. “It’ll probably cost the person a little bit as far as getting their kitchen ready for inspection.”

When inspectors first visited her kitchen, Gerardi had to buy a refrigerator thermometer. She already had an oven thermometer or that would have been an additional cost.

There are also costs associated with keeping ingredients to be sold separate from ingredients for home use, another requirement of the inspection, she said.

The City of Warren hosts Farmers’ Market and does bear responsibility for making sure the market is in compliance with the law.

And some vendors might see a license fee from the city.

“The city license fee, if any applies, is dependent on what a vendor is selling,” City Administrator Mary Ann Nau said. “For instance, if a vendor is selling raw products from the farm – fruits and vegetables that have been harvested but not processed in any way (that even means slice) or selling pre-packaged, non-potentially hazardous items (this may include baked goods, jams, candy, canned picked food products, bottled juices, apple cider, honey products, etc.) prepared in a kitchen that is registered, licensed and inspected by the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture as a home processor they are exempt from licensing.”

Nau said she is working on creating a new health officer tab on the city’s website featuring information and answers to frequently asked questions.

Some of the vendors learned more about the rules at a meeting with Penn State Cooperative Extension Educator Juliette Enfield. “The meeting was well attended,” Enfield said. “The participants received information about kitchen inspection and using USDA inspected facilities outside their home. They also learned about exemptions to the rules such as a one-time bake sale event.”

Much has been made of regulations about keeping pets and children out of the food preparation area, Gerardi said.

People with outdoor pets will not have a problem.

And, the rules do not say there cannot be children in the house or the kitchen.

“As far as safety is concerned, you wouldn’t want them running around,” Gerardi said. “If I’m working with boiling liquids… I don’t want little ones under foot.”

“A lot of it’s just common sense,” she said. “It’s nothing to me that if you run a clean home, a clean kitchen, that you wouldn’t comply.”

“We’ve never had any problem, but it doesn’t mean we can’t have a problem in the future,” Gerardi said.

“Inspection is no big thing,” she said. “It’s something that’s needed – sanitation.”

Still, the requirements are enough to discourage some vendors.

Gerardi expects Farmers’ Market to shrink this year from the 24 vendors that were signed up in 2013.

“It won’t be as big as ever,” Gerardi said. “I’m really sad about that.”

Among those who will not be returning is at least one whose decision is based in large part on the inspections.

“Linda Spencer – the pie lady – she does an incredible job with pies,” Gerardi said. “Linda’s not going to be there.”

The market will lose another vendor, and its coordinator.

Gerardi, who has been coordinator for four years, is out this year, but not because of the rules.

She recently underwent surgery on her arm and plans to “lay low” for a while.

“I’ve been trying to get a replacement,” she said. “I haven’t been able to find anyone.”

She has reached out to the vendors and to the coordinator of the Penn State Master Gardeners, with no prospects so far.

“I said to the vendors if I couldn’t get a replacements, maybe we could get a committee to run different aspects.

“The Farmer’s Market generally opens the second week of June,” Nau said. “A 60-day window is needed for processing new application, and everyone will be new this year as the process is new. Applications will need to be received by the City’s Health Officer by second week of April.”

It will be an eventful year, and Gerardi hopes it’s simply a transition.

“It won’t be as it has been, but nothing is,” she said. “Things change. The Farmers’ Market is going to have quite a change.”

“Hopefully it will recover,” she said. “Hopefully the people who do processed foods will discover it’s not a big thing. And it’s not.”