Regulations forcing some to quit market

The vendors and organizers of Warren Farmers’ Market are not celebrating as the event’s 40th year begins.

Instead, they are trying to bolster the number of people participating and working to make sure there is a 41st year.

Farmers’ Market Coordinator Tom Frair expects there to be fewer vendors this year and that could be a downward spiral.

“If we have less vendors, we have less variety, we have less customers,” Frair said. “It’s a snowball.”

There are 15 vendors signed up this year.

That number is down from a typical early season number of about 20.

The ranks will swell as the growing season progresses, Frair said, adding, “More vendors will be coming on. We’ll have a great selection of fruits and vegetables in season through the fall.”

But that growth is typical and does not make up for an overall shortage.

Frair believes that the legal situation around the market is the chief factor. In 2010, the state made a change to the agriculture code – Act 106. The law went into effect in 2011 and has trickled down over time. The impact of the law hit Farmers’ Market this year.

The act requires vendors, like those at Farmers’ Market, who sell non-potentially hazardous foods (NPHFs) – including baked goods, jellies and jams, pickles, honey, maple syrup, and others – to have their processing areas, generally their kitchens, inspected. Inspections are handled by the state Department of Agriculture. There is a $35 annual fee associated with the inspections.

Among other things, the rules say children may not be in the processing area during processing and pets are not allowed in that area at all, Frair said. Ingredients used in production for sale must be kept in separate containers from ingredients for home use.

The City of Warren, as a Local Health Jurisdiction, handles inspections at Farmers’ Market for “potentially hazardous foods” including eggs, milk, meat, and cheese. Those items are subject to inspection by a local health officer , Frair said.

Producers of PHFs are subject to a $50 temporary retail food license through the city. “We call it the egg tax,” Frair said.

“People are viewing it as a tax,” said Michele Bango, a vendor at the Warren Farmers’ Market who sells neither PHFs nor NPHFs. “People don’t want to deal with it.”

She has been trying to drum up interest among potential vendors.

“We’re trying,” she said. “It’s not that people don’t want to come and sell their stuff. It’s government – federal, state, and local.”

“We lost all but one of our bakers,” Bango said. “People just can’t afford to have their kitchens inspected.”

“The whole idea is to make a little bit of money,” she said. “Any little tax is going to cut into the money.”

The act does not impact vendors who bring “raw agricultural products” like fruits and vegetables.

There are other products that will not be impacted. This year, the market will include non-food items made from agriculture or horticulture products – grape-vine wreaths, beeswax candles, catnip toys, and natural soaps.

Bango said she is trying to recruit people who make products like that.

“I’m trying to find people who maybe aren’t involved in the food aspects of it,” she said. “We’re hoping that brings in a few more vendors.”

Frair said the inspections and fees, both city and state, have a negative effect on the market now and into the future, stressing, “It prevents new vendors from even wanting to get involved.”

He said he was told city officials are simply being fair in enforcing the laws of the state.

“The city’s obligation, duty and role in the enforcement of the health licensing laws for the City of Warren is to be in compliance with state law as a Local Health Jurisdiction,” City Administrator Mary Ann Nau said. “Enforcement should be administered fairly across all those who fall under the definition of ‘retail food facility.’ That definition since 2011 takes in persons who vend at farmer’s market. Each individual stand (vendor) is now considered a retail food facility. The new law is meant to provide an added layer of protection for consumers and avoid entire farmer’s markets from being closed due to food safety violations related to a single vendor.”

The vendors understand the point of the state law, but believe it goes too far.

“We all know that food safety is an important concern,” Frair said. However, “This is a farmers’ market. If you don’t like the looks of the cookies or the bread… don’t buy them.”

“I can see where the city’s coming from,” Bango said. “I don’t have a problem with oversight. You have to have that.”

“But I can see the farmer’s side a little better,” she said. “It’s sad that something that’s been so prosperous for so long (is suffering) because of government. They should be looking out for the farmer and the entrepreneurs.”

“My opinion of Act 106 and the city’s insistence on enforcing it to the letter is that (officials think) Farmers’ Market vendors are neither smart enough nor responsible enough to produce a safe, wholesome product at home,” Frair said.

Attempts to have the law amended have been unsuccessful. “We proposed to our state representative and state senator an amendment which would exempt small sales volume direct-to-consumer vendors to help people who want to be farmers’ market vendors,” Frair said.

Neither Rep. Kathy Rapp’s office nor Sen. Joe Scarnati’s expressed confidence that any changes would be made, he said.

Frair and Rapp share some concerns about Act 106. “It’s not a bill that I voted for because I was worried about possible burdensome regulation on our rural vendors,” Rapp said. “You balance that with food safety.”

However, she said she has consulted with colleagues on the Agriculture Committee and with the department and the complaints from Warren Farmers’ Market are, apparently, unique.

“I have not, and they have not heard from other vendors across the state,” she said. “It doesn’t sound like this has been a concern to any other communities across the state. It seems to be a local issue.”

Rapp said she is keeping an eye on the situation. “It’s on my radar,” she said. “If they want me to make further inquiries, I’m already doing that.”

She recommended the website as a source of information.