Permit length concerns farmers’ market vendors, delays bill to amend food code

By KARI WILLIAMS

Staff Reporter

Concerns about a seven-month permit for some farmers’ market vendors further delayed a bill to amend the food code for St. Louis County farmers’ markets.

The bill, introduced last month by 4th District Councilman Michael O’Mara, D-Florissant, proposes to change the cost of permits for farmers’ market vendors from $35 for a 14-day period to $75 for a seven-month period. For vendors operating at more than one location at a time, a second permit would cost $50.

The proposed changes only affect vendors who are “cutting, prepping or cooking food for sampling or selling,” according to a letter from Delores Gunn, director of the St. Louis County Department of Health.

Farmers’ market managers and market masters approached the County Council’s Committee of the Whole last week about wording in the bill that some say restricts vendors to selling their products only seven months per year. The concerns caused the committee to hold on any further legislative action until the bill’s language is clarified.

Clayton Farmers’ Market Manager Deb Henderson said the way the bill reads it does not make provisions for winter markets.

“Wording, since this is a legal document, needs to be changed,” Henderson said.

Gunn said the seven-month timeframe was chosen because it coincides with farmers’ growing season.

“I know technology changes and some farmers can do a little bit more into the winter time, and that doesn’t prohibit them from doing that,” Gunn said.

If a farmer can extend his or her growing season by an extra two or three months with technology, and he or she is selling whole, uncut produce, Gunn said they are not charged a permit either way.

“So for the actual farmer, you could go past the seven months if you’re selling whole, uncut up fruits and vegetables and not doing anything beyond the sampling guideline,” Gunn said. “As individuals are getting to a point where they’re beginning to cook and prepare foods for the public year round, that’s where we begin to have concern.”

Brian DeSmet, Maplewood farmers’ market manager, said he keeps getting hung up on the seven-month issue.

“I know it’s been explained now, kind of … but I don’t really understand why there’s the seven-month prohibition,” DeSmet said. “It seems like (the health department is) more worried about some sort of permanent food establishment happening at a farmers’ market. At my market, that’s not even an option because we’re actually held at Schlafly Bottleworks, and we’re in the parking lot and then inside …”

Third District Councilwoman Colleen Wasinger, R-Town and Country, said she believes there has been a misunderstanding about the definition of a winter market and how winter markets will be permitted.

“If we need to tweak some language, I think that’s reasonable,” she said.

Gunn said regardless of how many months a vendor would like to operate, an individual permit cannot be higher than $75. A second permit would cost $50 under the proposed bill, and the total cost for permits is capped at $193.

Kori Thompson, Kirkwood farmer’s market master, said she believes he proposed bill meets requests for lower fees, citing a vendor from Columbia who stopped coming to the market due to the fees and the economy.

“I think it’ll help a lot of people,” Thompson said. “Maybe the seven month thing is an issue, hopefully we can all work that out, but it still sounds like with the $75, (and) if we add the $50, it’ll still be less expensive for a lot of us.”

Molly Rockamann, founding director of Earth Dance Farms, said it sounds like good progress has been made, but suggested including market managers and farmers when clarifying the bill’s language.

“… So it’s not just legalese to a lot of us, but there’s actually an agreed and accepted terminology and language on both parties because it is something that very strongly affects the viability of small scale growers,” Rockamann said.

Fifth District Councilman Pat Dolan, D-Richmond Heights, said he is “all for” working with market managers in clarifying the bill.

Input from county market managers is appreciated, according to Wasinger, because they bring a different perspective to the council.

“I think they bring the real-world perspective, which is so very important when you’re trying to draft legislation, and we are not out there,” Wasinger said. “We’re not out there running the markets and getting the vendors in there.”

Farmers’ markets are, according to Wasinger, a “community builder.”

“People love to go to farmers’ markets … and I don’t think any council member would ever want to be construed as saying we are trying to strangle the farmers’ market industry because nothing could be further from the truth,” Wasinger said.

Goals of the bill included streamlining the process and reducing fees, which Wasinger said she thinks the bill does.

“The one area which has obviously garnered a lot of concern is the seven month perception that it’s a limitation on operation,” Wasinger said. “Hearing Dr. Gunn tonight, I hope that has clarified that that was not the intent …”