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County proposes new regulations for farmers' markets

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Jan. 26, 2012 - After years of wading through bundles of paperwork and paying steep fees, farmers' market advocates see promise in a push to overhaul regulations in St. Louis County.

But not all the feedback has been positive, with some managers concerned that the proposal could curtail winter markets. And at least one market manager says that the changes, while a step in the right direction, don't go far enough.

The proposal, introduced before the St. Louis County Council this week, is still preliminary. St. Louis County Council Chairman Mike O'Mara, D-Florissant, who sent the measure to a subcommittee, said a public hearing will be held in at 5 p.m., Tues., Feb. 14 in the council chamber.

That's good news to some market managers.

"I'm very concerned with the draft," said Deb Henderson, the market master of the Clayton Farmers Market. But "they are listening to our efforts, and they're going to give us a public hearing. That's what I'm pleased about."

Push For Change

Farmers' markets may evoke a simpler, more relaxed era, but managers say dealing with the St. Louis County Department of Health has been anything but simple.

There's been particular friction from vendors who sell (and offer samples of) prepared foods. State law bars charging a farmer for selling "unprepared foods," such as fruit and vegetables. But the system is different for vendors serving "prepared foods," such as jams, bread or pies.

For example, if farmers bring in a bushel of apples to a market, they could sell or provide samples without paying a county permit.

But if they were selling homemade applesauce, they would need a permit. Currently, these merchants must apply for a $35 permit every two weeks during the seven-month season to sell and offer samples of +prepared foods.

Henderson said some vendors were being charged "exorbitant" fees, citing a vendor who cooked waffles being charged $300 for various permits.

Kori Thompson, market master for the Kirkwood Farmers' Market, said the process was often confusing.

"The merchants or the farmers were having problems with the Department of Health because they were confused about permits, they felt like the permitting fees were too high, and the inspection process was not quite appropriate for the venue," she said.

Dolores Gunn, director of the St. Louis County Department of Health, said permits are necessary because farmers' markets can be an epicenter for food contamination and the permit fees help pay for the necessary inspections.

"When we have [food-based outbreak illnesses] like you saw this fall, people really do get sick," said Gunn, adding that farmers' markets, buffets and homemade foods are often the culprits.

Thompson said she started discussing the problems with Councilwoman Colleen Wasinger, R-Town and Country, a couple of years ago. Other market masters, she said, started consulting with council members soon afterward.

"This is an issue that's been worked on for a couple of years," Thompson said. "And we've been asking for a streamlined process and lower permitting fees."

New Regs a Mixed Bag

After market managers came to the health department with concerns, Gunn said her agency decided to push for an overhaul.

"We also looked at the cost structure for farmers' markets, and we simplified it," Gunn said. "Instead of vendors reapplying every 14 days for a permit, for the season, they would make just one application -- one-page, very simplified -- and it would be $75 for the entire season."

The health department's changes were include in an ordinance introduced Tuesday. Other changes include:

  • Revises the costs and process for permits. Under the new system, a vendor selling or providing samples of prepared foods would pay $75 to set up shop at one location. The permit would last for seven months. Vendors would pay an additional $50 for a second location and $50 for a third. The most vendors could be charged is $193 if they are operating at four or more locations with concurrent operating dates.

  • Bars "live animals, birds or fowl" from being kept or allowed within 20 feet of any area where food is stored or for sale. That would mean that dogs would not be allowed in farmers' markets.

  • Prompts farmers' markets to provide "approved toilet and hand-washing facilities."

  • Stipulates that food establishments must be equipped with "overhead protection for all food preparation, food storage and ware-washing areas." The overhead projection must be made of wood, canvas or other materials to protect the facility from rain, bird or insect droppings, or dust.

On Tuesday, market managers commented during the council meeting. Thompson, for example, called the ordinance "an excellent start."
"We're pleased that St. Louis County listened to our concerns about the costs associated with the permitting process, and as a result they have developed a more reasonable fee structure for local producers," Thompson said.

Brian DeSmet, the manager of the Maplewood Farmers' Market, said he liked many aspects of the bill, but he expressed concern about whether a seven-month permit would impede winter markets.

"This is a great first draft and I really like that it addresses fees," DeSmet said. "I think a couple of other issues could be worked on. Specifically, Maplewood farmers' market runs every week for for seven months. Then during the winter, we do one a month. I don't know how it would affect us if it says a farmers' market is only seven months long. We've been doing that for five or six years."

Gunn said that vendors could reapply after seven months and the ordinance would not prevent winter markets.

Henderson said that the fees were "moving in the right direction," but don't go far enough. It's not right, she said, to compare farmers' market vendors to restaurants.

"They're still charging [close to] $200 for what amounts to approximately 16 to 20 hours of business a week," Henderson said. "And a full-service restaurant that's been in operation for a few years may pay that. ... It's like comparing a truckload of watermelons to a basket full of apples. It's a big difference."

But Gunn said that the fees pay for the inspectors, adding that Jefferson County and St. Charles County charge more than what is in the proposal.

"We have to pay the burden of actually getting people out to do inspections every single month at all the markets," Gunn said. "And that costs the county and taxpayers money to do."

Jason Rosenbaum is a freelance journalist in St. Louis.

Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.