Capitalizing on the growing demand safely
High-quality, locally grown food sources are a hit with American consumers. As a result, farmers’ markets have mushroomed in cities across the country.
From the farmers’ point of view, says Bob Dallesandro, executive director of the Boulder County Farmers’ Markets, “The hope was that by creating a successful farmers’ market it would stimulate and revive interest in small-scale, local agriculture.” They operate in the towns of Boulder and Longmont, Colo.
Just as baseball has umpires, commerce has regulators. Farmers’ markets do not escape the notice of city governments. Depending on the market—and the city—certain rules must be followed and certain requirements must be met. In the case of the Colorado markets, Dallesandro says, “In Longmont, we are at the county fairgrounds, and it is much less restrictive because we are in a very large parking lot.
“In Boulder [where the market started in 1986], we are on a city street adjacent to downtown and a park. We have issues related to parking, access to bathrooms, electricity and water, as well as traffic and pedestrian safety.
“I can best sum up the situation by saying that the city of Boulder is supportive of the farmers’ market and tries to be helpful whenever possible. Difficulties arise not so much due to local ordinances and codes, but because the city has no category in which to put us. They treat us as a “special event.” This, typically, is the legal category for a one-day or weekend event. “In reality,” Dallesandro says, “We are an ongoing commercial enterprise operating eight months of the year, two days a week.”
In the upper Midwest, where long-established growers are joined by relative newcomers from Asia, farmers’ markets are not only springing up, but jostling each other a bit, too.
For instance, a downtown office complex, the Fifth Street Towers in Minneapolis, Minn., has taken the initiative of outreach to its tenants (law firms and similar groups) by inviting providers of produce to set up tables in the large sidewalk area that fronts the buildings.
Since the city of Minneapolis already has two large, well-established markets (one within two blocks of the Fifth Street Towers), some restrictions applied, according to Katie Tufford, general manager of the towers, where the market was brand-new this year.
“A significant amount of work went into the permitting process, mainly because the ‘Mini Market’ program is a new program in the city of Minneapolis,” she said. “It [the program] is meant for neighborhood street corners to bring fresh produce to distressed areas, but we saw it as an opportunity to provide another amenity to our tenants.
“We recruited growers from other farmers’ markets in Minneapolis,” Tufford said. “The restriction in the Mini Market program is that [the produce] has to be locally grown; the other farmers’ markets do not have that restriction. It was difficult to find growers, because the program is so new and the customer response unknown.” She added, “We hope to have a variety of growers in the future to be able to rotate them in and out.”
The adaptability doesn’t end there, though.
Because the citizens appreciate the good food, most city governments are supportive of markets and try to make it easy for markets to do business.
“The city of Boulder and the Boulder County governments have jumped on the bandwagon in recent years,” Dallesandro says. “Both are working on plans to make city and county open-space land available to small-scale farming operations at below-market rents. Our county extension agent has pioneered a Beginning Farmers program that trains wannabe farmers in the ‘business’ of farming. Several of his graduates now sell at our markets.”
Portland, Ore., has a somewhat similar situation. According to Anna Curtin, education and outreach specialist for the Portland Farmers’ Market (which began in 1992), “One of our challenges—and sometimes blessings—is that area markets operate without formal city regulation.
“We currently have an ongoing dialogue with city of Portland staff to develop a farmers’ market ordinance,” she says. However, this has not yet become a reality.
“For our markets located on Portland Parks and Recreation property, we have a contractual lease agreement with the city of Portland. Our markets are considered temporary events, similar to music concerts and one-time festivals. Building codes do not apply, as all our markets are outdoor and seasonal. As far as health guidelines, we voluntarily comply with Oregon Department of Agriculture (ODA) guidelines as well as Multnomah County Food Safety Division requirements.”
Questions of regulation and enforcement are being actively examined, she added.
On the other end of the size spectrum from Portland or Boulder is Ohio’s Strongsville Market, held once a week only during the months of August and September. The city—which instituted the idea back in 2003—takes care of all the paperwork, according to Kathy Sazima, senior services coordinator for the city.
The market runs on city property near the town’s library and ball fields. Access is easy, and parking is plentiful.
“We charge $20 a week and give a discount for growers who sign up for the whole season,” she said. Growers set up tables to sell their goods. The market provides locally grown fruits, vegetables, flowers and honey, and local jellies and baked goods from 12 to 20 vendors.
Strongsville’s market began in 1993 when a member of the senior citizens group suggested the idea—that’s how the Strongsville senior services coordinator ended up in charge. “It is a city function, so we do all the coordination,” Sazima continued. Whether a grower is there for the full season or comes just to market early-season corn or late-season fruits, the basics are provided.
Police to direct traffic, publicity in local media and signage are also provided by the city.
Another novel program has taken root at a Minneapolis hospital, again instigated by everyday people who wanted fresh food. “The farmers’ market came about five years ago as an idea from employees at Park Nicollet to be able to purchase fresh, locally grown produce while at work,” said Sarah Gierke, Park Nicollet’s healthy living employee wellness coordinator. “The vendors have to complete an application and pay a fee of $50 to participate for the season.”
Since the hospital is in the Minneapolis suburb of St. Louis Park, vendors also have to sign a contract waiver with the city. The hospital, for its part, receives approval from the city to provide the market on-site, according to Gierke. Each vendor, with the exception of the produce vendors, has to complete an application to the city of St. Louis Park, and the vendors are subject to inspection prior to approval. Vendors have to comply with city regulations and sanitation rules in order to be approved to participate. “City inspectors come to our markets to check each vendor and make random checks throughout the market season,” she explained.
As farmers’ markets proliferate, local government bodies are working to catch up. So far, the vendors at these generally once-a-week markets have the lead—and their clientele are reaping the fresh-food, locally grown benefits.
Ron Stevens and Curt Harler are both freelance writers based in the Midwest and frequent contributors.