A single, annual farmers market fee for St. Louis County vendors is a favorable solution to concerns over costs assessed by the county's health department, three elected officials said Tuesday.
The comments came during an executive session of the St. Louis County Council Justice and Health Committee, which includes District 5 Councilman Pat Dolan of Richmond Heights. Attendees included representatives from markets in Clayton, Ellisville and Ferguson. The St. Louis County Department of Health did not have a representative at the meeting.
Dolan and his committee colleagues, District 1 Councilwoman Hazel Erby of University City and District 3 Councilwoman Colleen Wasinger of Town and Country, appear prepared to pursue two courses of action. One would go into effect later this year, and another would be enacted for the 2012 market season.
First, Erby said Tuesday that the committee will consider ways to prevent vendors from being charged certain fees unlawfully, a measure that would be enacted as quickly as possible following council approval. Wasinger said the council received a letter from the Missouri Department of Agriculture indicating that state law protects farmers who sell unprepared food products, such as eggs and apples from those fees.
Second, committee members said they would consider ways to develop a tiered permitting system, effective starting in the 2012 season that would require market vendors to pay one yearly fee. Vendors would have a permit listing the markets at which they have received authorization to sell. The amount of the fee likely would vary, depending on whether the vendor is a farmer; provides free samples; or prepares food at the market and then sells it.
Deborah Henderson, manager of the Clayton Farmer's Market, recommended that a tiered system further be broken down in the farmer category according to whether the farmer sells produce or foods that must be more carefully monitored for temperature and handling, such as eggs and meat.
Vendors operating a food truck that already undergoes inspection by the health department would not be assessed a separate fee.
Market directors have expressed concern that the county's system of two vendor permits—one that must be renewed every two weeks and another that must be obtained seasonally for each market at which a person sells—is burdensome and costly to small-scale farmers.
Wasinger said the comments she has heard from market representatives indicate the system of obtaining recurring permits "is not efficient at all" and does not provide an additional safety benefit. That's because health inspectors already conduct checks at markets on a regular basis.
She said the committee requested additional information on farmers markets from the county's health department two weeks ago but "to date, we haven't heard anything yet."
The current fees "we feel are over-regulation," said Steve Jawor, owner of Great Harvest Bakery in Olivette. The 10-year-old bakery has participated in four county farmers markets for the past eight years, including the Wildwood Farmers' Market. But he said he stopped giving away free samples of bread at the market in 2010 when the health department started requiring a fee for the practice.
Jawor still gives out free samples at his bakery. He questions why he should have to pay a fee to do so at a market when he pays the health department $350 to inspect his bakery. He said the health department hasn't explained the additional fee to him.
He said the fee for sampling also is in play when he is asked to do "bread slicings" for charitable events, such as wine tastings for fundraisers. He said he donates his bread for these type of affairs, but wonders why he should have to pay for another permit just to participate in charitable fundraisers.
While a single-fee system would still represent an expense, it would also mean that the health department is not "nickeling-and-diming me to death," Jawor said.
Henderson, with the Clayton market, said it's her understanding the committee will take the next two weeks to discuss how to move forward and then present a recommendation to the full council for consideration. She said she was pleased with their response, though she was "a little disappointed" that the health department did not have a representative in attendance.
How This Affects The Wildwood Farmers' Market
Wildwood Farmers' Market manager Glenn Gaehle said he believes having health-related guidelines is good, but that he agrees the county's permit process should be streamlined. "A few adjustments would help everyone," he said, noting that vendors already have to secure permits to sell items and yet another if they want to sample those same items.
Applying common sense, technically, what's the difference between sampling peach or apple slices cut up in front of customers at a farmers' market versus purchasing and consuming that same produce at home? Either way, we consumers are consuming the items. If there is a health risk, consumers face it either way.
The difference, noted Gaehle, is the extra $75 permit required to sample food products. The permit covers 14 days only, he said.
He said he agrees that vendors who handle more temperature-sensitive products, such as meat, eggs, and cheese, should be held to high standards. He said last year, they had some issues with a vendor who sold seafood, and had to not allow that vendor's participation because county inspection records were not shown.
Gaehle said he does not, however, understand the differences in how some county standards are executed. He said he recently stopped by the Ellisville Farmers' Market, and saw some vendors providing items out of coolers. "My inspector demands that our items be kept in refrigerators or freezers," he said.
Examples of refrigerated items at the Wildwood Farmer's Market are chocolate, meat and eggs. Concerns in the past at any farmers' market apparently came when ice in coolers melts and items for sale float in the melted water.
"How could double standards be in place for two markets about 5 miles from each other?" asked Gaehle.
He said the county's permit process also still affects everyone interested in hosting bake sales, such as Girl Scout troops. "According to county rules, bake sale items at farmers' markets can only be sold if they are made in a certified kitchen. This makes it hard for charity or community groups to have them."
Gaehle said he just got a request this week from a group who wanted to hold a bake sale to donate the proceeds to the Joplin, MO, tornado relief fund.
The only way community groups can meet the county's requirements for these type of bake sales, however, is to make the items in certified kitchens held and managed by churches, restaurants or private groups, such as Elks Lodges.
Editor's Note: Eureka-Wildwood Patch editor Julie Brown Patton contributed the local information to this article.