Thursday, May 23, 2013

The Economics of Farmers Markets

How would you feel if you were asked to pay for something yet got little or nothing in return for your money? Not too good, eh? Or worse yet, were required to pay for that very same little or nothing three times over? Bet you'd be hopping mad by now.

Well, folks...that's what I am faced with this market season in my attempts to serve my community by providing local and sustainably raised meats at the North Square Farmers Market again this year. 

For many years I worked on steering committees and boards of organizations with the mission to promote and facilitate local food systems. Month after month, year after year until low & behold the whole thing began to gain steam and catch on fire. Every town suddenly wanted their own farmers market and they began to compete for vendors.

At the same time, farmers began to run themselves ragged over trying to balance the demands of cash flow and profit between serving smaller, local community markets and those of larger, regional (often metropolitan) markets. Actually, I got my start in going to market when a fellow farmer decided that the smaller markets--both local and in the city--just weren't worth her effort. But I was just getting started so I put in the time, week after week, year after year until striking off on my own.

First, I split my time between local and city markets, then a few years of concentrating on to more lucrative city markets. But then when fuel prices spiked, instead of making that trek to Maryland and DC three times a week, I chose to finally practice what I'd been preaching and stick close to home.

Imagine my surprise when on the opening day of the market in my own community, the sanitation inspector showed up demanding my paperwork and a check for $82.

"What? When did that happen?" I asked incredulously as previously the fee had only been $21 when I attended an indoor market and had a permanent freezer on the premise where I stored product.

"Last year," said the inspector as he stood in front of my stand during the busiest time of the day, deflecting customers while he conducted his business.

Only a few  years earlier when I had been part of the original crew setting up and launching Farmers on the Square, a producer-only market in downtown Carlisle that replaced the ill-fated and mismanaged indoor market only a block away, we paid the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture a single fee as the market to have the Food Safety Inspector make sure everyone was following food safety laws. His name was Stan and he was a nice guy who would show up with his cool little on-the-spot printer and issue our certificate that said we were following the rules. I was issued my permit three years in a row at no cost since the market had already paid as a single entity. But then the state of Pennsylvania got greedy.

"All farmers market vendors have to pay the $82 fee every year now. Plus, if you're selling prepared foods or sampling, you need to have a SafeServ certification," said the new inspector. On top of that, he wanted me two draw a picture of my market stand to be 'approved'.  He was not impressed with the box and two lines I drew representing my tent and two tables. "That's not acceptable. I need to know exactly where your coolers will be placed and where your sanitation station will be."

"Sanitation station?  But I'm selling raw meat that has been processed under USDA inspection, vacuum-sealed and flash frozen. My product has a federal stamp of approval," I countered.

"Just have a roll of paper towels and some hand sanitizer handy in case one of your packages leak and I'll approve your permit," he said. "I'll be back next week to collect your site plan and your check."

Ironically, when he returned the following week, he complained about having to visit all the new farmers markets on top of his regular case load. It was then that he let it slip that the cavernous warehouses that have proliferated the Interstate 81 corridor raping once fertile farmland are also subject to inspection if they store food.

"Really?" I asked, "How much are those permits?"  Expecting them to be in the hundreds of dollars given the millions of square feet and the constant flow of products, I was floored when he said $35.

"Your permit is good for any market within the state. Theirs is only good for a single location."

This did little to push down the anger I felt at being unfairly charged for my meager 100 square feet of public retail space I use for four hours a week half of the year.  Attending two markets in Pennsylvania helped justify the cost as I wrote him a check before he disappeared never to be seen again for the remainder of the season. 

Gearing up for the North Square Farmers Market I was posed with paperwork asking for my permit and SafeServ certification.

When I submitted my paperwork from the state as well as a copy of my two million dollars in liability insurance (remember that fertilizer plant that exploded last month? It was only required to have half of what farmers selling at farmers markets need to carry), I was again asked for my SafeServ certificate.  I explained that I do not sample cooked food or serve ready-to-eat products--the requisites for a SafeServ certification (that I might add would have cost me $300 and full days of my time), yet the woman at the borough insisted until I contacted the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture and had them verify in writing that I was exempt because my product was processed and packaged under federal inspection. Similarly, since my product was federally inspected and I did not have a permanent meat counter, I was exempted from the borough's permit. All parties paid and satisfied, I spent a market season serving my local community.

The North Square Farmers Market had great customers and was well-managed, but building a market takes time and dedication. I had built successful markets previously and knew that it can take as long as three years to develop a dedicated customer base, but after the first year at a market, it's fairly evident if it's going to sink or swim.

Sadly, even if a market is well-managed doesn't necessarily ensure success, especially for a meat vendor.  And poorly-managed markets....well, the season's end can't come soon enough. North Square was extremely well-managed and had lots of potential to grow. I was excited to return after many of my North Square customers made the trek out to the farm over the winter months to purchase meat.

But then the borough of Chambersburg got greedy. On top of all the expenses and fees for which I had already budgeted, this year the borough was insisting I pay their Health Department as well.

"Our hands our tied. The market needs to be in compliance with the borough and the borough wants you to buy a health license..." came the ominous email from North Square.

And to that I replied enough was enough. I am forced to pay for liability insurance (although they let this slide for the plain folks who are 'self-insured'), a health inspection permit fee to the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture and an application fee plus a percentage of my weekly gross income to the market. The additional fee to the borough was the straw that broke the camel's back.

So today I stood up and said, "I'm not going to put up with this crap anymore."

We all crow about local foods, sustainable foods, grass-fed food, foods raised without hormones & antibiotics, non-GMO foods....but let someone try to produce and sell these types of foods on a local level and we're slapped with every sort of fee and regulation known to man!

In my grief and frustration, I turned to one of my mentors for solace who admitted they don't do farmers markets anymore for the very same reason.

"Every time we turned around, there was someone with their hand out and you know what we got for paying them? Absolutely nothing!" they told me, even admitting that they were contemplating dropping their Certified Organic certification due to increased fees and paperwork. "We've been busting our butts for twenty years to produce healthy, clean and locally raised foods, yet it seems everyone is getting paid for it but us."

I began to listen.

"If you customers truly believe in what you're doing, they will support you regardless of where and how you sell your product," they went on.

And so with this advise, I tearfully declined my participation in the North Square Farmers Market this season because I will not allow the market, the state and the borough to all charge me for the privilege of selling locally-produced food to my community. Oh, how I am going to miss seeing all my fellow vendors and regular customers each week. Furthermore, I wonder if the borough of Chambersburg realizes that with a pocket full of cash, as a vendor I reciprocate by patronizing local businesses....the bookstore, Tito's, the Cod Father, Gypsie, the Bistro and Roy Pitz to name a few.

I didn't want to do this, but the numbers told me I had to. None of my other markets--past or present--have every dug that deeply into my pockets.

Most people reading this may just be thinking, "aw, just shut up and pay the MAN," but the reality is I raise living animals. I've put $20 of seeds in the ground and netted $500 in sales. It doesn't work that way with livestock. There's a significant investment in my product before it ever hits your plate. I'm the one who watches as your dinner is conceived, born, grows and then is loaded on to the trailer. I'm the one who takes one last look at them as they stand on the platform at the processor, both of us knowing their fate. I'm the one who listens to mothers cry out for their young as they pace the fence lines in vain. You know, there's a reason that industrial agriculture has turned living, breathing animals into production units. It's easier not to recognize that animals, indeed, have personalities and are living, thinking organisms not much different than ourselves.

I will not longer tolerate my animals giving their lives to satisfy a redundant seal of approval for some bureaucrat who is more interested in a cleared check than the actual food safety. 

Enough is ENOUGH! Those of us who have been in this business long enough now realize that although local foods and sustainability have become hot new thing, for every farmer out there toiling to get their product to market profitably, there are ten more who have little or nothing more to do with the actual food production standing in line with their hands out.

So with this, I'm asking for my local customers' support by coming out to the farm on Open Farm Sales Days twice a month here at Painted Hand Farm. In the mean time, I'll continue to look for alternative avenues of product availability that does not necessitate redundant and unfair costs. It may not sound like much to most people, but to this farmer it's a new pair of shoes, it's getting my teeth cleaned, it's an electric bill, a phone bill.....

I don't like raising my prices any more than you do, but as inputs increase, I am often left with no choice, just like every other farmer who struggles under balancing our complex and busy lives. I  hope you'll understand.

Additionally, I would like to commend the metropolitan markets and municipalities for being consistent and fair in their market fees to the local outdoor vendors who travel the distance to ensure food security.  You have no idea how much this means to us.