Farmers Markets

Lawmakers and Regulators Act Like They Hate Farmers Markets

Existential threats from meddlesome rulemakers

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farmers market
Lee Snider / Dreamstime.com

Last weekend I shopped for the first time at a farmers market in Seattle's University District, near my new home in the city's Wallingford neighborhood. I visited vendors there who sold everything from hazelnuts to salmon, beef, lamb, cheeses, root vegetables, kimchi, sauerkraut, kefir, hard cider, and quesadillas.

This was a different sort of farmers market visit for me—and not just because the U District market has a far better and more interesting selection of foods than did the Washington, D.C.-area markets I used to frequent. What made this trip really different is that I typically find it doesn't take much for farmers and other market vendors to open up about how some combination of federal, state, and local regulations is making their lives—and livelihoods—increasingly difficult.

Over the years, I've visited a rich diversity of farmers markets in at least two-dozen states—including in Louisiana, Massachusetts, Hawaii, North Carolina, Iowa, Texas, Illinois, and California—and have heard farmers and other vendors rightly groan in nearly every case about overly burdensome regulations. But at the U District market, the only vendor complaints I heard were about the rain and snow that day, or about the seasonally affected shortage of vendors and their offerings.

My unscientific sampling of a handful of vendors at one farmers market (along with earlier visits to the nearby Ballard and Fremont markets, which yielded similar results) doesn't mean that farmers in Seattle or Washington State face few regulatory challenges. A simple Google search reveals such hurdles do exist, including in the farmers market held during warmer months in the parking lot right outside my apartment.

But for every city or state where farmers might not be compelled by awful regulations to lament during every market about how they're drowning in red tape, their peers in dozens of other states must do so, because awful rules mean they face existential threats.

The past month alone has provided ample evidence of this unfortunate truth. For example, in St. Augustine, Fla., a recent city council meeting to discuss a local farmers market was punctuated by what the St. Augustine Record characterizes as "bickering," "shouts[,] and grumbling." The issue? Whether to renew a lease that would let the city's Wednesday night market survive.

The survival of a farmers market is also at issue across the country in Sonoma, Calif., where the city council recently inserted itself into a debate between what the Sonoma Index-Tribune calls a dispute between farmers market "purists" who want markets to feature mainly farmed foods like meat and produce and "moderns" who prefer such foods with a side of music and food trucks.

Is the purist or the modern vision of a farmers market the proper one? I wouldn't want to see farmers squeezed out of a farmers market. But I'm certain local consumers—rather than me, or you, or local lawmakers—know best what they want to see at their farmers market. Locals "fear that the Council majority is out to ruin the market," Sonoma farmers market customer Gina Cuclis told the Index-Tribune. "It's not the City Council's job to micromanage the market."

While the fight in California and Florida is over whether and how to allow a farmers market to continue its existence, in Chesapeake, Va., the question is whether to legalize farmers markets at all. Current rules make it nearly impossible for private farmers markets to operate in the city.

"There is currently no definition of farmers markets in the city code," reports the Virginian-Pilot. "They're considered flea markets and subject to a laborious—and potentially expensive—approval process."

Other farmers market controversies have popped up in recent years in such widespread locales as Nashville, Ann Arbor, Collier County (Fla.), Turlock, Calif., and Long Island.

My recent book Biting the Hands that Feed Us is also chock full of atrocities committed by lawmakers and regulators against farmers markets. For example, I describe how one Massachusetts town's bizarre rules about lettuce helped drive a local farmer from its farmers market.

In Pennsylvania, I describe how a new law adopted in 2012 threatened to force farmers who wanted to sell at markets anywhere in the state to invest in costly refrigerated trucks and handwashing sinks when far less costly options—ice chests in the case of the former, and a shared sink or a $2 bottle of hand sanitizer in the case of the latter—are equally effective.

I also detail how similar rules in Mississippi have prevented livestock farmers there from selling meat and other animal products at local farmers markets across the state. And I describe how New York State regulators told cheese vendors selling at markets in New York City that they effectively could no longer offer samples to customers who might want to taste a cheese before buying it, and could no longer cut cheese (ahem) at the market to meet customer specifications.

I love farmers markets. I'm also thrilled to live across the street from a great 24-hour grocery. Lawmakers and regulators should stop getting in the way of farmers and consumers who want to make similar selling and buying choices.

NEXT: John Stossel: The Man. The Myth. The Moustache.

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  1. Lawmakers and regulators should stop getting in the way of farmers and consumers who want to make similar selling and buying choices.

    Pretty much sums things up everywhere.

    As a kid, I instinctively distrusted government. It took me a long time to realize that I could not think of a single thing government does competently.

    1. Kill people?

      1. The key word is competently.

  2. This is a great teaser for the book.

    I would say that if the “purist” types ever get in bed with the regulators to keep/push out food trucks, hot food vendors, and hawkers, they’re merely working against their broader interests – both in terms of greater customer traffic and exposure.

    The best “farmers markets” hybridise and have lots of hot food vendors. The hipsters, affluent, and well-to-do middle class go in for lunch, stay for the fresh produce, meat, and stupid henna art. It’s win-win. My favourite local market is a kind of hybrid, but they limit their potential by restricting vendors that only have their business nexus within the county.

    Ideally one day, some chill* city will kick this off and just allocate an unused municipal lot, and just allow people to hawk whatever the hell they want to as long as they have the bare “minimum” licensing (food vendor license). They could collect weekly lease revenue for the square footage lots and be a huge racket for them. Such a lightly* regulated scheme would bloom as long as the traffic situation wasn’t a nightmare.

    *subject to interpretation

    1. So – a swap meet/fleamarket/dirt mall? But city run?

  3. All businesses must be YUUUGE, so that they can be properly taxed and regulated!!!

    If we have tons & tons of small mom & pop outfits, they might… Oooops! Cheat on their taxes a wee tad, and defy the nit-picking of all the RULES that must be followed!!!!

    1. All businesses must be YUUUGE, so that they can be properly taxed and regulated and send an army of lobbyists to DC to get congress critters to pass legislation to crush their competitors in exchange for lining the pockets of said congress critters with mass quantities of crony dollars.

      FIFY (finished it for you)

      1. Kudos, you did it quite splendidly!

    2. Hmmm, fewer, bigger companies being so much easier to control is a really good point,. I.hadn’t really thought about the inherent benefits (to govt) beyond bigger companies having more palm grease. I guess violence being your default (and only) mode interaction creates even more perverse incentives than I thought.

  4. or about the seasonally affected shortage of vendors and their offerings.

    It’s about right in here where we open a discussion about why “eating local only” can suck balls.

  5. dispute between farmers market “purists” who want markets to feature mainly farmed foods like meat and produce and “moderns” who prefer such foods with a side of music and food trucks.

    Wait, so it’s the farmers market people themselves that can’t get along?

    1. Given the sort of people we’re talking about here, does it really surprise you that some group of them are using the government to crack down on the others?

    2. know best what they want to see at their farmers market. Locals “fear that the Council majority is out to ruin the market,” Sonoma farmers market customer Gina Cuclis told the Index-Tribune. “It’s not the City Council’s job to micromanage the market.”

      Let me see if I can sum up how this goes.

      Local farmers want to set up a farmers market. As all modern things go, they curry favor with the local government and seek “legitimacy” (tax us, regulate us, set us free). But along with that, the city council now has a say in what makes a ‘proper’ farmer’s market vs an improper one. When one market strays outside the currently accepted definition (wait, where’d that food truck come from!), a territorial fight breaks out, and the city council is used as a bludgeon to keep the stray sheep… on the farm (if you will).

      Do I have that about right?

      1. Yup-yup yo! The ONLY way to be free, is to be taxed and regulated!

        Scienfoology Song? GAWD = Government Almighty’s Wrath Delivers

        Government loves me, This I know,
        For the Government tells me so,
        Little ones to GAWD belong,
        We are weak, but GAWD is strong!
        Yes, Guv-Mint loves me!
        Yes, Guv-Mint loves me!
        Yes, Guv-Mint loves me!
        My Nannies tell me so!

        GAWD does love me, yes indeed,
        Keeps me safe, and gives me feed,
        Shelters me from bad drugs and weed,
        And gives me all that I might need!
        Yes, Guv-Mint loves me!
        Yes, Guv-Mint loves me!
        Yes, Guv-Mint loves me!
        My Nannies tell me so!

        DEA, CIA, KGB,
        Our protectors, they will be,
        FBI, TSA, and FDA,
        With us, astride us, in every way!
        Yes, Guv-Mint loves me!
        Yes, Guv-Mint loves me!
        Yes, Guv-Mint loves me!
        My Nannies tell me so!

  6. Well, let’s start by eliminating the things that it obviously can’t be. So we start with cronyism. Can’t be that. So what’s next? Bureaucrats hate vegetables?

    Here in Murland, you will see farmer’s markets all over the place in summer. But I have yet to see a real one. Every one that we’ve stopped at are just supermarket produce being sold outside. The local hipsters stop and buy the stuff with a smug look on their face and seem oblivious to the fact that it’s the same stuff you buy at the Giant for about the same price. Anyone who cannot tell the difference between a hothouse tomato that was picked green and a vine ripened tomato picked ripe off the vine, should just give up the smug look because they’re an idiot.

    1. Even if it wasn’t the same stuff… how many people could really tell the difference?

      1. Anyone who’s ever had their own vegetable garden.

          1. I literally grew up on a farm and I couldn’t tell ya.

    2. Yeah, but there’s something about the ambience that makes vegetable shopping in nice weather outdoors fun?so much so that some places like Tops in the Bronx simulate it by being located under a tent, and other stores overflow under their awnings on the sidewalk. So I can hardly resist stopping at a farmer’s market to buy something even though I know I could get at least as good a deal on it at a nearby store.

      Eating outside is fun too. My housemate Steve is such a barbecuing fanatic, he does it in the winter, but to me the idea of cookout is eat-out.

        1. Not gay, just going back to our animal ancestors.

    3. Smug is still a service people are willing to pay for.

  7. Gina Cuclis told the Index-Tribune. “It’s not the City Council’s job to micromanage the market.”

    Blissfully unaware of the irony that she’s likely been voting straight D for years to burden *other people* with regulations, not realizing that in real life, she’d also get fucked by the long arm of the g-man.

    Progressivism—totally cool when it’s happening to someone else, but when it actually penetrates your own personal utopia…

    1. Even if she’s been voting straight D for years, maybe it’s because where she lives the only effective votes are in the Democrats’ primaries. If regul’ns burdening other people were directly on the ballot, maybe she’d vote against that, but often elections for representatives don’t give us any effective way to do so w/o losing out on something else.

      1. Robert,
        “If regul’ns burdening other people were directly on the ballot, …”
        That looks dangerously close to a direct democracy and there are way too many derpaholics to go that route.

        You give her way too much benefit of the doubt and no accountability. If she lets her thoughtful and carefully chosen representative loose on the public to impose their tyranny then it is her responsibility to follow through to mitigate damages.

        I’m sure whatever that something else she would be losing out on is so noble and Libertarian minded. Maybe the real problem is her voting Demoncrat in the 1st place…but she has good intentions, right.

        1. You give her way too much benefit of the doubt

          No, you’re giving too little. I know nothing about this person, but most people are of good will. How the fuck can your screen name be “Jury Nullification” and you not think that?!

          and no accountability. If she lets her thoughtful and carefully chosen representative loose on the public to impose their tyranny then it is her responsibility to follow through to mitigate damages.

          No it isn’t. She isn’t responsible for the system she has to live w.

          1. She is responsible for the system to chooses to live with.

      2. If regul’ns burdening other people were directly on the ballot, maybe she’d vote against that, but often elections for representatives don’t give us any effective way to do so w/o losing out on something else.

        It’s true. Generally, the people running for office (at least in my area) just scream “ALL YOUR [EVERYTHING] IS BELONG TO US!!!”

        It’s up to the individual voter to decide if their hobby horse falls under the ‘ALL’, ‘YOUR’ or ‘EVERYTHING’ banner.

        I keep hoping that given enough time, fines and jail sentences, people will figure that out.

    2. Conquest’s First Law of Politics: “Everyone is conservative about what he knows best.”

      Even, or especially, those on the left. Which may be why the “best” and most consistent leftists are those who are ignorant about everything.

      1. By “conservative”, do you mean “wanting to keep it the same”? If so, Conquest was very wrong about that.

  8. I’d be interested to see the demographic breakdown of the ‘purists’ vs. ‘moderns’.

    Generally speaking, it is the older generations who just want to get their stuff and get out, while the younger generation wants to have the ‘shopping experience’; cup of coffee, wi-fi, music, etc.

    1. In my neighborhood, the issue is more about parking. The street where its held is a short commercial (restaurants/boutiques mostly) street surrounded by residential. As those go upscale, they pull crowds from around the city and customer parking crowds out residents from street parking for a few blocks during much of the week and evenings. The only involvement of the city is that they know a goldmine (ticketing cars for blocking alleys/unpaid tickets/etc) when they see one and residents and OUR visitors get caught too.

      In our case, the merchant association (not the city) organizes the farmers market (Sun am during growing season). Initially they started it partially for general marketing of their smaller businesses and secondarily to provide a place for walking-distance residents to get stuff (so that they don’t show up at the occasional zoning meetings to be local noodges and to say thank-you for providing free parking I guess).

      From my perspective I have to balance providing a free service that is an inconvenience (parking to someone elses customer) with the American (ie never fuck with auto worship) alternative (businesses add to suburban sprawl with mega parking lots) that eliminates mixed commercial/residential neighborhoods in cities. IOW – there is no such thing as an ideological solution. Only figuring out to resolve inevitable conflicts.

      1. As with almost every human problem, there are no solutions, only trade-offs. If you want more of this, you’ll have to accept less of that or vice versa.

    2. Oi, the music… I’m there to get some apples that I can’t get anywhere else, or maybe my cukes didn’t come in so I need some. But you get to these things now, and there is some overaged kid playing some folksy instrument over a PA system… talk about anachronistic. Or the vegan cookie stand…. how is that part of a “farmer’s market”?

      Fresh, unfrozen meat? Forgetaboutit says the USDA… or at least we are told here.

      I’d say the whole thing is ready for a makeover.

  9. Seeing both Purist and modern/evolving markets in action, the broader range of booths helps draw more people. A local FM encourages pets and kids, easily half the current customer base bring one or both, not only growing, but lasting later with craft people selling holiday goods. Popsicles, knit caps for kids, dog treats, multiple bands and music choices, woodworking and pottery all thrive beside tomatoes and cauliflower. The biggest attraction is a mister tent during the summer. Fortunately, the local gov’t is unaware of us so they aren’t shaking us down yet.

    BTW, most FM are filled with great people that make it fun to be there.

    1. Yeah, the popular ones are pretty much filling the niche that used to be filled by malls. To be sure the products, and the tastes of the clientele are radically different, but the impulse is largely the same. An urge to go someplace else, gather together, be entertained, window shop, eat, and/or buy something.

      Most won’t last, largely because they are as ersatz as most malls were, but and also because of the combined forces of competition (don’t think the produce manager of the big box grocery stores aren’t taking notes on what moves well) and innovation (e.g. “in season” delivery services that save you the trip.) The novelty also wears off and then the lack of convenience becomes too much for many.

  10. Generally, bureaucrats don’t hate any class of people particularly. What they hate is the idea that something bad might happen, and some politician might run on the premise that they should have prevented it. Hard to blame them, really.

    Oh, there are human sphincters who delight in any excuse to say “no”. That’s a different issue. What drives absurd overregulation is the deep abiding fear of the bureaucrat that something in his purview could go wrong and he wouldn’t have the paperwork necessary to cover his fat behind.

  11. “Generally, bureaucrats don’t hate any class of people particularly. …. Hard to blame them, really.”

    I gots to disagree with those 2. I can easily blame them because I believe in moral accountability. Unfortunately, your generalization would likely exclude the class of people that resent them and want to minimize their athoritah as the exception. Challenge them and you will see the hammer. And the beat goes on.

    1. What I find hard to blame them for is being afraid of grandstanding politicians blaming them for things that should be beyond their purview. Of course they could have taken up some more ethical and moral profession. Drug dealing or pimping spring to mind. But I imagine that the real nature of the job is something that creeps up on you.

  12. A farmer’s market that has non farmed products is just an open air market.

    1. Exactly! And as someone else once said on H&R, deep dish is an open-faced calzone.

      1. You take that insult of calzones back right now.

    1. The comedy show that is Trump has been worth the price, so far. I live in Mare-in county (as the elder Bush called it) and the level of pants-shitting is a wonderful to behold. I am having a great time trolling them.

      1. Was just watching Rand on CSPAN with Weigel and some other journalist. As much as I would prefer Rand, he wouldn’t gain any support with his thoughtful and nuanced approach. If you can’t get a small govt guy in there, Trump is probably the next best thing.

        1. Come back and say that if there is any actual cut in spending.
          SPOILER ALERT: there won’t be.

          1. Why would I think there would be a cut in spending? Trump will replace some scumbags in DC with his own scumbags. That’s something.

        2. Don’t you mean to say “Rand on CSPAN with Weigel and a journalist.”

  13. Because government inevitably favors big business over small business.

    1. Even when they don’t mean to, it is an all but inevitable effect.

      About the only time it does not occur is when the action is overtly punitive to larger businesses.

  14. Wow, I never thought I would side with Piers Morgan on anything.

  15. Santa Ana, CA recently attempted a crackdown on taco trucks again with a set of unenforceable and ridiculous laws. Santa Ana could contend for best taco trucks in the entire country. Not to mention many of the trucks are run by the very immigrants Californians claim to want to defend

    One of these days, California will get its wish and destroy everything that makes it a desirable place to live

  16. The host, American comedian and critic Maher, said Morgan was wrong for suggesting that Clinton and Donald Trump were as bad as each other, arguing: “Do you think Hillary Clinton would have a cabinet with Betsy DeVos and fucking Rick Perry? They wouldn’t have a Muslim ban, they wouldn’t be feuding with everybody in the world, they wouldn’t be doing this shit with Russia. Are you crazy?”

    DeVos and Perry are two of the best things Trump has done in his young presidency. I bet these liberal stalwarts don’t even know why they oppose them. Fucking comedians.

    [Jim Jeffries] went on to compare Trump to Adolf Hitler.

    And you can fuck right off.

    1. This should have been a reply to CMW.

  17. Hmm- as anyone who knows me knows I manage to combine hating progressives with having lived on an Organic farm in Vermont as a kid (and having spent a lot of time at Vermont’s longer-lived communes) in a fashion that is perhaps unusual.

    I certainly live in progressiville right now, and it has never occurred to me that you would regulate farmer’s markets. I don’t think we do, very heavily, here, as they seem to thrive in Western Mass.

    I’m a bit torn about the whole thing. On the one hand, as a matter of principle, it is my opinion that if you are so goddamned stupid that you can’t wash a bit of cowshit off a tomato you deserve what you get (which is not likely to be much- I’m not a bit proponent of the locavore movement, but one advantage it has is less bacterial disease. But wash the cowshit off your tomatoes anyway, please, even if it’s unlikely to make you sick. I hope you don’t need a regulator to tell you that.)

    1. On the same hand, having lived on a northeastern Organic farm as a kid I know good produce, and I like it. Hell, I was raised in the bosom of Organic agriculture (my Mom literally wrote the books on it, and I grew up skinny-dipping with the NOFA kids,) and while I think the Organic moniker is meaningless I have a great deal of respect for small produce farmers (I know a few to this day,) who are mainly organic.

      Well- the premium the ‘Organic’ moniker brings is what allows these small farmers to produce really great produce, and I’m in favor of great produce, Organic or not, so I only complain about the silliness of the Organic label when I see shit produce marked up 300% because of it. Well, that’s the case every time I go to the grocery store.
      In general my attitude is ‘Leave the farmers alone.’ They probably know better than you do about their product.

      But then… well, like I said, I know them. And I am reminded of Robert Conquest’s first rule: Everyone is conservative about what he knows best.

      On the one hand I want good produce. On the other hand I fucking hate progressives, and when I think about it Organic farmers are conservative in the sense that they want to run their own businesses without interference, but generally progressive in the sense that they want to run everyone else’s business. So I’m kind of like ‘fuck you farmers,’ but I still want good tomatoes.

  18. Speaking in Florida during meetings with Trump, the Japanese prime minister, Shinzo Abe, said on Sunday: “North Korea’s most recent missile launch is absolutely intolerable.”

    Trump made no direct comment on the launch but said: “I just want everybody to understand and fully know that the United States of America stands behind Japan, by about 5,000 miles.”

    1. Hmm- reason still doesn’t support foreign scripts.

      ‘Sou nandesuka. Wakarimashita.’

      See- writing it in american characters makes it so much more palatable.

      1. I am amused that Reason, while advocating unlimited immigration, takes such a hard line on foreign scripts. I kind of understand though, since Reason’s staff has worked so hard at moderating Hit and Run’s comment section. It would be a shame if the general politeness found here were disrupted by trolls speaking foreign languages

  19. Hmm wait, I can do better-

    Speaking in Florida during meetings with Trump, the Japanese prime minister, Shinzo Abe, said on Sunday: “North Korea’s most recent missile launch is absolutely intolerable.”

    Trump made no direct comment on the launch but said: “I just want everybody to understand and know that the United States of America stands fully behind Japan, and by at least 5,000 miles.”

    1. Hmm- he’s indisputably a vulgarian, but if he can fuck Japan from behind at a distance of 5000 miles… well, I think I might have to get over the short-fingered thing.

  20. This was a different sort of farmers market visit for me?and not just because the U District market has a far better and more interesting selection of foods than did the Washington, D.C.-area markets I used to frequent. What made this trip really different is that I typically find it doesn’t take much ???? ??? ??? ?????? ????? ???? for farmers and other market vendors to open up about how some combination of federal, state, and local regulations is making their lives?and livelihoods?increasingly difficult.

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