Proposed fee increase would kill farmer's markets: vendors

Up until Monday evening, it seemed like farmers markets' 14-year run in Fairfield was about to come to an end. At least that was the opinion of market masters, vendors and supporters, who were reacting to the Fairfield Health Department's proposed draft policy to increase the fee structure for temporary food service permits.

Under the proposal -- tabled Monday by the Board of Health until its meeting on May 10 -- the market master would have to pull a permit for the market at a cost of $50, which would be good for two weeks.

In the case of the Greenfield Farmers Market -- the longest running in town -- this would result in a $450 permit fee for the season that runs every Saturday from June to October. It would cover all farmers under guidelines set by the state Department of Agriculture -- essentially those who sell whole, uncut produce.

In addition, each non-farm vendor -- those selling sandwiches or baskets, for example -- would have to pay $50 every two weeks to operate at a farmers market in town. This, too, would result in a cost of $450 per season for the vendor -- to be paid in full, upfront.

As Tricia Swain, market master of the Greenfield Farmers Market, pointed out in a letter to Sands Cleary, Fairfield's health director, "This is a 900 percent increase."

If approved, Swain said the fees will, in effect, "kill the market."

Faced with the growing concern from Swain and the market masters of the town's two other markets -- the winter one at Fairfield Theatre Company (FTC) and another on Saturdays from June to October at the Brick Walk -- Cleary and the board decided to meet with the markets to try and come up with a fee structure that works for everyone involved.

"We're just trying to come up with what we feel like is a reasonable solution," Cleary said. "We're trying to balance needs."

If the proposed fee increase is approved, "I'm sure some of the vendors might question whether it's worthwhile for them," said Mark Barnhart, director of community and economic development.

Some already have.

In her letter, Swain cited six vendors who informed her that they will not return to the Greenfield Farmers Market if the proposed draft is approved.

Approved or not, though, the policy was already enforced on the winter farmers market.

And it was not met with fanfare.

"We were pretty much blind-sided in December," said Lisa Agee, the market master of the Fairfield Winter Farmer's Market. "I told them, `You're just going to shut the market down.'"

Still, Agee, a vendor herself, decided the winter market must go on, so she paid the fee. The winter market also pays FTC $5,000 for the use of its space on Sanford Street in downtown.

"We all had issues, but worked through it," she said.

Well, not everybody. The winter market lost four vendors last year, due in large part to the increase in fees. "In effect, what they've done is kill the market," Agee said.

Swain wrote, "Without vendor variety, there will not be enough patrons to keep the produce farmers in business in Fairfield. They do better in markets where there is diversity. Fairfield's fee increase will harm and eventually kill the markets in Fairfield."

"My personal opinion is that it has nothing to do with health and safety and it has everything to do with taxation," Agee said.

Cleary conceded that, yes, the proposed increase is in part due to costs that the department incurs from inspections. Since the markets are held on the weekend, the department must pay its inspectors overtime for a minimum of four hours -- per the union contract.

"This has real costs to us," Cleary said Monday evening as he explained the health department's logic on the proposed increase at the Board of Health meeting, which was attended by a few vendors.

The turnout was low, supporters said, because they only learned of the meeting on Friday afternoon, and a meeting agenda was not posted on the town's Web site.

Swain understands the need for inspections. "I have no problem with that," she said. "But going from $50 to $450 is, I'd say, excessive."

"We're trying not to be excessive," Cleary said. "We don't want to discourage farmers markets in Fairfield. We think they're great."

The importance of the markets themselves was not a sticking point -- all in attendance at Monday's meeting agreed that the markets are an asset to the community -- one that adds vitality. "It helps create a vibrant downtown," said Diane Byrne, market master at the Brick Walk.

Yet as the health department attempts to meets its charge of protecting public health and safety, while working within a budget this year that is 3 percent lower than its previous one, it has been faced with a growing workload, Cleary said.

Not only has the department had its hands full dealing with the potential pandemic of the H1N1 virus, Cleary said it is processing more and more temporary food service permits.

Since 2005, the number of permits issued has soared from four to 45 -- four in 2005; nine in 2006; 16 in 2007; 23 in 2008; and 45 in 2009.

These numbers do not take into account events hosted by nonprofit organizations. Every event, though, must be inspected to ensure that vendors are following proper health and safety practices, Cleary said.

Analiese Paik, founder of Fairfield Green Food Guide, cited how the fees are less in other towns in Fairfield County and that the health departments there conduct inspections on a less frequent basis. She also inquired how often the department inspects restaurants.

Cleary said the frequency of inspections at restaurants depends on the type of establishment, but as a general rule, it's about four times per year. He stressed, though, that there is a material difference between a restaurant and a vendor at a farmer's market. Restaurants often spend tens of thousands of dollars on equipment that is specifically designed to ensure food safety, whereas the vendors at markets are selling their products in an open-air environment that does not have these luxuries. "The nature of a farmers market is entirely different," Cleary said.

"I don't want to see an outbreak in Fairfield. It's not going to happen in Fairfield -- not on my watch," he said.

Board of Health member Beth Garrell said, "Decreasing inspections, at least from my perspective as a nurse, is a bad idea."

One suggestion that drew support was for the health department to create a new regulation and fee structure that pertained solely to farmers markets.

Barnhart said, "It seems to me that we ought to have a specific category for that operation."

"We're open to that," Cleary said. "That would require a change in our code, which is a little lengthier process than changing policy."

Another option put on the table was to institute a cap on the amount a vendor would pay in a given season. This suggestion was made by John Barricelli, a resident of Fairfield and owner of SoNo Baking Company and Café.

"That's a great idea," Cleary said. "We'll try to make some accommodations."