Lack of Information and Support has a Chilling Effect on Farmers Markets in South Dakota

Looking at the state’s local food website and even at the Dakota Rural Action local foods directory, you’d think there just aren’t that many farmers markets in South Dakota.

But in my travels throughout the state in the past few weeks, and through the e-mail requests for help and information from beginning or established markets over the past few months, I’ve discovered this just isn’t the case.

In fact, there are scores of little markets all throughout the state. It seems that almost every little town–even ones with no traffic lights and only one paved road–even ones with populations under 500 people–have lively little local markets with diehard vendors and loyal customers.

On my visit to the extreme northeastern part of the state this past weekend, I learned about four more markets within a fifty-mile radius of each other, none of which is advertised in any larger publication on farmers markets in the state.

Why don’t we hear about these markets? Why aren’t they publicized, and why don’t they join together with other, larger markets to collectively bargain for better regulations, more customers, and to share vendors?

Because they’re scared.

They don’t know the health code. They don’t know who to talk to, and they’re afraid of surprise visits from the Department of Health that might shut them down.  The locals know about these markets, and they have regular customers, but outside of that community circle, the markets are somewhat of a secret.

Last year at the Black Hills Farmers Market, the SD Dept. of Health and Clark Hepper, Office of Health Protection administrator, on reading in the Rapid City Journal that Joel Schwader was making and selling hundreds of kuchen (South Dakota’s state dessert), came to the market and shut him down.

While kuchen is not a shelf-stable baked good (it contains a custard filling), and Schwader did need to make the dessert in a commercial kitchen with all the appropriate licenses, the incident has, according to reports from markets throughout the Black Hills, had a chilling effect on the number of vendors who come to sell.

While the customer base is still there, and in fact is still growing, the feeling among vendors and market managers is that if you get big, if you get press and you are popular, you run the risk of the Health Department coming in and shutting you down.

While the little local markets scattered throughout the state are hidden from outside view, that doesn’t mean their vendors don’t read the news, or hear about incidents such as this through the producer grapevine. Heck, even some customers I’ve talked to relate that they don’t write checks at markets anymore, for fear that could get their favorite producer in trouble.

Managers are concerned even about selling the markets’ mainstay: fresh, homegrown produce.  The Rapid City Journal article on Joel’s kuchen had Hepper stating that, “Any time you have food for sale or service, you’re required to obtain a food service license.”

Obviously, for fresh produce at farmers markets, that’s just not true. Selling homegrown tomatoes or potatoes does not require a license–or does it?

While the article also relates that Hepper “concedes that the state and the hundreds of community farmers market associations throughout the state could better educate and enforce these regulations and standards,” the question is how? (And by the way–hundreds? He must know about more markets than all of the rest of us combined.)

How can farmers market boards and even individual vendors educate on and enforce regulations that seem to be amorphous, subject to change, and impossible to get hold of in any layperson-usable form? These problems, coupled with generalizations and misinformation spread by state employees themselves, is serving to hamstring South Dakota’s burgeoning local food economy.

Regular readers of this blog know that I identify a strong local food economy not only with helping to save family farms and boosting the local economy as a whole, but also with food safety and security in uncertain times.

Unfortunately, our state government seems still to be languishing back in the “bigger is better” days, where small producers who actually grow or make food for people to eat get no (positive) attention, no respect, and no real support.

It’s true there are some really helpful people in state government, but what’s also true is that a lot of officials, faced with situations they’ve never encountered before, are making things up as they go along, and instead of taking a “let’s work this out together” approach, are falling back on an enforcement-only, “just shut the ‘problem’ down” tactic.

When I get yet another, “I don’t know what to do,” “they won’t call me back,” “we are losing vendors,” “we don’t want to be listed” e-mail from a farmers market manager or vendor, I wonder if state or local governments will ever figure out what folks in many other states did long ago–that farmers markets and local production are a huge benefit to the local and state economy.

I say it’s time for us vendors and customers and market personnel to go to Pierre and demand real support–support that doesn’t relegate us to a side-line or sub-title or add-on to some Dept. of Ag employee’s already over-filled plate. Yes, we need regulation–regulation that comes in an easy-to-read and readily accessible format–but we also need support.

We need support from people who have experience with building, growing for, and selling at markets, who know the rules, and who are willing to lobby on our behalf for regulations that encourage rather than discourage local production and marketing.

We need support that welcomes small producers and markets into the fold, instead of forcing them to hide out and hope they won’t be discovered–helping their local economies, providing safe and sustainable food for their friends and neighbors, and improving our state’s food security.

And if you want to get in on the process of drafting new regulations that support rather than discourage small producers and markets, contact Dakota Rural Action at 605.697.5204.

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2 responses

  1. Pingback: The July Just Posts « collecting tokens

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