Take Our Vendors, Please: More Notes on the Itinerant Merchant Exemption

Tomorrow (Monday) night is the Vermillion Area Farmers Market’s hearing before the City Council on an exemption from the itinerant merchant licensing requirements.

Those who know me know I have been living, breathing, and sweating this issue since we were first notified of it in late January.

Those who don’t know me (or haven’t talked to me or another VAFM Board member) might think that we are being a little unreasonable in our unwillingness to compromise with a simple exemption for vendors with “items for human consumption” as well as the clarification that Vermillion city residents are also exempt.

First off, let me say that I have spoken to or corresponded with vendors, market managers, and board members from farmers markets across the state, including Sturgis, Rapid City (Black Hills FM), Sioux Empire and Falls Park Markets (both in Sioux Falls), Lake Cochrane FM (Gary), Madison, Estelline, Yankton, Elk Point, and Spink.

Not one other community in the state of South Dakota that I am aware of requires a special events permit for their market or an itinerant merchant license for any vendor–regardless of what they sell or where they live.

Also understand that the board is not simply stonewalling over details and refusing to compromise in any way: we understand the city has an interest in knowing who’s selling here, and we’re willing to provide the same list of vendors to the city that we provide to the Department of Revenue at the close of each season.

But what we’re negotiating, and what we don’t want to compromise, is the livelihoods of our vendors.  And for some vendors, farmers market sales comprise a substantial part of that livelihood.

What the market has specifically asked for (a blanket exemption for our market/our vendors while they sell at our market) is not actually on the City Council Agenda, and our board has been told that the City can’t specifically exempt our market in the itinerant merchant ordinance.

What is on the agenda currently are the “items for human consumption” and “city resident” exemptions, as well as a proposed new special events license which, as it is currently devised, would be impossible for us to use or comply with.

Some of this may change tomorrow, as I am meeting to talk over these  issues with the City Manager and Chamber Director in the morning.

Not writing an exemption for the VAFM specifically into city code seems perfectly reasonable, so long as the City can also recognize that the ordinance, as crafted, wasn’t written for us and doesn’t apply to us, and our vendors should not be subject to it.

In other words, I don’t think we’d have a problem being exempted from the ordinance rather than exempted in the ordinance.  That’s what every other South Dakota community with a Green River or Itinerant Merchant ordinance has done.

Another issue that has come up in discussion of this exemption is the desire to prevent “unfair competition” with local businesses, and that’s what the title of this post is all about.

We are a non-profit corporation whose aim is to promote and encourage the production and sale of locally-produced foods, agricultural products, and handmade goods.  Our vendors are “free agents,” and they can sell wherever they choose.

We promote partnerships between vendors and local businesses–when Jones’ Food Center began carrying Irish Twins Handmade Soaps, we let our Facebook fans and blog readers know about it.  When the Coffee Shop Gallery started the “Hometown Homemade” market on Saturdays, we provided that information to our vendors as part of our mission.

Most recently, we’ve encouraged our vendors to partner with Buffalo Run Winery for an Earth Day local foods event.

So, what I would say to a local business owner who sees a farmers market vendor selling lots of widgets while that business owner’s widgets are sitting on the shelves getting dusty is, “take our vendor, please!”

We absolutely encourage local business owners to work with our vendors to enhance that vendor’s product availability and sales (and the business owner’s sales as well).  That’s what the farmers market is all about.

But, driving a vendor of a popular locally-produced widget out of town so that the business owner’s widgets are the only widgets available in Vermillion just drives people who want those locally-made widgets out of town, too–along with their money.

I’ve worked in both retail and food service myself (occasionally in management positions), and one small thing I learned from the experience is that you have to spend a little time researching and listening to what people want, so you can carry product lines that sell.

For example, while I was managing a Steep & Brew in Madison, WI, Andy Rooney did a 60 Minutes segment on his favorite coffee maker, the Chemex.  The very next day, we started getting inquiries and requests, and we ordered in a shipment ASAP–and then another, and another–because all of a sudden it seemed every coffee hound in the city had to have one.

I can’t think of a better place to figure out what people want than to check out who’s selling out at the farmers market–whose table is crowded and who’s got a line of customers waiting eagerly for that vendor to break out their goods.

The nice thing about this for a brick-and-mortar is that you already know the demand is there for that product, and people have already tried it.  Partnering with that vendor means you don’t have to attempt to get customers to try something new–the “brand” and product are already established.

And while brick-and-mortars may have to charge a little more for a product that has been direct-marketed to a consumer at the market, the fact that the product would be made available on a daily basis is a huge bonus–customers no longer have to wait another week to visit the vendor at the market.

Obviously, this works better with some products than others–farmers market vendors are legally allowed to produce some food items in a home kitchen for direct sales to consumers, while they’d need to be processed in a commercial kitchen for grocery or other non-direct sales.

But the farmers market model allows the best of those products to earn a following that can make the next step into a commercial setting more feasible.

I’m looking forward to the hearing tomorrow night to express our willingness to work with the City while reiterating that the itinerant merchant issue is simply not an issue in other South Dakota communities.  And, I’m looking forward to seeing our vendors, customers, and supporters turn out as well.

But I’m also looking forward to getting past this issue and focusing on the real work of the market–getting ready for our April 20th vendor meeting, helping with the finishing touches on a grant application and looking into another upcoming educational grant opportunity, as well as getting back to helping other markets with their EBT program questions.

Oh, and getting back to spending a little more time working on my own farm and less time on the phone, in meetings, and in front of the screen.

Hope to see you Monday night at 7pm in the City Hall–25 Center Street, Vermillion.

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