Criminals at the Farmers Market

Since 2007 there has been a 200% increase in the number of farmers’ markets operating in the U.S.  Direct sales from farmers to consumers have increased by 700% since 2005.  Clearly the demand for fresh local produce is booming.

But as we prepare for the opening of our market this weekend, and having attended a vendor training session last night, I’m reminded of the title of one of Joel Salatin’s books: Everything I Want to Do Is Illegal.

In Virginia vendors are required to collect sales tax on every sale and it must be remitted monthly via electronic on-line transfers.  Some of the vendors at our market don’t have computers.  Of those who do, many aren’t computer savvy enough to set up an online account with the department of taxation. And no one at our market (to the best of my knowledge) is separately identifying and collecting sales tax as the law requires (even if they are remitting it, as we are). Technically it’s not OK to charge $2 for a bunch of kale and then send the state 2.5 cents of that, even if your signage says “tax included.”  Instead the law requires that the vendor charge the customer $2.05.  The amount of tax differs if the product is something that will be consumed at home (2.5%) or not (5.3%). So if you sell a customer a tomato and a flower, you must charge and collect 2.5% tax on the tomato sale and 5.3% tax on the flower sale.  And unless your sales are purely seasonal, vendors are required to file a sales tax return monthly, even if they had no sales that month.

Virginia law dictates how items of produce can be sold–by weight, bunch, individually or dry measure. If sold by weight (as some items must be) the law requires the vendor to have state-approved and certified scales.  Scales that are perfectly accurate, yet lacking the required certification, are illegal. These scales can only be purchased from state-approved sellers.  Scales purchased over the internet are illegal, even if perfectly accurate.

And produce sold in a container (even if it just a paper bag) is required to have various disclosures printed on it, including the weight of the items (even if not sold by weight). The law is so goofy it’s hard to summarize.

And all that is without even getting into the laws prohibiting the sale of unpasteurized milk and certain perishable goods, laws requiring government-inspected and approved kitchens, laws prohibiting the sale of meat from animals not slaughtered at a USDA inspected facility, etc.

Another presentation addressed the need for products liability insurance–not yet required by our market but mandated now by many.

At one point a soft-spoken but clearly exasperated vendor asked why we were being subjected to all this. “It’s only a hobby and I’m already losing money,” he said.

Mr. Jefferson defined liberty as “unobstructed action according to our will within limits drawn around us by the equal rights of others.”

Call me crazy, but I’d prefer a world in which folks could grow tomatoes or bake muffins and sell them to their neighbors without risking committing a crime.  In that world a farmer/homesteader could say something like, “Our scales aren’t government-certified but we believe them to be accurate, our kitchen isn’t government-inspected but you’re welcome to come have a look at it, we don’t have products liability insurance but we grew all the food ourselves and it’s what we eat at home, we don’t have labels on the bags we’re using, but you already know who we are.” If the customer preferred government certifications they could buy their food in a supermarket.  If they were satisfied that the farmer/homesteaders were honest and conscientious, they could buy from them.

The man who spoke up later told us he’s probably not coming back this year. He also told us that he’s always donated the money he made at the market to charity.

Oh well, I didn’t set out to write an entirely negative post.  I’m a big fan of farmers markets.  They are excellent for community-building and essential to a healthy community-based economy.

The good news is that farmers markets are booming.  Let’s hope that continues despite the headwinds.