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.

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23 comments on “Criminals at the Farmers Market

  1. Jeff says:

    Government is necessary. The problem lies in the tin-badge control freaks who seem to find their way into positions of power where they can then make life miserable for everyone else. The problem you identified in this post exists everywhere – even in the so-called “free market.” The only answer I can come up with is to engage in creative sabotage. Attempting to comply with the letter of the law will drive you insane.

    Like

    • Bill says:

      I feel especially bad for the people who want to obey the rules, but can’t. For some of them the option of disregarding bad laws isn’t on the table.

      Like

  2. Government interference is everywhere. Our church just went through training to become a disaster shelter. If we house people who can’t get home because of a disaster, we aren’t allowed to serve them home-cooked food.

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    • Bill says:

      That’s a perfect example of how stupid it can be. Here we have a law that makes it illegal to take in homeless people. After I became frustrated with our legislator, who killed the Food Freedom Act in Virginia again this year (a law that would allow home-based businesses to sell home-cooked food), Cherie pointed out that his reasoning would also make church pot-lucks illegal.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Yes. I’m waiting for that one too.

        Like

      • Deb Weyrich-Cody says:

        The Ontario (Provincial) Gov’t tried to shut down Church Suppers here a few years back… The legislation(fear-mongering): was in regard to well water quality – but the overwhelmingly negative Public reaction sure put the kibosh on that in a hurry; )

        Like

  3. avwalters says:

    The mind reels at it all. I’ll be really concerned if you report that these things are being enforced. I’ll lose all hope if you say that they’re being selectively, or punitively enforced.

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    • Bill says:

      So far they haven’t been enforced, but every year they tell us that we should expect them to begin enforcement this year. We’re paying the sales tax (out of our pockets) but I’d wager we’re probably the only vendor at the market who is. When I was on the governor-elect’s agricultural policy transition team I advocated exempting farmers markets from sales tax, with no success. We try to comply with the labeling requirements, within reason, but some are just so ridiculous it’s pointless to try. I have neighbors who sell sausage under the table that they make themselves, as their families have for generations, but we load up our pigs and haul them an hour away for processing in order to comply with the law (even though I have a butcher/neighbor 5 minutes away with a beautiful facility who could process our pigs, but he doesn’t have an USDA inspector on site). Our Amish friends who don’t have computers have to pay someone to handle the tax remission process for them and now they have to re-do their labels on the loaves of bread they sell to add a weight, even though the bread isn’t sold by weight. It’s all just crazy. Makes you want to get a torch and a pitchfork and march on the capitol.

      Liked by 2 people

  4. bobraxton says:

    I assume the same rules and laws do not pertain to “giving it away.” This sounds like an opportunity for a church (community of worship) to do the growing and then “give away” with “suggested donation” – which does not help your situation (in fact, giving away would be direct competition) – and I suspect the (non-regulated) expenses to be quite substantial, especially unpaid labor – you all do not pay yourselves, do you? Sounds like some Old Dominion laws need to be overthrown / repealed – lots of them. Where are all the red-publican announced candidates on this issue?

    Like

    • Bill says:

      OK, since you asked I’ll relate this story. Our delegate is the chair of the Agriculture Committee. Essentially, he controls Agriculture legislation in Virginia. This year he killed the Virginia Food Freedom Act, just as he did last year. That Act would allow farms and home-based businesses to sell their products to customers without requiring government-approved kitchens, pasteurization, and the other slew of regulations, as long as the products were not for resale and were labeled with the name and address of the seller and a prominent “NOT PREPARED IN A GOVERNMENT-INSPECTED KITCHEN.”

      He had a phone-in Town Hall meeting recently. Someone from his office screens the callers by asking them what their question is about. Presumably if they don’t like the question, you don’t get through. So I told them my question was about government interference with small farms and businesses. They probably thought I wanted to complain about Obamacare. In any event I got through and put my question to him. “Why did you kill this bill, which would help small farms and home-based businesses? Why should the government be able to prevent a transaction between a farmer and a willing and informed customer?” He stammered out something about “citizen safety” then hung up on me and moved on to the next caller.

      He is a Republican who runs on a “get government out of our lives” platform. But he answers to Farm Bureau. They are his corporate masters. So when his powerful constituent has a government-protected monopoly, then government regulation is suddenly a good thing–protecting citizen safety.

      Like

      • Jeff says:

        That’s how politicians get re-elected: by pandering to the ignorant that they are going to do this or that (fill in the blank with your favorite hot-button issue) and never letting on that their real boss is money. But people are starting to catch on – perhaps there is reason to hope.

        Like

  5. Sue says:

    Leave it to our government to thwart any and all efforts at trying to live healthy.

    Like

    • Bill says:

      One-size-fits-all laws stick it to small businesses. There are powerful interests who want to see the food movement fail, but even without that the overhead expense created by government over-regulation can be crushing to small businesses of any type.

      Like

  6. Deb Weyrich-Cody says:

    Wow Bill! What can I say, other than “How ridiculous is all of this?”
    It sounds like you might be starting to put a dent in someone’s profits and, judging from an equally ridiculous comment made (‘way back in February, 2012) by the owner of the Loblaws grocery store chain, I’m guessing this is not isolated to your State – or Country, for that matter…
    Comment and context here: http://www.gardenparty.ca/blog/loblaw-chief-galen-weston-says-farmers-markets-pose-health-risk

    Like

    • Bill says:

      Maybe we should look at the bright side. As someone said (often attributed to Gandhi), “First they ignore you, then they ridicule you, then they fight you, then you win.” Maybe we’re at the “then they fight you” stage.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Deb Weyrich-Cody says:

        Well, the “Eat Local” /”100 Mile Diet” thing is catching on and showing no sign of slowing down… Wonder how long it’ll take to reach critical mass(; )

        Liked by 1 person

  7. Joanna says:

    Makes living in a post-Soviet country seem easy by comparison. There is a lot of bureaucracy but it is understandable in a place where it was so state directed previously.

    Like

    • Bill says:

      I actually felt a little bad for the gov’t reps who were giving the presentations. I have to believe they realize how ridiculous it is to require these things of farmers market vendors, but they towed the party line.

      Like

  8. EllaDee says:

    I was curious about the same scenario in Australia. did some quick research and I found:
    “Appropriate labelling compliant with the Food Act 2008 and the Australia New Zealand Food Standards Code is essential.”
    And “Farmers’ markets, although operating under the umbrella of the Australian Farmers’ Markets Association (AFMA), may have differing rules and bylaws for stallholders.”
    It’s common for small businesses/enterprises in general, as well farmers market stallholders to have public liability insurance.
    But “whereas most processed food is covered by the GST [Goods and Services Tax], fresh fruit and vegetables, meat, eggs, bread, some dairy products and other basic items were exempted from the tax”.
    At least from what I can see, farmers markets regulations and requirements are somewhat standardised, and not political.

    Like

    • Bill says:

      Here it varies by state. In Florida there is no sales tax on food. Here there is and it applies to direct farm to consumer sales as well as retail sale of wholesale food.

      Cherie told me today that it Colorado it is legal to operate a roadside vegetable stand in your front yard. Here we’re still recovering from laws passed a generation ago to keep city folks safe from the sights, sounds and smells of country living.

      Like

  9. It sure makes your head spin! I can understand how many small farmers will be discouraged and even forced out over this sort of thing. I confess when I come across workshops and seminars on how to deal with these issues and especially all of the issues around the Food Safety and Modernization Act – I turn the other way and run! Since we are still in our planning and infrastructure building stages, I, like Scarlett O’Hara, choose to “think about that tomorrow”.
    Another great thought-provoking post and a reminder (gee thanks) that I’ll need to start thinking about this stuff in earnest pretty soon.

    Like

    • Bill says:

      It’s important that we keep up the pressure to change laws that interfere with food freedom. Virginia is doing poorly, but these issues are faring better elsewhere. The same act that we can’t even get out of committee in Virginia was approved this year by the Montana legislature unanimously.

      Liked by 1 person

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