manager Deborah Henderson recently sent a letter to a county official telling him that fees imposed on farmers markets by the are causing farmers to consider going elsewhere with their goods.
That's why Henderson has consulted the health department, the Missouri Department of Agriculture and other local managers in an effort to get the fees reduced or waived.
"These permit fees have created undue financial hardships for farmers and other food vendors, and the corresponding permit filings have become burdensome," Henderson stated in an April 22 letter to 5th District County Councilman Pat Dolan. Dolan is a Richmond Heights resident. A copy of the letter is attached to this article.
Since that time, Henderson has submitted a second letter. In addition to the earlier request, it asks that money be refunded to farmers "who were unduly and mistakenly charged fees in 2011."
Concerns addressed at St. Louis County meeting
A May 10 meeting of the St. Louis County Council Justice and Health Committee—on which Dolan sits—focused on the concerns. Also on the committee are 3rd District Councilwoman Colleen Wasinger of Town and Country and 1st District Councilwoman Hazel Erby of University City. Erby chairs the committee.
"It was mutual that things need to be addressed," Dolan said. Henderson also expressed a "legitimate concern" about the fees faced by market farmers, he said. Those present at the meeting agreed to try to expedite the conversation in an effort to help people who are being affected by the fees, Dolan said. No timeline was established, though health department representatives are expected to report back to the committee at some point in the future.
In an interview, Henderson said she was "very pleased with the response" of the council members. She said she and others who are concerned want the health department to continue its health inspections.
History of concern dates to 2010 season
The concern over fees is one held by multiple vendors market officials in the county, said Kori Thompson, market master of the Kirkwood Farmers' Market. It's come to a head recently because the number of markets has grown rapidly, she said.
Kirkwood market representatives first brought fee concerns to the attention of Wasinger and the health department before the start of the 2010 market season, Thompson said. At the time, a restaurant owner from St. Louis city approached the Kirkwood market about selling food there. But after consulting the health department, he learned he couldn't sell without going through the permitting process.
"We weren't aware of this fee structure or their guidelines," Thompson said. In the past, she said, most vendors held seasonal permits and received limited oversight from the health department. Now, many of the vendors were required to get 14-day temporary permits. The vendors said the 2010 guidelines represented a new fee structure, Thompson said, while the health department said the guidelines represented pre-existing rules put together in a concise format.
The St. Louis County fee structure requires vendors such as St. Louis-based Adventures in Spice to get two permits. The seasonal permit allows the company to sell spices without providing samples, while the temporary permit allows it to provide samples.
The fee issue arose again this year when Wasinger's staff contacted Kirkwood vendors to ask whether the fees are still of concern. Yes it is, they said.
Two fees are at heart of debate
At issue are the fees associated with two permits in St. Louis County.
First, some vendors must pay $75 to obtain a seasonal food establishment permit to sell goods at any one farmers market in the county, Henderson wrote. Those affected include farmers who sell things such as uncut vegetables, jams and jellies, honey, baked goods, eggs and canned foods. That means vendors who sell at three or more markets pay in excess of $200.
"The duplicate fees are an unnecessary added expense and limit the motivation to participate in multiple farmers markets," Henderson wrote.
Second, some vendors must pay $35 to get a temporary food establishment permit, Henderson wrote. Those affected include vendors who provide samples of baked goods; those who sell ice cream, kettle corn or snow cones; and chefs who provide samples as part of cooking demonstrations. They would have to pay nearly $500 in a season, sometimes on top of the fee for the seasonal food permit, Henderson wrote.
Vendors must also undergo health inspections and be in compliance with health codes outlined by the cities, counties and states in which they work, Henderson stated.
People associated with farmers markets have been meeting with the county for almost two years in an effort to resolve the fee issue, Henderson stated.
The letter requests that immediate action be taken "to relieve the undue financial burdens and the cumbersome permit filings imposed upon farmers and other farmers market food vendors in St. Louis County by the St. Louis County Health Department."
Manager points to Missouri law as guidepost for fees
Henderson attributes much of the problem to what she describes as a lack of understanding over a piece of the Missouri Revised Statutes, Section 150.030. The law states that any farmer in Missouri is allowed to sell farm produce and products "free from license, fee or taxation from any county or municipality, in any quantity he may choose, and by doing so shall not be considered a merchant; provided, he does not have a regular stand or place or business away from his farm; and provided further, that any such produce or products shall not be exempted from such health or police regulations as any community may require."
In the past, Henderson said, that law was meant to protect the economic viability of farming. Today, agriculture in the form of small-scale farming is again coming into vogue. That means officials need to take care to stay true to the law. Farmers markets have become the middle man between farm and consumer. The markets provide a place for people living in the suburbs to get fresh food without having to drive well into the country.
"It's not enough for all these small farms, they need someplace to go," Henderson said.
Market representatives in St. Louis County have only begun to complain about the process in the last several years, she said.
The state agriculture department is familiar with interest in the Missouri statute about farmers but hasn't had any "broad communication" about it with markets, a department representative said in an email statement.
"The department is aware of the growing interest in ... 150.030 and the vendor fees charged at farmers’ markets," the email states. "We continue to work with communities (and) markets to address their questions and concerns as they bring those issues to our attention."
While the St. Louis County Council members didn't give Henderson a time frame in which they plan to make a ruling on the fees issue, she said, she hopes to have a resolution by mid-June.
Health department: We'll review fees—to a point
Dr. Dolores Gunn is director of the county health department and attended the May meeting to address her office's concerns. She said Wednesday that her staff will draft a timeline in the next seven to 10 days outlining their plans for research into the matter for county council members.
But any changes that her office implements will not go into effect until the 2012 season, Gunn said, and they will be developed with care.
Gunn provided several reasons for her office's approach to the fee schedule:
- The office adheres to Section 150.030 of the Missouri law by not charging farmers who sell whole fruits or vegetables at county markets. Instead, those vendors get courtesy inspections and educational information free of charge.
- Farmers markets are for-profit entities, so their vendors must pay fees to help St. Louis County recoup some of the cost of inspections on behalf of taxpayers. Nonprofits such as the Boy Scouts of America and local churches aren't required to pay such a fee.
- The fee for a temporary food establishment permit in St. Louis County is the lowest in the region. St. Louis County charges a $35 fee per event. The permit is good for up to 14 days before a new one must be purchased. By contrast, St. Charles and Jefferson counties charge $50 per event and St. Louis city charges $50 per day. "We felt pretty comfortable that we had the cheapest rate in the region," Gunn said. She said the argument that farmers may be considering taking their business elsewhere doesn't make sense to her in light of those numbers.
- Food preparation, whether conducted by vendors or restaurateurs, requires inspection under law.
- As for the seasonal fee, Gunn said her office will look a cap or discount for those who sell food at multiple county markets.
- The office won't let vendors to pay a once-a-year seasonal fee and then appear at various county markets, because a vendor is considered a separate entity with a unique menu whenever he or she appears at a market. That's because each inspection of a vendor at a farmers market costs the county $45, Gunn said. Each inspection takes an average of 30 minutes, and officials inspect vendors at each market in the county at least once each month.
While the fees charged by the health department have been in place since the county last updated its food code in 2005 or 2006, Gunn said, it has put a greater focus on educating inspectors and the public since 2010. "We need to do a better job of communicating with the vendors," Gunn said. She said she will continue look for ways to keep fees low when the department updates its code based upon the latest federal guidelines in the coming months.
"It's a very careful balancing act," she said.
Looking to the future
Thompson is hopeful the concerns of market officials and vendors can be resolved. The Kirkwood market has a good relationship with the health department, and it wants to ensure safety. She's been in contact with the office and is supportive of a possible seasonal cap on market fees.
Ultimately, she wants the county to create a new classification for the markets.
"Give them a separate category … that really examines what the farmers markets are about," she said.
Reaction to farmers market fees in St. Louis County
Here's how officials with other St. Louis County markets responded when asked about fees assessed to vendors:
- Glenn Gaehle, market manager for the Wildwood Farmers' Market, told Eureka-Wildwood Patch that vendors face two different fees: one from St. Louis County if they are selling certain food-related items and one for setup fees regarding individual markets. Gaehle said vendors who offer baked items, meats and eggs must secure a certified kitchen status in the form of a health department permit. He said it typically costs $75 per season. "I believe an occasional health department permit can be gotten for $45 to cover 14 days," he said. Vendors can sell produce without having to secure a health department permit, as long as they do not give out samples, he said. Regarding the setup fee, Gaehle said he actually reduced the weekly charge to vendors who sell at the Wildwood market. Last year it was $45 per week; this year it is $40. For the occasional vendor, he said the current charge is $30 for the season. He said setup charges go toward tables, tents and the staff who set up and tear down the market. "Things can get expensive for those selling produce and are trying to make any money from it," he said
- "We here at Sappington are a full-line grocery store," said Randy Wood, one of the owners of the Sappington Farmers' Market. Because of that, he said, those fees don't apply to the facility.
- "We support the health department and their concern for safety of food and safety for our customers," said Angela Foley, market master at the Webster Groves Farmers Market. "It's mostly the excessive fees and all of the paperwork that these people have to do." She said she has heard concerns about the fees both from other market officials and from vendors. Most of the farmers who sell food at multiple county markets do so with the same menu or "maybe with a few variances," she said, so she doesn't see why the county couldn't look at them as a single business. She hasn't heard vendors express interest in selling at markets outside of the county. But she adds: "I believe that they probably exist." Foley said possible solutions might include a one-time fee for farmers who sell at multiple markets, a tiered fee schedule based on the locations at which a vendor operates or a seasonal fee that wouldn't require vendors to apply regularly for new permits.
- Kathy Noelker, manager of the Ferguson Farmers' Market, said the current system of fees and permits is confusing. "I am thrilled that Deb has taken this bull by the horns," Noelker said of the Clayton market manager. Her market hosts between 15 and 20 farmers each week, she said. They and other food vendors can't afford to repeatedly pay the temporary and seasonal fees. Farmers markets are an asset that bring people together and provide economic stimulus, she said. Noelker thinks the best solution would be for the county health department to create special guidelines for farmers markets. "They're applying rules for other venues to my farmers," she said.
Fees assessed to market vendors, counties and St. Louis City
Temporary food permit Seasonal food permit St. Louis County $35, good for 14 days in a calendar month at the same location; no fee for selling uncut produce
$75 per market, good for 15 to 120 days
St. Charles County $50, good for 14 days in a calendar month at the same location, no fee for selling uncut produce
$75, good for a year at any location in the county; must be using an "approved mobile setup" to be eligible; having this permit means the vendor does not need the temporary permit
Jefferson County $50, good for 14 days in a calendar month at the same location; no fee for selling uncut produce and some raw meat, under supervision of market master
$40, but not given out for use at farmers markets; applies primarily to vendors serving food at sporting events from a permanent facility with plumbing and other amenities St. Louis City $50 per day for one event at one location
Sources: Steve Sikes, environmental supervisor, Jefferson County Health Department; Dr. Dolores Gunn, director, St. Louis County Department of Health; St. Charles County Department of Community Health and the Environment website; St. Louis Health Department website