Let the tasting begin.
When farmers markets open this spring, you’ll be able to scoop up fresh salsa, nibble cubes of cheese or get a sample of kohlrabi slaw after a demonstration on how to make it.
Until last week, vendors at farmers markets might have hesitated to offer samples of their wares because they were hampered by a complicated patchwork of laws, restrictions, licensing and fees.
Now they won’t have to think twice about it.
A bill signed by Gov. Mark Dayton last week legalizes food sampling and cooking demonstrations at farmers markets and provides a more specific definition of what constitutes a farmers market. (A separate provision of the bill also relaxes license requirements for community chili and soup cook-offs conducted by nonprofit organizations.)
In a state with deep farming traditions and a growing penchant for locally grown, sustainable food, many say the change will make it easier for farmers markets to flourish —or even multiply.
Cecilia Coulter, a Minnesota Farmers’ Market Association board member, called sampling a “pillar of business” for local farmers, so much so that she thinks the new law could double sales at existing markets.
Jane Shey agrees. Shey, who promotes locally grown foods for the city of Minneapolis, said being able to try a spoonful of berry preserves or a new variety of radish can be a powerful incentive for consumers at Minnesota’s 143 farmers markets.
“Sometimes people don’t understand that, yeah, local food can be more expensive, but a lot of times it just tastes better,” Shey said.
One of the bill’s authors, Sen. Tony Lourey, DFL-Kerrick, said his family owns a small orchard and sells 10 apple varieties at farmers markets. Lourey said members of his family often were confused by strict state laws concerning sampling.
“You can sell an apple,” he said, “but as soon as you [cut into] that skin, it’s a whole new regulatory world.”
The old regulations also required expensive equipment and extensive licensing and fees for food that is prepared, as opposed to simply being sold, said Coulter. Those regulations hadn’t kept up with the increasingly sophisticated nature of farmers markets, where homemade salsas, sauces, cheeses and meats are sold alongside local produce.
In addition, rules that varied across government departments left farmers market vendors “frustrated by an inconsistent enforcement of unnecessarily complex rules,” said Rep. Bob Barrett, R-Lindstrom, co-author of the House version of the bill.
Farmers who sold at markets across the metro area sometimes had to abide by different regulations in each city, Shey said. In one county, market-goers could freely sample homemade honey or an unfamiliar Hmong vegetable, but an inspector in a neighboring county might have required a $4,000 pressurized water heater on-site in order to prepare samples. “It was just a real barrier,” she said.
The new state law sets a more lenient minimum standard, but local governments still will be able to tack on more stringent requirements,
Senators and representatives from both sides of the aisle began work in fall 2012 with the Minnesota departments of Health and Agriculture, along with various city governments and the Minnesota Farmers’ Market Association to craft what Barrett said is the first legislation that specifically tackles farmers markets.
“I think the fact that everyone got in a room and just really hammered it out ... shows the goodwill and interest in making fresh fruit and vegetables available,” said Shey.
Barrett said he believes reducing licensing and fee requirements will encourage the opening of more farmers markets statewide. “As people see this as a way to sell product with minimal red tape, more communities might see a need to do it,” he said.
Shey, the coordinator for Minneapolis, said the city — which is home to 25 markets that typically run from May to October — is likely maxed out.
Still, Shey is quick to point out that farmers markets do more than offer locally grown greens.
“Sometimes people think these are just for the foodies, but at a lot of farmers markets it’s a whole range of people and cultures,” she said. “[They’re] a neat way to bring the community together.”
Marion Renault is a student at the University of Minnesota.