Food Daily Dish

Bill targeting cheaters at farmers markets is put off another year

A bill that for the first time would have provided substantial resources for state and county inspectors to keep cheaters out of farmers markets was held by the California Assembly Appropriations Committee on Friday afternoon. That means the bill is effectively dead for the year, leaving the dozens of managers and stakeholders who worked for its passage greatly disappointed.

AB 996 would provide funding for inspectors to go to farms and ensure the vendors are selling only what they grow.

The bill would have increased and expanded the fees charged to most market operators to $1.50 per vendor, per market day. Currently, the fee is 60 cents per farmer and a range of costs for other types of vendors.

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The bill would have required a total expenditure of an estimated $1 million, but would have raised only a little more than $750,000, according to the Appropriations Committee analysis. In order to be passed, a future version of the bill probably will have to close that $250,000 gap.

“I’m shocked that that would be the reason why it would fail,” said Karen Schott, who directs the Ventura County Certified Farmers’ Market Assn. and is chairwoman of the state’s Certified Farmers’ Market Advisory Committee. She added that there was no indication while the bill was being considered that this shortfall would lead to its demise.

Dan Best, a lawyer who runs 11 farmers markets in Sacramento County, took the lead in putting together and amending AB 996, working with its sponsor, Assemblyman Roger Dickinson (D-Sacramento). Over months of discussions they modified the bill so that it gained support from most of the major market operators, as well as the California Farm Bureau Federation.

“I am deeply disappointed that AB 996 will not advance this year,” Dickinson said. “The bill enjoyed near-unanimous support among all parties interested in increasing consumer protections and accountability at our certified farmers markets.”

What really happened to cause the bill to fail? According to legislative insiders, the bill’s great many provisions and complex language, including new penalties and mandates, did not work in its favor.

Speaking before the vote, Los Angeles County Agricultural Commissioner Kurt Floren said the state’s agricultural commissioners had “closely reviewed the bill in its entirety and [had] some remaining concerns with some of the provisions.”

“We are continuing to work with the sponsor with the hope of crafting mutually acceptable revisions to improve the direct marketing program,” he added.

Aside from the financial sticking point, the most controversial provision assessed market operators the $1.50 fee not just for farmers, but also for nonagricultural stands such as prepared foods and crafts. Agricultural Institute of Marin, which runs six markets in the Bay Area, objected to the provision and opposed the bill.

It would not be fair, said Mary Lou Weiss, manager of the Torrance farmers markets, to impose a fee funding agricultural inspection on nonagricultural vendors, who already pay 12% of sales in her markets, considerably more than the 7% that farmers pay.

On the other hand, Laura Avery, supervisor of the Santa Monica farmers markets, said food vendors in the nonagricultural sections wouldn’t even be there without the permits granted specially to certified farmers markets, so they should contribute to the supervision of the core event.

A provision allowing consignment sales at farmers markets -- which was in a previous version of the bill, and which many managers and farmers feared would in effect legalize widespread reselling -- was dropped.

Now that AB 996 is dead until next year, another bill, SB 599, which has already passed the Senate, could keep the stall fee at 60 cents, continuing minimal enforcement.

Market managers, beleaguered by peddlers, are frustrated and incredulous.

“One begins to wonder if people really do want a system with effective enforcement, or a system at all,” said Diana Rodgers, manager of the Mar Vista farmers market, who helped lobby for the Assembly bill.

[UPDATED: An earlier version of this story relied on funding figures from the original, unamended, bill] Another direct marketing bill resolved its revenue issues, passed a crucial vote in the Appropriations Committee in the same session and will be heard on the Assembly floor next week. AB 224 aims to regulate community-supported agriculture (CSA) programs for the first time.

CSA producers would have to register with the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) or with county agricultural commissioners, specifying whether they’re in a single-farm or multi-farm CSA; pay a fee of up to $100 to the CDFA; inform CSA consumers by a printed or electronic list which farm produced each item in their box; and provide a signed statement saying that they are in compliance with food safety good agricultural practices.

Without such a provision, environmental health departments would require CSA operators to get retail food permits, which would be much more expensive, and they might not pass the needed inspections, said Dave Runsten of Community Alliance With Family Farmers, who helped draft the bill.

Most CSA operators are in favor of AB 224, but the ongoing cost to implement it -- $35,000 for database maintenance, program accounting, and administration of the program – is greatly reduced from the $450,000 estimate in the original bill.

It was amended at the last minute to raise the fee from $50 to $100, and to drop the enforcement provisions, thereby bringing ongoing costs and revenues into balance, said Jim Collin, chief consultant for the Assembly Agriculture Committee.

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