Farmers market was unaware they broke the rules

Organizers of the Montrose Harvest Market are working to bring themselves in compliance with state rules after they were notified this month that they’ve lacked the needed sponsorship for years.

The state requires certified farmers markets to be sponsored by a government entity, a nonprofit group, or a grower, but the Montrose event, which has operated in its current form since 2002, lacks that backing.

In exchange for the sponsorship, the state lets market vendors sell food without labels and packaging, which is required for other food sales. Markets that aren’t certified and sell unpackaged goods may face closures or fines, but Ken Pellman, spokesman for the Los Angeles County agricultural commissioner, said the goal is to bring errant operations into compliance.

Following up with a complaint filed with state officials, the county agricultural commissioner’s office determined that the Montrose Harvest Market had been breaking state rules.

“We’ve been working very hard to bring the situation into compliance,” Pellman said. “We’re trying to be cooperative, but we’re trying to enforce the rules.”

Organizers said they were unaware that they were breaking the rules until the county brought it to their attention.

“We will do our best to take care of it,” said Alyce Russell, president of the Montrose Shopping Park Assn., which runs the Sunday market.

The investigation of the Harvest Market’s certification came as the agricultural commissioner stepped up enforcement this year, Pellman said.

“The [Certified Farmers Market] program began as a much smaller program 30 years ago, but has grown so much, which means it attracts some people who might take shortcuts, and enforcement regulations hadn't been keeping up with the growth,” Pellman said.

In March, a county worker asked the Montrose market for proof of one of the three sponsorships as part of a review. At the time, the market manager said the Montrose Shopping Park Assn. was a nonprofit, but lacked the necessary paperwork.

The association has called itself a nonprofit since 1968 before tax rules for nonprofits changed in the 1970s, said Executive Director Dale Dawson. Association members thought the nonprofit status would be grandfathered in, and so didn’t file with the IRS, he added.

A letter from former Councilman John Drayman five months ago that said the shopping park association has a management agreement to use fees the city collects from local businesses to pay for Montrose promotions was deemed sufficient by the county. But on Aug. 10, county officials received a complaint that the market was still breaking the rules, which prompted further investigation. The county then realized the letter wasn’t enough, Pellman said.

“As it’s all coming to light, it’s a glaring mistake,” Drayman said. “There is no fast one being pulled.”

City Atty. Mike Garcia said he has sent an email to the county that the Montrose Harvest Market issue will be brought before the City Council for review, which Pellman said would be enough to keep the market running as is for now.

Dawson said the shopping park association hopes to attain nonprofit status, but that may take some time and they need the city’s sponsorship to tide them over until then. City sponsorship wouldn’t take the market out of the hands of the association, but would mean more oversight into market operations, Dawson said.

“We’d have more hoops to jump through,” he said.

Gigi’s Market at the Americana at Brand on Saturdays is sponsored by a nonprofit group called Raw Inspirations. The city sponsors another farmers market on Brand Boulevard on Thursdays.

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