WOODSTOCK – The layout of the Square makes it easy for shoppers to navigate the vendors selling their home-grown and homemade goods at the twice-weekly Woodstock Farmers Market.
It's not so easy for farmers who wish to sell at multiple markets to navigate the patchwork quilt of regulations that vary from health department to health department. Rules regarding how goods are made, how they're transported and how they're stored and displayed vary, sometimes wildly, among the more than 100 county and municipal health departments in Illinois.
Want to sell home-grown Brussels sprouts? In one county, you can cut them from the stalk. In another, you may need a more stringent permit because cutting them off makes them processed food.
But vendors are optimistic that a new law will eliminate the problem by introducing one set of common-sense rules for farmers markets statewide.
House Bill 5657, which Gov. Pat Quinn signed into law earlier this month, will by year's end create statewide farmers market regulations for local health departments to enforce.
State Rep. Mike Tryon, R-Crystal Lake, drafted the legislation to make it easier for farmers market vendors to operate, given markets' growing popularity and steadily rising consumer interest in locally-grown food. An increasing number of farmers markets, including Woodstock's, are accepting government assistance cards in an effort to promote healthy eating among low-income families.
"You're starting to see a re-emergence of farmers' markets because restaurants and consumers are wanting fresh fruits and vegetables. One of the problems has been, if you talk to vendors, they go from one county to another and you run into different ordinances and different codes," Tryon said.
Michele Aavang, who now sells her locally-raised beef exclusively at the Woodstock market, recalled the differing regulations when she started Willow Lea Stock Farm more than a decade ago. Acquiring the needed permits was simple in Cook and Lake counties, but the McHenry County Department of Health at first attempted to require her to have a commercial kitchen, which she said made no sense because she was not cooking anything and was using a USDA-licensed butcher.
Aavang, president of the McHenry County Farm Bureau and a McHenry County Board member, said she hopes the state guidelines streamline things while preserving food safety and quality.
"I'm optimistic, let's put it that way. I think it's well-intentioned, and hope it will be done well," Aavang said. "Everyone is for safety. We just want it to be common-sense."
The new law also will create a statewide certificate to offer samples – many vendors will not do so because of the highly variable differences among jurisdictions. It also will cap at $25 the permit fee required for "cottage food" operations, meaning nonhazardous foods, typically baked goods, made in home kitchens.
One aspect that vendors at the Woodstock market like is a requirement that all vendors selling unprocessed produce have a label listing the address where the produce was grown or purchased from.
The Woodstock market is strictly a producer-only market, meaning that only vendors who grow and make their own goods are allowed to participate. Market Manager Keith Johnson inspects vendors' facilities personally to make sure – as Brook Farm co-owner Sonja Brook put it, if you're selling beef, Johnson had better see cows on your farm.
Tryon said the labeling requirement is meant to crack down on vendors who dishonestly sell out-of-state produce, and in some cases buy produce at a supermarket and sell it at a markup as locally-grown.
"To me, if you're reselling, you're not supporting local agriculture," Johnson said.
To Rich Brook, who with his wife grows vegetables and flowers and makes homemade popcorn at his rural Harvard farm, the Woodstock market and the McHenry County Health Department have set a high bar that he hopes stays high with state regulations.
"I don't think we should compromise on these rules to make it more convenient for some vendors who don't want to make the effort," he said.
Tryon acknowledges the potential for over-regulation, given that he and his fellow Republicans routinely blame bureaucracy and red tape along with taxes for stymieing Illinois business.
In a related incident, a recent bill meant to exempt small cottage food enterprises from permit requirements after a downstate health department shut down an 11-year-old girl's cupcake business was almost amended in the Illinois Senate to require hundreds of dollars in permits and an 8-hour safety course. The requirements were dropped and Quinn subsequently signed what came to be known as the "cupcake bill" into law.
But Johnson, who is a member of the board of the Illinois Farmers Market Association, said he thinks logic will prevail over attempts at regulatory overkill.
"I don't think that's going to happen. This was a bill designed to help producers, not hinder," Johnson said.
Illinois has the third largest number of farmers markets in the U.S. at 375, according to the Illinois Department of Agriculture.
On the Net
You can read the text of House Bill 5657 at www.ilga.gov.
You can learn more about the Woodstock Farmers Market at www.woodstockfarmersmarket.org. It is open from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Tuesdays and Saturdays through October.