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FARMERS MARKET REPORT

Markets' Demise Much Exaggerated

May 12, 1999|DAVID KARP | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Jan. 1, 2000: End of the world for Farmers Markets or more overblown doomsaying?

To the mayhem ballyhooed for the looming millennium add the threatened demise of the state's certified farmers market program, a potential victim of bureaucratic brinkmanship and legislative snags. Or so the leaflets passed out at some local farmers markets last week would have had you believe.

On the other hand, it may well come to nothing. A preliminary vote in the state legislature today could clear the way for markets to continue much as they always have.

Here's what happened:

Two months ago, the California Department of Food and Agriculture proposed new regulations that would effectively eliminate the state's 300-plus certified farmers markets on Jan. 1, 2000, unless the legislature passes a bill funding its supervision of these markets.

In the past, the department has relied on general funds to pay for the program, but the budget dwindled in the early 1990s as the number of markets and the need for enforcement increased. The state collects an annual fee of $10 from each farmer who sells at the markets, but the proceeds--$26,000 last year--won't cover even one inspector and basic services.

Recognizing this shortfall, the Southland Farmers' Market Assn. sponsored Assembly Bill 593, introduced in February, to increase charges (after much dickering, the wording caps fees at 50 cents a vendor per business day--enough to total at least $135,000) and to provide firmer legislative foundations for the industry.

On a parallel track, an advisory committee of farmers market participants recommended changes to the department's rules for the markets. When the text of the proposed revisions appeared in March, however, department bureaucrats had inserted two sections providing that on Jan. 1--if AB 593 has not been approved--the state would end its supervision of certified farmers markets and withdraw growers' exemptions from standard packing and grading requirements. If this occurred, both farmers markets and roadside stands would face regulatory limbo and possible closure.

As long as AB 593 progressed on schedule, the threat seemed negligible. On April 21, however, as a result of amendments added to the bill, it failed to make the docket for a hearing of the Assembly Agriculture Committee. Market organizers sounded the alarm, handing out leaflets to mobilize opposition to the deadline.

Almost lost in the brouhaha, the proposed regulation, if adopted, would curtail the practice of one grower's selling another farmer's products at the markets. The result could reduce hanky-panky, but it also could reduce the variety of produce in smaller markets.

The Agriculture Committee is scheduled to vote on AB 593 today, and a spokesman for Assemblywoman Virginia Strom-Martin, the principal author of the bill, says it is expected to pass.

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