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Small Potatoes

Farmers market vendors struggle to keep it legal


Capital City Public Market Executive Director Karen Ellis sounded exasperated on a recent late afternoon.

"Eighteen days and counting," Ellis sighed, referring to the market's opening day, Saturday, April 21.

In addition to showcasing 140-160 local food and art vendors each Saturday, this year's market will also feature the Taste the Market Program, the Veggie Valet and a smattering of educational activities for kids. But as the market--and the small-scale local-food movement as a whole--grows in popularity, it also struggles to gain legitimacy in the eyes of big ag.

"This is the year of enforcement for everybody. ... There's issues with the potato commission, there's issues with the bean commission," said Ellis.

The issues Ellis referred to involve a couple of Idaho agricultural laws. The first states that commercial potatoes grown in the state have to have a trademark that says they are an Idaho potato, which vendors acquire by obtaining a license from the Idaho Potato Commission. The second states that bean seeds planted must be purchased from an approved bean seed grower to keep unwanted blights at bay.

"All of the sudden, everybody's looking out for everything," said Ellis. "I think we're in this society and an economy that everybody's making sure that the I's are dotted and the T's are crossed."

Josie Erskine of Peaceful Belly Farm is leading the charge to get the market, as a whole, certified with the potato commission.

"The local food movement is growing and when people buy potatoes from farmers market--tourists or locals--they're thinking they're buying Idaho potatoes and the potato commission takes that very seriously, which they should," said Erskine. "It's not that they want to be against us, it's that they want to try to find out how they can work with us."

Erskine said that in the past, most Capital City Public Market vendors have not been licensed with the potato commission. She hopes to change that by working with the IPC to certify whole farmers markets and regions across the state.

"One of the reasons I kind of stepped in on this is that, as local food and small food grows, it also has to be taken seriously by ag in the state," said Erskine. "And if we're not following all the laws, then we don't get to have a seat at the table to make laws."

One of those is the Idaho State Department of Agriculture's Rule 02.06.06, which regulates beans grown in the state: "Bean seeds planted in Idaho shall be from an approved lot bearing an approved tag on each bag or container, stating the kind, variety and lot number."

"Those are rules that were put in place back in 2003," explained Lloyd Knight, administrator of the division of plant industries at the ISDA. "The industry were the ones that initially asked us to put these rules in place, and they did that because we grow a significant amount of bean seed in the state, and they needed to make sure that we were protected from having new diseases and bacterial blights."

But the problem for small farmers is that certified bean seed vendors only sell in bulk.

"The smallest vendor, they want 2 pounds of beans. They don't want 50 pounds of beans, and they're looking at trying to find ways that somebody can actually broker that so to speak ... so everybody wouldn't have to worry about buying 50 pounds just so they can get beans from an approved source," explained Ellis.

Though market vendors might have shrugged off bean seed requirements in the past, this year, they're paying attention.

"The bean thing started last year. One of our vendors received a really nasty letter from the Department of Ag," said Ellis.

That vendor was Robin Caudill of Lazy Dog Gardens.

In an email Caudill told BW: "The ISDA sent me a letter that threatened me with jail and $13,000 in fines last year" over green beans.

Knight said that "doesn't ring a bell."

"Every year, we send a number of letters to a number of growers that outline what the requirements and what the potential penalties are ... but we didn't issue any kinds of those enforcement actions at all," said Knight.

But that's not to say enforcement action won't be taken if commercial growers continue to disobey the rules.

"We could even go so far as to quarantine or destroy a crop if it was planted with seed that was not tagged. We do have that ability, if need be, but we also are realistic about how we enforce that rule, as well," said Knight. "We're not going to go into everybody's backyard garden to check out their bean seed when they plant it."

Erskine, whose farm is large enough to justify purchasing 50-pound bags of bean seed, sees an upside to the whole situation.

"I see it as an amazing business opportunity for someone to start a bean seed company in this area. ... I think a small farmer could possibly make a living off of this because of the quarantine area," said Erskine. "But a lot of the other farmers think that it's unfair and they would like to see the law go away."

Ellis also understands the necessity of a bean quarantine but still thinks the red tape is getting a little out of hand.

"They're very careful to make sure that the product is pure and I get that, but to some degree, it's like everything else--it's regulated beyond ridiculousness," said Ellis.