Sheridan: The leaves are turning. If you’re in Sheridan and it’s Thursday, it’s time to hie yourself to the Farmer’s Market.
But Sheridan, luckily, is not alone in offering fresh produce. Wyoming has 27 farmer’s markets. They’re still small potatoes, so to speak, but they’re starting to make a place for themselves among Wyoming’s food options.
Moreover, farmer’s markets have caught the state’s attention. The Wyoming Department of Agriculture website, under its, “Current News About Wyoming Agriculture,” has a link to developments in Wyoming farmer’s markets.
Ten years ago, this would have been unthinkable. Angus and artichokes? Nah.
Demographics and geography have conspired against raising produce on any sort of scale, large or small, in Wyoming. Market gardens are urban phenomena. They need not be located within city limits, but they do need the critical mass of customers nearby.
Market gardens keep afloat by direct sales and low shipping costs. A farmer selling to wholesale markets typically gets only about 10-20 percent of the retail price. In direct-to-consumer, they receive 100 percent.
This is how it works in other parts of the country. For example, those parts of New Jersey not covered by mink-and-manure horse farms or urban sprawl serve as market farms for New York City and Philadelphia.
New Jersey also has better soils, lower elevation, and a lot more rain than Wyoming. Farmers there can truck their goods to one of the most affluent customer bases in the world. Jersey’s warmer, too. Wyoming humorist Bill Nye once spoke about the difficulty of putting up hay while wearing snowshoes.
But now the lack of a critical customer mass seems less important. Typically, that meal on your plate traveled 1,500 miles, farm to fork. With high fuel costs giving us higher food costs, locally raised produce starts looking like a better deal.
Wyoming farmer’s markets vary in size. The oldest and biggest Wyoming farmer’s market — the grand tuber of them all — is in Cheyenne. It’s been around for about 25 years and was started as a source of revenue for Community Action, an antipoverty organization. Irene Paiz, who manages the market for Community Action, says about 35 to 40 vendors, most from Colorado, put their wares out for sale each Saturday. Gross sales typically run between $20,000 to $30,000.
Sheridan is more typical. Once a week, August through September, a dozen or so vendors gather at a park about two blocks from the down called Whitney Commons. The products include fresh produce, cookies, knick-knacks and dried flowers.
Each season, says Rodger Bent, director the Downtown Sheridan Association, the farmer’s market grows.
“The challenges are mostly supply. There’s a huge appetite for fresh corn and tomatoes,” he says.
But the challenges aren’t limited to vegetables alone. Hawking corn and tomatoes is one thing; Selling bread and pie is another.
Wyoming has almost no history of food production. We may have ground wheat into flour, or cut up the occasional carcass into steaks, but we import the finished product from somewhere else.
Hence, Wyoming health officials get freaked out when asked to cross that commodity-production line, especially if it involves something not whacked in a slaughterhouse. Like zucchini bread, for example.
For a spell, farm market baker and regulator eyed each other in a gray zone. Ask Melody Welde. For ten years she and her family have raised raspberries and tomatoes east of Lovell.
Because frost — a common enough commodity in Wyoming — can unexpectedly ding both crops, the Weldes began producing baked goods and selling them at the farmer’s market in Cody. They started innocently enough, with gateway products like zucchini bread. Then it was on to the hard stuff, like pies and granola.
Beginning in 2005, Wyoming Department of Agriculture officials began hinting they were uneasy with common folk working in uninspected kitchens selling something so potentially dangerous as bread. They made vendors put up signs that their products came from an uninspected kitchen. Beginning in 2006, however, local inspectors began sending bread and pie vendors home.
“They shut us down with the threat punishment that included fines and imprisonment,” says Welde.
A state-approved kitchen can be a financially daunting enterprise. One needs, among other things, a three-compartment sink or commercial dishwater, a drain not linked to sewer line, a separate hand-washing sink, a commercial refrigerator, and non-absorbing floors and ceiling. Animals of any kind may not assist in cooking duties.
The state’s concern isn’t totally ill-founded. Dean Finkenbinder of the Department of Agriculture’s Consumer Health Services division says that lack of basic cleanliness and personal hygiene can often lead to gastrointestinal distress.
In the 2008 legislature, Rep. Sue Wallis (R) Recluse introduced a bill clarifying what vendors need to do to sell their goods legally and to get exemptions from certain regulations. The bill allowed bakers to use their stoves in their own homes (as opposed to requiring a separate kitchen); it spelled out they could indeed make: baked goods, “jams, jellies, candy, apple butter and similar products;” and it relieved home kitchens of having their establishment inspected.
The bill coasted through the House, says Wallis, but got cooked in that repository of culinary knowledge, the Senate Minerals, Business & Economic Development committee.
Vendors tried another avenue: citing a state statute excluding vendors from license requirements if the “food is prepared for sale or use at functions, including those operated by not for profit charitable or religious organizations.”
Last week, (September 10th) the attorney general’s office ruled that farmer’s markets do not qualify as a “function.” No license exemption granted.
Even the Department of Agriculture realizes it needs to do things differently. Finkenbinder says his office is putting together rule changes concerning the cottage food industry. Because this doesn’t involve amending statutes, it can be done without the legislature’s approval. The changes would grant someone a home baking license after an initial inspection and basic food safety training.
This is good, says Welde, but rules that can be changed by civil servants can be unchanged, too. The process needs legislative attention, which Wallis says she’s going to do. Welde also worries about the list of little things required, such as written evidence of compliance with local zoning code that, for example, prohibits someone operating a business in a residential zone.
“I don’t have 60 people coming to my door. Why is this an issue?” askes Welde.
She also concerned about the proposal that home baker can’t make more than $12,000 per year from their sales.
“Why they are so concerned with someone succeeding? It’s very difficult to make a profit doing this,” Welde said.
But the wheels are turning. Enough people have complained about the state dragging its feet on community-based agricultural and food products that a new organization has formed: the Wyoming Ag Coalition. Its mission is to “build healthy, sustainable systems that connects Wyoming’s producers, processors, and consumers.” This includes measures to improve local food systems such as direct marketing, selling to institutions, and encouraging organic certification for Wyoming producers.”
It’s important to remember that Wyoming wasn’t always just cows and sheep. As Karl Sutton, a Lander-based writer specializing in sustainable agriculture, says in his study of the agricultural history of Fremont County:
“The 1945 census reveals that Fremont County had a varied food production system: 1,197 farms produced cattle, over 1,038 farms produced dairy milk, 1,014 produced poultry and eggs, 502 farms produced hogs and pigs, 403 farms produced berries and fruits, and 62 farms produced vegetables. The 2002 census reveals a completely different food production story: 524 ranches produced cattle, 3 farms produced dairy milk, 3 farms produced berries and fruits, and 4 farms produced vegetables.”
Can we bring at least some of this variety back? Well, fortuitously, September is Eat Local month. So before the drifts start gathering at your back door (I’ve already got my show shovel out), put your food dollars back in the local economy. On a variation of a Cook County, Illinois voting maxim (“Vote early and often”), buy now and buy in volume. A dozen local tomatoes in September beat a pair of those cardboard-tasting specimens available in February.