PORTLAND — The coalition of farmers that operates the city’s farmers markets wants more control over the market.
Market coordinator Dan Price asked the city to give the Farmers Market Association the power to determine membership, enforce association rules, and collect fees from participating farmers, according to a memo from the city’s associate corporation counsel, Anne Freeman.
Price, Freeman, and several farmers were at the City Council’s Public Health, Safety, and Human Services Committee meeting on March 15 to discuss the request.
The Farmers Market Association isn’t looking to break away from the city, Price said, but wants to be able to enforce rules that the city has created and form new guidelines for future issues.
The city technically has the final say on those issues. But aside from processing license and permit applications from the market and individual farmers, the city has mostly let the farmers run the markets.
The proposed changes to the farmers market ordinance would allow the association greater flexibility and oversight at the markets, and allow farmers to deal with issues that arise at the market more directly.
Portland’s relationship with the farmers markets is unusual, Price said, because most cities around the state play much smaller roles in their markets. Many have no farmers market ordinance, he said, and those that do only specify what a farmers market is and where it can be held.
Portland’s ordinance, he said, goes into detail about what can be sold at the markets, how much of a vendor’s goods can be sourced from a third party, and how the markets are organized. It also gives the city clerk the power to choose vendors, and to remove them if they don’t follow city guidelines.
But the Farmers Market Association has its own set of guidelines and bylaws, some of which diverge from the city’s. In one example, the city says vendors can sell products they did not produce , if the products come from Maine and account for no more than 25 percent of the vendors’ annual sales.
The association, meanwhile, requires that no more than a quarter of the items offered by a vendor on a given day be sourced from a third party.
“We’re not accountants and tax collectors, so we really don’t feel like it’s our business going through other people’s books,” Price said.
City staff had some concerns about the proposed changes, cautioning that they could lead to a more homogeneous market, and that allowing the association to require that vendors be dues-paying members of the association could be difficult for small farmers.
But Price said that the new rules would ensure that the markets remain diverse.
“We’re all looking out for our best interests, and our best interests rely really heavily on the interests of the customer,” which don’t include having a market filled exclusively with produce vendors, he said.
The fees are also not unduly high, farmers said.
“When you pay $200 to rent a storefront one day a week for a year, it works out to be a fairly cheap rent,” said Clayton Carter, a farmer from Etna.
Councilor John Coyne wondered why the city is so heavily involved in managing the markets. “Let’s allow people that do this for a living to do it and do it well,” he said, “and do it even better than we’re doing.”
Under the proposed changes, the association could also streamline paperwork as it comes into the city. Currently, individual members must each apply for a permit to sell at the markets, which means the city has to spend time mailing out renewal notices months before each permit expires. It must also track down the farmers if they neglect to submit all the necessary paperwork, and process all the applications and fees.
With the new rules, the association would take care of collecting all the applications and material from members, and submit them together with a single fee payment.
The committee asked the association and city staff to work together to draft an amendment to the farmers market ordinance that it could recommend to the City Council in April or May.
“I trust the farmers,” Councilor Ed Suslovic said.
Chris Cavendish of Fishbowl Farms in Bowdoinham arranges bags of greens at his stall at the winter Farmers Market at the Irish Heritage Center in Portland on Saturday, March 17. The Farmers Market Association, which organizes the weekly market, has asked the city to rethink its role in the general operations of the city’s farmers markets.