Farmers Markets and the Health Department

Consider the Watermelon

A small dark seed rests in fertile soil. Warm sun and a bit of water and the seed sprouts. A vine creeps along the ground. A blossom gradually becomes a melon. The melon lies in the soil – the dirt.

Bugs crawl through the dirt and over the melon. Birds land on the melon, using it as high ground to hunt bugs. Sometimes the birds poop on the melon.

Consider the Tomato

A lush green vine climbs up a trellis or a stake. Tiny yellow blossoms develop into tomatoes. As these tomatoes grow, bugs crawl around on them looking for a nibble. Birds fly around snacking on the bugs, and yes, sometimes pooping on the tomatoes.

Consider the Kitchen Sink

I’ll admit that I never think to wash a watermelon. If I were going to make pickles from the rind, I would, but usually I just cut one open and scoop out the nummy flesh. The chickens get the rind.

I do wash my tomatoes. I’ll admit I do want to eliminate any residual traces of buggy footprints and bird poop. Yes, I might be able to avoid bug footprints if the farmer sprayed the tomatoes, but I would much rather deal with bugs than with chemicals.

Consider the Roof

A roof is a lovely thing. I am very glad to have been under a roof when six inches of snow fell.

On a rainy weekend, I will admit that I am glad to have a roof over the Memphis Farmers Market. What is frustrating is that the market has to be under a roof. I am at the market to buy things that grew from the dirt, that grew in the rain and sunshine, that were crawled on by bugs and pooped on by birds.

No, I misspoke. The market doesn’t have to be under a roof. The produce has to be under a roof. Keeping the sun out of my eyes and the rain off of my head is not the concern. No, the concern is that, if produce that grew in the dirt and the open air were to see a ray of sunshine or feel a drop of rain now, it would kill me.

Consider the Cutlery

Chain of custody is a crucial factor in avoiding death by farmers market. Only after I have taken possession of the produce is it safe for that produce to be taken from under its protective roof. I can eat the produce in the perhaps unsanitary conditions of my own kitchen and be just fine.

If, however, a farmer or cheesemaker or other such reprobate menace to the public health were to offer me a bite of cheese on a cracker or a slice of tomato, I would most assuredly suffer a sudden and painful death.

I am protected from this risk by the requirement that any samples offered at the market be prepared in a health department approved kitchen and be individually packaged. I trust someone enough to not spray my tomatoes with poison or to spoil milk just enough to make cheese, but I can’t trust them enough to have a clean knife to slice a tomato or a clean spoon to provide me a taste of cheese? Absurd.

Consider History

Memphis survived the Civil War virtually unscathed only to be nearly wiped out by yellow fever just over a decade later. The city eventually recovered, and the epidemic led to improvements, including a revolutionary new sewage system and the discovery of artesian water. Ensuring that waste was safely removed and that safe drinking water was available to the citizens of Memphis was a huge step forward for public health.

Consider the Future

Today, though, some regulations that exist for the sake of public health do more to impede business than to protect health. Honestly, a roof is a nice draw. Customers like staying dry; farmers like staying dry. But forcing a market under cover limits the locations where a market can be held. To have a spontaneous market means that farmers and artisans must invest in a tent. Having overflow at a market with a roof means the same thing.

If a businessperson wants to keep his or her merchandise out of the weather, then investing in a tent is a matter of choice. Requiring a farmer to keep produce that grew from, on, or even in dirt diverts capital from a small business.

I love heirloom vegetables. Funky, lumpy tomatoes, delicate greens, gnarly potatoes all delight me. What would be nice, though, is to be able to taste a leaf of those greens or a slice of those tomatoes. I guarantee that I am going to buy. I just want to have an idea of what dinner will be like. I think other people will be more likely to try new things given the benefit of a sample. Whether a businessperson provides samples should be based on a business decision, not limitations imposed by onerous regulations.

Given today’s tough economic climate, it’s time for our local government to look at ways to reduce costs by eliminating or revising regulations that interfere with business and add needless bureaucracy. I hate to sound like I am applying common sense to government, but it is time to build the tax base by getting out of the way of small businesses.

Consider Doing Something About It

It’s time for me to get off my duff and start writing some letters.

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