How Local is Local?
The Eau Claire Downtown Farmers Market prides itself as a showcase for locally grown food. But some vendors are worried that a new rule mandating local ingredients in prepared foods might be hard to swallow.
Localism is all the rage, especially in the culinary world. What was once a fringe foodie focus – priding oneself on locally sourced ingredients – has reached the mainstream in recent years, with everyone from restaurants to grocery-store chains touting their selection of local produce and products. Concurrent with this trend has been the rising popularity of farmers markets, where customers can cut out the middleman and buy veggies, fruits, cheese, meat, and other consumables direct from farmers who till the earth in practically the same ZIP code.
In the Chippewa Valley, the most obvious example of this movement is the growth and popularity of the Eau Claire Downtown Farmers Market – the largest of the city’s three farmers markets – which brings thousands of people to the pavilion at Phoenix Park each Saturday morning and hundreds more to its smaller incarnations on Wednesday mornings and Thursday afternoons in the same spot. And as the market has grown, the profusion of seasonal produce has been increasingly supplemented by prepared foods, including baked goods, egg rolls, coffee, salsas, and more. Such pre-made, eat-on-the-spot (or take-home) goodies have no doubt added to the market’s popularity, drawing shoppers who are as interested in a quick bite on a summer day as on hunting for veggies. Now, about 20 of the 65 farmers market spots are taken up by vendors who sell value-added products, from cheese to honey to cinnamon rolls.
But are all these products truly compatible with the “locally grown” focus of the farmers market, especially considering many of them contain non-local ingredients? Does moving the market farther along the spectrum between farm stand and food festival undermine the ultimate purpose of the institution?
“I think this is what customers want,” said Deidra Barrickman, who manages the market. “I think it helps the integrity of the market.”
"I think this is what customers want. I think it helps the integrity of the market." – Deidra Barrickman, Manager of the Eau Claire Downtown Farmers market, on a new rule requiring prepared food vendors to use local ingredientsEarlier this year, these kinds of questions prompted the board that oversees the farmers market to adopt a policy requiring that, starting in 2014, all pre-made foods must contain farmers market-purchased ingredients.
Vendors have always been strongly encouraged to use local ingredients, and mandating localism has been talked about in the past, but the rule wasn’t codified until this spring, Barrickman said. “If we’re going to say we’re a producers-only market, we’re going to have to streamline that,” she said of the local-ingredient policy.
Specifically, the policy requires that prepared food vendors get at least 51 percent of their ingredients from the farmers market when those ingredients are available and in season. For example, a vendor selling salsa would have to buy more than half of the tomatoes, peppers, and onions he or she needs from farmers market produce vendors when those vegetables are in season. The same goes for pre-made products that contain a cornucopia of other locally available foodstuffs, from berries to meats to cheeses – all of which are available from farmers market vendors. However, the rule makes exceptions for products that can’t be obtained locally: Consider ingredients, such as coffee beans or olives, which don’t grow in Wisconsin’s climate, or staples such as flour, which can’t be locally sourced.
“It’s a no-brainer that a lot of these items are not produced in this area, and you have to find them somewhere else,” said Barrickman, who grows mushrooms and sells them at the market.
The market’s operators are serious about the new rule: According to a May 31 letter to vendors, “Failure to comply with the above rules constitutions grounds for suspension of Farmers’ Market privileges.”
Deanna Klindworth of Lambalot Acres, the elected president of the farmers market board, said the addition of prepared-food vendors over the years has diversified the market: “It’s more of a customer service to give the customers more options,” she said. In her view, it’s in keeping with the market’s philosophy to require these businesses to patronize their fellow vendors. “That’s what the farmers market is all about – supporting the farmers,” she said.
And, considering consumer demand for localism, supporting those farmers will mean business success for prepared food vendors, Klindworth predicted. “I know from some of the restaurants I work with, that when they say (a product is) from a local producer, it’s really easy to sell,” she said.
But even when ingredients are available locally, using them isn’t always practical or cost-effective, some vendors say. They’re worried that the rule change may complicate their involvement in the farmers market or even push them away from it.
"Whether we’re there next year or not, I don’t know. If they strictly enforce (the rule), then things will not be the same." – Mike Hable, Owner of Bohemian Ovens, a farmers market vendorBohemian Ovens in Bloomer has been a fixture at the market for years, doing a brisk business selling baked goods such as cinnamon rolls and kolaches (breakfast pastries filled with egg, cheese, and other goodies). Each Saturday, the bakery sells 30 dozen kolaches to shoppers in the Phoenix Park pavilion.
Owner and master baker Mike Hable doesn’t mince words when asked about the new policy. “I think they should’ve left well enough alone,” he said. Bohemian Ovens is a vendor at seven farmers markets each week, and while they all vary in style and atmosphere, none of them have local ingredient requirements.
While Hable uses locally sourced ingredients when available and practical, he’s worried that the rule will price him – and his customers – out of the market. “Can I afford to buy eight-dollar-a-pound cheese?” Hable asked. “Probably not. Five- or six-dollar-a-pound chicken? Probably not.” And though some have suggested that he simply raise his prices, Hable predicts that doing so will reduce his sales. Besides that, he wonders how the farmers market will police the requirement, pointing out that it is basically unenforceable.
Hable said some people involved in the Downtown Eau Claire Farmers Market seem to want to turn it into a local version of the Dane County Farmers Market in Madison, which bills itself as the largest producers-only market in the United States and has stringent rules to maintain localism.
But dozens of pages of explicit rules can’t clarify apparent contradictions at the Madison market. As Lindsay Christians wrote earlier this year in The Capital Times, “In some ways, the word ‘local’ is like the word ‘natural’: The meaning changes based on who’s using it.” For example, the Madison market allows farm-raised fish but not fish caught in Lake Michigan. Likewise, it won’t allow a Madison-area man who mills grain he gets from other Wisconsin farmers to sell his flour at the market because he doesn’t cultivate the grain himself; however, baked goods are exempt from the local-only rule, meaning vendors can sell bread or cookies without sourcing the ingredients locally.
Hable feels emulating such strict rules in the Chippewa Valley will be problematic. “This is not going to help anybody, and it’s going to create hard feelings, which it’s doing already,” Hable said.
He suspects next spring’s annual meeting will be well attended. (That’s when board members are elected and policies are discussed.) However, he adds, “If the produce vendors want to keep (the local rule) in there, I don’t think the people like us can stop it.”
What happens then? Hable hasn’t decided. “Whether we’re there next year or not, I don’t know,” he said. “If they strictly enforce (the rule), then things will not be the same. Either we’ll be at higher prices or some things will drop out of selection.”
Becki Spina, who has sold her olive salsa and other prepared foods at the market for years, also objects to the new rule. In part, that’s because of how it was presented: not via a public discussion at a membership meeting but through a letter – a letter that in part said the market “must try to be diverse … while sacrificing as little vendor space as possible for this purpose.”
Spina said this wording offended her: “Having the ready-to-eat stuff is a sacrifice of space?” she asked (though she adds the phrase was probably just a poor choice of words, not an intentional affront). Spina said prepared food vendors such as herself are attractions, not sacrifices of space. “Every week people say to me, ‘You are the reason I came today,’ ” she said.
Spina questions the practicality of implementing the mandate, which will require vendors to fill out paperwork for each produce purchase and have it signed by the market manager to demonstrate that they met the 51 percent rule.
For much of the year, the ingredients Spina needs for her products are unavailable locally; when they are available, Spina has made an effort to buy them at the market. However, it is often difficult to negotiate volume discounts with other vendors who would rather sell their produce at full price to members of the public. In addition, Spina worries that documenting that 51 percent of certain ingredients come from market vendors will require her to open up her recipes and record books for verification.
“I love the farmers market,” she said. “It’s a great market. And in general I think it’s very well run. I just think this policy, while it might seem like it’s a good idea, it’s just misguided and overstepping. It’s pretty hard for them to really be able to give oversight without invading our business privacy.”
Ultimately, Spina believes the market should continue to evolve, not become more restrictive.
“People talk all the time about they wish there was more variety,” she said. “Basically that means there should be more room for different things other than vegetables.” Those veggies – while “beautiful and plentiful” – can be a recipe for redundancy at the market, especially when dozens of vendors are selling identical items, she adds.
More Than A Market
Even as it sharpens its local focus, the Eau Claire Downtown Farmers Market has moved beyond being only a food-related event. The shift began in 2006 when the market relocated from the Railroad Street parking lot it had occupied for years into the new, spacious pavilion in nearby Phoenix Park. As the market has grown in popularity – an estimated 2,000 to 3,000 people wander through each Saturday – it has taken on some aspects of a festival: musicians perform inside the small clock tower pavilion, at times there are stories and art projects for kids, and two or three artists are allowed to sell their wares just outside the main pavilion. In addition, unaffiliated events have popped up elsewhere in the park hoping to tap into the farmers market’s clientele. For example, the Artist Market of Eau Claire is held on 11 Saturday mornings on a blocked-off stretch of Riverfront Terrace just down from the farmers market.
Barrickman, the farmers market manager, said it works well to have compatible events – such as the Artist Market of Eau Claire – elsewhere in the park. “I think we can feed off of each other a little bit, and I think it’s a real positive thing for both of us,” she said.
However, those who oversee the farmers market are selective about who they allow to participate in their event. Because they’ve had a presence at the farmers market for many years, representatives of the Eau Claire Regional Arts Council and the Eau Claire Children’s Theatre are essentially grandfathered in. But in recent years the market has developed a policy barring other outside groups from taking part. After she took over management of the market, Barrickman found herself fielding requests for market space from everyone from cosmetic saleswomen to religious groups. Because space is at a premium and to avoid the challenges of picking and choosing among these non-food-related applicants, the decision was made to exclude all such groups, she said. And while such exclusivity keeps the farmers market pavilion from becoming the site of a multifaceted street festival, it doesn’t preclude other kinds of vendors from getting permission to peddle their wares nearby.
Some vendors are supportive of the new local-ingredient rule, including Colleen Wojcik of Elder Valley Farms, who sells salad dressings and bakery items at the market. The 51 percent rule didn’t come as a surprise to her, because the Eau Claire Downtown Farmers Market has always been a producers market, she said. Wojcik, who grows the ingredients used in her products on her family farm in Gilman, said the rule will improve, not undermine, the market.
“I think it can be positive for the prepared-food people,” she said. For example, it gives them the opportunity to create new products that take advantage of in-season produce: “Have some fun, go out of your box,” she advises other vendors, adding that there’s plenty of time to figure out the new rule’s details before the market kicks off next year.
Barrickman, the farmers market manager, is upbeat about the local-only rule, saying she believes it ultimately will boost sales for vendors.
“I hope that they would use it as a marketing opportunity,” she said of vendors who are uncertain about the rule change. “It seems to me that if you take the bull by the horns, you can put up a sign saying ‘fresh berries from so-and-so’s berry patch.’ ”
Klindworth, the board of directors president and lamb farmer, acknowledges that monitoring the rule might be a challenge and that not all vendors are happy about it. And while she said “we’re not trying to kick anybody out with this,” that ultimately is a possibility.
“If they’re not open to the possibility (of buying farmers market ingredients), then I guess that would be their decision,” she said.
Food And Community
The local-ingredient mandate drew mixed reactions from patrons at a recent Wednesday morning farmers market at Phoenix Park.
"To me personally, the bigger draw in additionto the food is the sense of community." – Jennifer Birkholz, Eau Claire Downtown Farmers Market patron“We come here for the fresh vegetables mostly, and the boys always want a treat,” said shopper Corinne Gransee Paral, indicating her sons, Benji and Calvin, who nibbled on baked goods nearby. Gransee Paral heaped a litany of praise on the market: It’s convenient, it’s in a beautiful location, and it supports local businesses and farmers, some of whom she’s developed relationships with.
“I’m all for doing as much local as possible,” she said. “That’s why I come here. But that’s not going to stop me from shopping at Bohemian Ovens.” Even if a vendor doesn’t use primarily local ingredients, she reasons, it’s still a local business.
Localism is also key for another patron, Jennifer Birkholz. “I grew up on a farm, so I like my kids to know where their food comes from,” she said.
Birkholz said she can understand the desire to require local ingredients, but she also understands why some businesses may dislike the rule. The farmers market is about both convenient access to farm-fresh produce and supporting local businesses, she said.
“To me personally, the bigger draw in addition to the food is the sense of community,” she said.