The SD Farmers Market Czar(ina)

I have spent countless hours this month and last making phone calls, composing e-mails, and talking to people about taxes, food stamps, debit cards, insurance–all kinds of issues related to our farmers market.

What concerns me in my communication travels is that this state has very little in terms of a real, solid support network for learning about and dealing with the logistics of creating and running a farmers market.  It seems everyone on the state and local (heck, even federal) levels thinks we should do it, wants us to do it, but as far as the how–well, good luck, and I hope you have a good cell plan.  I’ve been donating lots of my minutes lately.

That is not to say there aren’t some really helpful people–there are some real troopers.  There are people I call and who call me several times a week with the latest updates and details about what they’ve learned that could be helpful.  There are people who are truly in this together with us–offering their time even in off-hours and in far-flung places.

But, I have also heard a lot of heads scratching when I ask specific questions about things like the tax implications of running all (for-profit) vendor purchases through one (non-profit) account in order to allow equal access to a central EBT/debit card machine.  It might take three days to get a response, and that is when I do the calling back, only to find out the matter’s been referred to someone else, and that person was supposed to call me.

I have also heard heads being scratched when it comes to questions about collecting taxes on vendor dues.  We’re a non-profit, right?  And we all pay into a collective pot to provide ourselves with a service, right?  One person I asked who is a go-to about farmers markets in the state said, “I’ve never even thought about that.”  This particular person has been in that position for five years at least–it would seem it might’ve come up at some point before now.

Too, I’ve been working on insurance issues.  Our current liability policy has been running us about $640/year, but the Farm Bureau agent I met with says they can insure us for $100–and that’s with better coverage.  How is it that we can’t get some help and/or advice on how much these policies ought to cost, so we don’t shell out a third of our budget to cover our butts?

I don’t mind doing the research for my market, but I do mind that the people who get paid to have answers or get them, to be a resource, to help us out are asking me to let them know what I can find out in my spare time.

I mentioned in a previous post that in the 2007 USDA Census of Ag, South Dakota ranked dead last among the states in the market value of vegetables, melons, potatoes and sweet potatoes produced here.  The truth is, we are so far behind our neighbor states of Iowa and Minnesota in encouraging production of stuff we can actually eat, it’s scary.

Considering how very far down the national food supply chain we are out here, we ought to have a heck of a lot more concern about what happens if that supply chain breaks, dries up, or actually begins to reflect the real cost of all that processing, packaging, and shipping.  How surprised could we actually be if the shelves start looking kind of empty considering that so many of the trucks bringing goods here are back-hauling nothing but an empty container?

Michael Pollan called for a “Farmer-in-Chief” for the nation, but I think South Dakota needs a “Farmers-Market-in-Chief” or perhaps a “Farmers Market Czar(ina).”  Actually, I’m happy with a title of “State Farmers Market Coordinator” or “Facilitator.”  A lofty title does not seem a pre-condition for a job well-done, after all.

The purpose of this position would to provide direct logistical support to all existing farmers markets in the state on things like insurance, taxation, vendor recruitment, non-profit and corporate status issues–bascially all the things that are important to the health, safety, and growth of the market as a whole, the vendors, and the community.

Further, the Farmers Market Coordinator would help establish new markets–helping groups draft their vendor contracts, apply for appropriate licensure, and work with their city and county governments to describe the benefits to the local community and economy of hosting such a market.

The upshot of hiring a person who actively supports existing markets and helps create new ones is that it encourages local food production, and breaks South Dakota’s almost complete dependency on far-flung food sources.

I know the state is facing some tough budgetary times, so perhaps creating a new state job isn’t likely.  But when you consider our shaky place in the national food-supply system and the positive economic (and social!) impact on communities of starting and growing a farmers market, the cost to the state of creating such a position could easily be made up (and then some) in the economic benefits reaped statewide.

And yes, I’ll be applying.


11 responses to this post.

  1. Once again the lack of investment in South Dakota hampers business opportunities. The problem is not just that there should be a state employee to help facilitate this business development opportunity but that there has been too little philanthropic investment in the state.

    I say that because some of what you describe gets done in other states, such as Minnesota, by nonprofits with sustainable food programs. Minnesota has multiple nonprofits with those programs because it has lots of philathophic funding. South Dakota has little. (Don’t get me started on how relatively few foundations give money to nonprofits in the Dakotas but lavish spending on other states.) The question is, how do we pull outselves out of this situation, given that none or few are likely to come to our aid?

  2. Posted by flyingtomato on February 11, 2009 at 3:07 pm

    In part, I think we continue to do what we’re doing (or, at least, those who are doing something continue to do that). I’m not under the impression that this kind of position will actually be created, and if it was, the job description would likely be written in such a way that I could not apply for it. But what I am doing and have been doing covers (in a small scope) many of the jobs of this proposed “Farmers Market Czar”–I’m just not getting paid for it (perhaps that’s where I ought to be writing grants).

    When I consider how many South Dakotans have contacted me about market issues and concerns–through my blog and the list serves I’m on and the market workshops I’ve attended, it’s obvious to me that there’s a real need for this kind of help, and that the need is not being met by the current state apparatus, and that it would not be at all difficult to spend forty or fifty or more hours a week working on these issues in South Dakota. Perhaps a non-profit MACSAC-type (Madison Area Community Supported Agriculture Coalition) organization for farmers markets in the state might be more likely to fill the needs of market boards, managers, and vendors than a state position.

  3. Do you know about the New Farmers Market book? I’ll bet you do. – some free downloads are available.

    A nonprofit fashined after MACSAC is a good idea. Even in Wisconsin, which has “lots” of farmers markets doesn’t have a FM Czar(ina). It’s pretty much networking amongst market managers, workshops, etc. – and lots of folks donating time for that about which they are passionate.

    It seems that those at the state level recognize only commodity type crops as having value or worth spending their time on. Most farmers selling at markets are viewed as “hobby” gardeners. Someone needs an attitude adjustment – and it’s not the farmers or their markets.

    Is SD Extension involved? Some of the Wisconsin networking, workshops, etc. is facilitated by Extension.

    You can email me if needed, I’ve been involved with WI farmers markets and market gardeners for many years and am willing to share information.

  4. Posted by flyingtomato on February 12, 2009 at 9:18 am


    Yes, the Extension is involved as well as the State Dept. of Ag. We will be having a Farmers Markets Workshop on February 21. Last year an upshot of the workshop was to set up a farmers market list serve and that has helped somewhat in terms of networking.

    Our Dept. of Ag person who is ostensibly in charge of farmers markets has such a huge and diverse job description that farmers markets are just a small part. I don’t get the sense he spends a lot of time on them with the demands he has elsewhere. Generally, he either doesn’t know the answer to a question, and/or asks us to let him know when we find out.

    As you are well aware, farmers markets are a huge community-booster, and it doesn’t really matter if all those vendors at markets are “hobby farmers” (or whatever else states/commodity farmers want to call them)–those hobby farmers are still paying taxes, boosting the local economy, and creating a positive social/community experience. It’s not that people in the Dept. of Ag don’t know this, it’s that small business and community development isn’t really their department. So perhaps that’s not the department market entities belong under–perhaps we should be under Tourism and State Development?

  5. Posted by Claire on February 12, 2009 at 2:20 pm

    Just a tinsy note on the tax issue. This might be something that everyone knows or maybe only folks on food stamps have picked up on this. When the EBT cards run, the food tax drops off. Basically, no food tax for the food stampers. Also, as a non-profit, I assume there is a state tax agency to whom you apply for a “get out of tax” permit. Generally, my understanding from other states is that if you outline the course and scope of your operations to the tax authority, they tell you what parts you should be collecting tax on.

    My philosophy on taxes is: when in doubt, collect the tax! Best bet would be to have an account where tax money sits so it is clearly seperate from non-profit funds. Less hassle in time of audit or reports to participants.

  6. Posted by flyingtomato on February 12, 2009 at 3:28 pm

    Well, the food tax would drop off in a grocery store scenario when the item has a PLU number and it’s scanned. The issue at farmers markets is that many vendors (including myself) sell their items as “tax-included” so that we don’t have to mess with small change. So, if we are making a sale to an EBT client, vendors who normally sell at a “tax-included” price will have to subtract the tax from their normal price. We’ll probably provide our vendors with an easy “cheat sheet” for this.

    The Farmers Market is a non-profit registered with the Secretary of State, and we do not sell anything, so we don’t collect tax or even have a sales tax license (if you have a license, you have to file, and I don’t need one more piece of paperwork–even if it’s just one I have to fill out zeros on). Our vendors for the most part have sales tax licenses, and we report a list of all our vendors to the State Department of Revenue as well.

    My concern was to make sure the folks at Revenue understand what we are doing ahead of time; we’ll obviously keep good records of the transactions and reimbursements so we can show we’re not making a profit off these sales. It was when I called Revenue to give the heads up that I was asked by the agent if we were charging tax on vendor dues. She thought we had to, but referred the matter to our agent in Yankton, who said that farmers market vendor dues are, in fact, tax exempt.

  7. Another program WI has is Buy Local, Buy Wisconsin

    Started out as a grassroots effort from groups such as MACSAC and others. In WI it seems that all these efforts are grassroots, coming from the bottom up, championed by really hard working folks with already too much to do. For me it’s wonderful to see this Buy Local, Buy Wisconsin program bearing official fruit – long time in coming.

    We started a “community kitchen” in WI, and actually had to facilitate meetings between local county health departments, state agencies and USDA to figure out who was responsible for what aspect and which reg would be followed. So I can relate to the person who should know not knowing and asking you to please let them know when you know – okey dokey there.

    None of this is easy is it. But we sure do eat good along the way! When you have it all figured out – you could write a book, right? Best of luck!

  8. Posted by flyingtomato on February 13, 2009 at 8:48 am

    Nope, it’s not easy. I am really enjoying the learning process though. And honestly–having come from Vermont and having lived in Wisconsin, where the awareness about such things is much higher and the support is much more broad–had I not relished the struggle, I never would’ve come back here to South Dakota to try to do some of the things I saw being done in other states. I just get a little beat-down and tired sometimes. Nothing a little digging in the dirt won’t cure!

  9. Posted by CarolinadeWitte on February 24, 2009 at 9:06 am

    Are you saying that in SD food is taxed? I remember when I first moved to WA state, it was, but somewhere back in the late 70’s I believe, the governor rescinded the sales tax on food items. As far as I know, here in AZ it has never been taxed. If you are paying sales taxes on food, that seems to be a place to start a ‘grass-roots’ movement. It isn’t fair nor just to have to pay taxes on things necessary to life. I don’t know how many states still tax foods, but I’m willing to bet not too many. IMHO that is something worth looking into. It would also solve a lot of your problems if foods were simply non-taxable to begin with.

  10. Posted by CarolinadeWitte on February 24, 2009 at 9:09 am

    I just did a quick google search on this, and found this site very quickly. It is from Kansas, but it tells a story, and is possibly a starting point for a campaign of your own:

    Peace and Love

  11. Posted by flyingtomato on February 25, 2009 at 8:50 am

    We’ve been working on that food tax issue for a long time. The closest we got was a food tax refund for folks with lower incomes, but it looks like the governor is going to rescind that due to our “budget crisis.” No, it is absolutely not fair or just, but without personal income tax (or corporate income tax) here in SD, they figure they have to make up for it somehow (unfortunately with a totally regressive tax that hurts the poor the most).

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