Violations of local food rules at market causes strain

by Jordan Green

The Greensboro Farmers Curb Market, run by the city’s parks and recreation department, has grown into a bustling commercial hub in recent years as demand for organic and locally produced food has risen. Just as a loyal and vibrant community has grown up around the market, especially on Saturday mornings, strife among the vendors has raised questions about the integrity of the venture.

Mary Hess, who has been shopping at the market for 16 years, was among a group of vendors and consumers who showed up at a parks and recreation commission meeting at the Craft Recreation Center earlier this month. She reminded the commissioners that she had spoken before them about a year ago, before the commission passed a resolution to reinforce the market’s rules about local produce.

“We are back again due to ongoing violations which continue to erode the integrity of the market, and we believe that we are literally fighting to save the market as we celebrate its 135 th year,” she said. “Current rules are well defined and extremely clear. All vendors sign an agreement that they understand and agree to abide by the rules in order to be extended the privilege of selling at the market. I can count on one hand the number of vendors who openly violate the rules, and federal, state and local laws that are there to protect the public from unsafe and dishonest commerce. And yet these few have totally eroded the integrity and spirit of the market.”

Hess charged that the small group of violators was engaged in “a concerted effort… to bully the other vendors and public officials in order to force their demands.” She added, “One farmer even suggested in the presence of other small farmervendors that anyone farming less than 10 acres should not be allowed to sell at the market.

Michael Faucette, a Brown Summit farmer, was clearly on the other side of the rift.

“Boy, how rumors get started,” he told the commission.

“The comment about the farmer that said, ‘We ought to kick everybody out that’s 10 acres or less? I said that, but that ain’t what’s said. Let’s get the rumor straight here. I said that it ought to be if you’re on an advisory board or a committee that’s controlling this market, it ought to be a real farmer — not saying you folks ain’t real farmers. Somebody earned their livelihood. Somebody bought land, built a house, raised kids off a farm. I’m there. I got a question for this board here. How many people in this room are [at the market] six months out of the year. Raise your hand, please.”

A few murmurs rippled through the crowd. Carol Pryor, a vendor from Rockingham County, answered, “I will be.”

Faucette persisted: “Have you in the past? I’m just asking.” “You watch your mouth, Michael,” Carol Pryor’s husband said. “You watch it.” He made a slight laugh.

Faucette was cited as recently by city staff on June 1 for just the sort of violation Hess and her allies have been complaining about.

Market coordinator Lynne Leonard wrote, “It was noticed this past Saturday… that you were selling ginger and garlic at the Market,” adding that the market’s Vendor Participation Guidelines stipulate that vendors are allowed to sell only items they have personally produced unless a variance has been granted. Leonard asked Faucette to “please discontinue selling items you are not personally producing.”

VendorJohn Handler spoke for many of those who are concerned aboutenforcement of the market rules when he alleged at the commissionmeeting that Chris Wilson, a parks and recreation program manager, hadprevented market managers from enforcing the rules.

“Youhave managers who try to enforce our rules, and when they try to dothat Chris Wilson reverses their decision and lets the people that areviolating the market. And I want to know why that’s happening.”

Wilsonacknowledged in a recent interview that he has become frustrated by theperception that the rules aren’t being enforced, adding that when staffsanctions vendors it’s inappropriate and unprofessional to discuss thedetails with other vendors.

Thevast majority of the complaints — as attested by knowledgeable sourceswho spoke on condition of anonymity, and corroborated by a sampling ofenforcement letters obtained from the parks and recreation department —center on Mike Causey, who operates Dodge Lodge Farm in southeasternGuilford County.

“Itwas noticed on Saturday (May 30), that you were selling blueberries,”Leonard wrote to Causey on June 10. She noted that an application for avariance filed by Causey a year earlier to resell blueberries fromJohnston and other North Carolina counties had been denied “due to thefact that we currently have local vendors who grow their ownblueberries selling at the market.”

Leonard quoted from a report submitted by Market Manager Larry Smith:

“OnJune 2, 2009 at the invitation of Mike Causey, I visited his farm tosee blueberries that he claimed were coming in on his farm. He had beenselling blueberries on Saturday, May 30 that he claimed he grew. Aftera long walk through the woods, we came to a hay field but saw noblueberries. I did see two blueberry bushes near his house. We then gotin his truck and rode over on Nelson Farm Road to a neighbor’s housewhere I saw six blueberry bushes. None of the bushes that I saw had anyripe berries on them.”

InFebruary, Causey had been caught selling carrots, lettuce, bellpeppers, yellow squash, zucchini and tomatoes that he had notpersonally grown or received a variance to sell. Because the blueberrysales marked the vendor’s second violation, Leonard told Causey that hewould be suspended from selling at the market for 30 days.

Causey admitted in an interview with YES! Weekly that he knowingly violated the rules.

“Themajority of those blueberries that you’re talking about came fromJohnston County, North Carolina,” he said. “We had requested a variancefor blueberries, and the variance was denied.”

He added, “If I made a mistake then we certainly don’t want to violate rules knowingly.”

Inhis defense, Causey said he’s trying to sustain a family farm andprovide fresh, organic produce to grateful customers. He added thatsince the market added a second day on Wednesday, sometimes he’s one ofthe few vendors who stays to the end of the day. “I believe in therules,” he said, “but a lot of it against me has been nitpicked todeath.”

Causeysaid he has spoken to some city council members about the controversy,whom he declined to identify, but said he has not appealed any of hissanctions to them.

“Themessage I was bringing was ‘let’s call a truce,’” Causey said. “One ofthe other vendors said, ‘Let’s smoke the peace pipe. The wholesituation is very sad.”

FormerParks and Recreation Commission Chairman David Hoggard, who retiredfrom the commission earlier this year, said he sees little room forcompromise on enforcement of the rules.

“Ithink everybody is being treated fairly,” he said. “For a long time,that was tolerated. A year ago, we rewrote those rules to clarify themso there could be no confusion, and everybody had to sign those rulesto re-up. They can sign the rules or go somewhere else.”

He added, “In my opinion if someone continues to flaunt the rules, they shouldn’t be there.”

Hoggardis not among those who believe the parks and recreation administrationhas succumbed to political pressure from council members who have beenapproached by Causey and others caught violating the rules.

GerryAlfano was transferred within the parks and recreation department fromcoordinating the farmers market to a position with the City Beautifulprogram. Two knowledgeable and independent sources who spoke to YES! Weekly oncondition of anonymity, said that parks and recreation administrationcaved into pressure and transferred Alfano because of her efforts toenforce the rules.

“That’s inaccurate,” Chris Wilson said.

Heexplained, “That was a reorganization, not a disciplinary issue. I wasfairly new to this position at the time. We were moving Gerry over todeal with some of our volunteers. Capitalizing on strengths is whatthat’s about — basically looking at the talents that you have andputting them to the best use.”

Wilsonhas said that the parks and recreation department is consideringfurther reorganization of management at the market, but reassuredvendors and customers that the city would retain ownership. When askedto explain how the current management structure was deficient, Wilsonsaid, “Both our current managers are also vendors, and I believe thereis a strong perception of conflict of interest.”

Wilsonacknowledged that the parks and recreation department has held what hetermed “exploratory talks” with the NC Cooperative Extension office toconsider transferring management of the market. Wilson added that nomatter what, the market will retain its mission of promoting localagriculture and local community.

“Ourmeeting indicated we wanted to continue within our current mission,” hesaid. “Could there be some tweaking of the rules? That’s possible.”

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ABOVELEFT: Mary Hess said the rules are being flaunted at the farmersmarket. ABOVE RIGHT: Chris Wilson, a parks and recreation programmanager, has acknowledged that the department has consideredtransferring management to the cooperative extension service.

Michael Faucette, afarmer who sells produce at the Greensboro Farmers’ Curb Market, toldthe Greensboro Parks and Recreation Commission that he believes onlyfarmers who cultivate more than 10 acres should sit on an advisorycommittee. (photos by Jordan Green)