Gourmet coffee roaster Joel Finkelstein has long coveted a stall at the Dupont Circle farmers market, where face time with affluent food lovers could boost his sales and raise the visibility of Qualia, his cafe in Petworth.
But Finkelstein and the rest of his coffee-roasting ilk are banned from participating in the renowned Sunday market and nine others operated by FreshFarm Markets. The nonprofit group allows only vendors who sell products from what they grow or raise on local farms and facilities. Which leaves purveyors of coffee, olive oil, shrimp and other non-local specialty foods on the sidelines.
“It’s pretty expensive to participate in Dupont, but in terms of the amount of money you can make and the amount of coffee you can move, it would be pretty remarkable to sell there,” said Finkelstein, 40, who sells his beans at less picky farmers markets in Petworth and at American University.
David Starr, co-owner of Beanetics Coffee Roasters in Annandale, has run into the same problem in Fairfax County. Starr sells his beans at the Falls Church city farmers market, but would love to get into the 11 markets operated by Fairfax County, where he’s been rejected.
The county, which operates markets from Annandale to Herndon, bars anything grown or raised beyond a 125-mile radius to support area farmers, said farmers market coordinator Mae Carroll.
As dozens of area farmers markets gear up for their busy spring and summer seasons, their managers face an increasingly contentious conundrum: Are they purists devoted to local farmers? Or are they free-wheeling capitalists who don’t mind a few vendors hawking New Jersey kosher dill pickles or Dominican Republic chocolates mixed in with local farmers offering dry-aged, pasture-fed bison that is, by the way, low in fat and cholesterol?
Who gets admitted and rejected also raises a more philosophical question hovering over farmers markets: Is a “local” product something grown and raised within a certain geographic area? Or can “local” mean something more expansive — a raw product from elsewhere transformed here in a significant way?
Over the past five years, “this idea of what constitutes a farmers market has been something that has really come to the fore,” said Stacy Miller, executive director of the national Farmers Market Coalition, a Charlottesville nonprofit representing many of the 7,000-plus markets nationwide.
“In some cases, nonprofits are asking on our list-serv about selling t-shirts, or maybe the market itself wants to sell bottled water that wasn’t bottled locally,” Miller said. “We had one question about whether a market should allow in a franchise.”
Keith and Lynn Voight, founders of All Things Olive, which sells California extra virgin olive oil in Maryland, have twice been rejected by the region’s Vatican of farmers markets: FreshFarm Markets, which oversees markets in Crystal City, Silver Spring and the Penn Quarter, along with Dupont Circle and others. The Voights, who import their oil and sell it locally, have also been turned down by a market in McLean.
“We’re not taking business away from local olive oil producers. There are none. We’re as local as you get,” said Keith Voight, a communications manager for the Edison Electric Institute, a trade association. “We certainly think we could have more business at those markets.”
Some of the most intense farmers market debates surround coffee roasters, who view themselves very much like the bread and pasta makers welcomed at even the most restrictive markets.
“This wasn’t a difficult debate back in 1997 when we started our markets, and there weren’t so many roasters around,” said Bernadine Prince, FreshFarm’s co-executive director. “Now, we certainly see more roasters asking to be included, but we’re trying to include only the freshest, locally sourced food.”
FreshFarm’s rules say that all participating farms and producers are subject to annual visits from the nonprofit’s inspectors and that the reviews may not be announced in advance. Any new participants get checked out before they get accepted.
Coffee roasters don’t fit the FarmFresh mission of promoting agriculture in the Chesapeake Bay region. Plus, Prince said, “there are a lot of coffee shops, like Starbucks and Firehook, surrounding our markets, and we want to support them, frankly.”
But other Washington farmers markets are happy to include coffee roasters. They believe that the local-only rules are too difficult to administer fairly and that coffee is an important staple that cannot be grown locally.