By ALAN SCHER ZAGIER
COLUMBIA, Mo. (AP) -- The weekend trip to the local farmers' market is practically de rigeur for health-conscious foodies. Want vaccum-packed, wilted lettuce shipped from California or Mexico? Try Aisle 5 at the grocery store. If you prefer -- and can afford -- heirloom tomatoes grown down the road, to market, to market you shall go.
State and local health departments generally oversee food safety at such venues. But when it comes to ensuring that the bright leaf lettuce or Autumn Royal apricots you're buying are genuinely local, that verification is largely up to the individual markets, if not the honor system.
The challenges of guaranteeing authenticity have come to a head with the recent ouster of a Columbia Farmers Market vendor who said he was booted for selling starter plants that had been purchased at a wholesale produce market in the Morgan County town of Versailles but nurtured and repotted at his retail garden center.
Chuck Bay, owner of Wilson's Garden Center, called the market's rules on such products vague, noting that he has passed previous inspections by its board of directors and operated at the popular market for nearly a decade without incident. Instead, Bay said, the board resents that he doesn't fit its Mom-and-Pop profile and also sets up shop at a competing farmers' market in town with less restrictive rules.
"They said the plants I was having to transport into bigger pots were too far along. They weren't young enough," he said. "There's nothing against the rules to buy plants from somewhere."
"All of them come from somewhere," he said, drawing a distinction between his specialty annual plants and homegrown produce. "It's unrealistic to think that all plants are going to be started from seed. They're just not available that way."
Some of Bay's former counterparts beg to differ. Abby Schultz, vice president of the seven-person board at the grower-run market and its former manager, said the rules are clear: agricultural products sold at the market must be grown within a 55-mile radius, and, as the market's website states under the title "What Can Be Sold," all bedding plants and potted plants must be grown from "seed, plug, cutting, bulbs or bare root, and be well established in its current container. ... No resale of pre-finished plants is allowed."
Customers want to be able to "look the grower in the face" and know the origin of their products, she said.
"There is a trust factor," Schultz said. "If you buy something from the auction, you have no idea under what conditions it was grown."
Her own sales pitch to strolling shoppers on a steamy weekday afternoon emphasized the personal connection Schultz tries to cultivate at Native Blossoms and Wild Edibles.
"All this produce, I picked today," she told one customer eyeing the display of red Russian kale, candy onions, herbs and more. "We didn't spray with pesticides, herbicides or anything."
Not all farmers' markets prevent vendors from reselling products grown elsewhere. In St. Louis, where a 2012 survey by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch found 38 markets in the metropolitan area, the venerable Soulard Farmers Market traces its roots to 1779 but allows both "locally grown and shipped in goods," according to its website.
The Schlafly Farmers Market in Maplewood, though, touts its outdoor venue in the craft beer brewer's parking lot as a chance to "come and buy local, farm-fresh eggs, pork, lamb, beef, herbs, mushrooms, artisanal loaves, flowers, pasta, chocolate and more straight from the source."
"The Schlafly Farmers Market is a uniquely special opportunity to fill your basket with produce while chatting with the people who actually grew, raised, or made it."
The Columbia Farmers Market board member who oversees inspections did not respond to an interview request. Bay said he had to forfeit a $775 vendor fee and narrowly lost an appeal of his removal, with the board declining his offer to refrain from selling plants this summer and instead only sell flowers in the fall.
He fears that other vendors will be unfairly targeted, and called the decision a black-eye on a community fixture that can draw thousands each Saturday morning to a community center parking lot.
"If they're going to kick me out because of a screwy interpretation, then they can kick anybody out at all," he said. "Everybody needs to be concerned. Some people, that's the only place they sell stuff. So if they get kicked out of there, they're done."
The recent flap also offered a peek behind the curtain at what Bay called the cutthroat internal politics of Columbia's farmers' market crowd, a rift last on display a decade ago when a splinter group of vendors formed a competing market amid disagreement over whether the Columbia Farmers Market needed a permanent building, a largely dormant project that remains a hope of many.
"Most people don't realize, there's a lot of tension among the vendors," Bay said. "It's not a happy place. The general public would be disappointed in that."