A sustainable family farm in Freedom, Ohio

Follow the Rules

If you saw the small commotion at my booth last Saturday, I  hope you’ll read this explanation.  I want my customers to know that my products are high quality and safe, and I also want the community to know the challenges the farmers and small businesspeople at the market are facing.

IMG_0430For the last 3 years, I’ve grown and sold shiitake mushrooms.  Each spring, I harvest several living trees from my woods, cut them into 4′ lengths, drill about 100 holes in each, pack the holes with sawdust inoculated with shiitake spawn, and seal the holes with wax.  They then sit for a year while the shiitake colonizes the entire log.  To get the mushrooms to pop out, I soak the logs.  When the mushrooms get to a nice size, I cut them off the logs with scissors.

According to the Ohio Department of Agriculture, cultivated mushrooms are no different than any other agricultural commodity.  They can be sold raw and fresh, just like any other fruit and vegetable.  Wild foraged mushrooms are a different story–they cannot be sold retail without some extra steps, which I actually don’t even know about, because that’s not my thing.

Last Saturday, the Chief Sanitarian from the Kent Health Department “embargoed” my shiitakes.  He saw the basket of mushrooms and ordered me to take it off the table.  I told him that these were cultivated and not wild, thinking that was the problem.  He said it didn’t matter, I couldn’t sell them.  It seemed like after making the decision that I couldn’t sell them, he was a bit at a loss to think of the reason, but he wouldn’t back down, even though I told him that I knew I could sell them, and another farmer passing by my booth told him the same thing.  I don’t feel like rehashing the entire exchange.  I put the mushrooms away, took a loss on sales, and felt upset and miserable the rest of the market.  (And I apologize to anyone who witnessed my outbreaks of bureaucracy-induced Tourette Syndrome–hope my salty mouth didn’t wilt your herbs!)

I spoke with an inspector at the Ohio Department of Agriculture first thing Monday morning, who confirmed that mushrooms can be sold at farmers markets, just like any other fruit or vegetable.

People make mistakes.  Saturday morning, several of my colleagues at the market learned from this same Sanitarian who made the mistaken call on the mushrooms that they were making mistakes.  We also need rules and regulations.  But my colleagues and I expect to be treated with respect, a spirit of cooperation, and consideration always, including when we are conducting business.

Several of my farmer friends around the state have pointed out that farmers, the market board, and the Health Department should take a team approach to reaching what should be a clear goal–making sure safe and healthy food is available to our community.

IMG_0432If you’re friends with some of the farmers in the community, you have heard over the last couple weeks that some of us are feeling pretty discouraged.  Some of the regulations we’ve been asked to follow and pay for are resulting in real changes to our businesses–what we’ll bring to the market, what we have to charge for our products, even what we might raise or produce in the future.  Tough business decisions, but we’re figuring it out.

What is discouraging though is conforming to regulations that don’t make sense, at least as part of ensuring food safety.  It’s also discouraging when inspectors approach their job–approach us in front of our customers–with condescension and hostility.  And it’s discouraging when we hear one thing from one agency and one thing from another, or when an outright mistake is made that results in a real loss.

I’m relieved that ODA was able to quickly clarify the situation with mushrooms–the inspector called the City of Kent Sanitarian yesterday to make sure he knows that he can not embargo mushrooms in the future.  I hope that realizing they made a mistake will help the Health Department to be much less patronizing, disrespectful, and “shoot from the hip” in the future.

And I hope the word gets around that, like my friends, I strive to create safe, healthy, high-quality products.  I’d do that whether there were rules or not.

PS, and I apologize to the college students who raced down to the market Saturday when they heard that someone was selling illegal mushrooms.  Sorry to disappoint you, but a lot of people do think my mushrooms are magical in stirfry.

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