“I used to be a reporter. I love words and I’ll argue about words with anybody. And I’ve never had so much fun arguing about two words.”

So said Deputy Commissioner of Agriculture Ned Porter during a recent session at the Maine Farmers Market Convention, held at the University of Maine Hutchinson Center. The words Porter was referring to were “farmers” and “market.” Together they are the subject of LD 1586 “An Act To Amend the Definition of ‘Farmers’ Market’.”

Ninety farmers-market participants and representatives attended the annual convention, Jan. 29-30, and nearly all of them weighed in on the proposed legislation during one of two sessions presented by Porter and Rep. Wendy Pieh, D-Bremen.

Pieh, who serves as chairwoman of the Legislature’s Joint Standing Committee on Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry, described the bill as a “placeholder.” The final legislation, she said, would take into consideration opinions collected during the convention.

Porter explained that one option would be to remove the definition from the books altogether. But after one packed session, he said most of the participants had favored a definition that would narrow the scope of what kinds of vendors could participate in farmers markets.

Under the current definition, at least 75 percent of a product offered by a vendor must be grown or processed by the vendor or under the vendor’s direction, or purchased from another farmer. Porter said he had always assumed that figure to mean the aggregate (i.e., 75 percent of all of the vegetables at a farmer’s stand). But he said it could as easily be interpreted to mean that 75 percent of every product sold by a vendor must be locally produced. A draft of LD 1586 distributed at the convention offered a more permissive interpretation, reading in part, “… where at least 75 percent of the sellers meet the requirements …”

Freeport vegetable farmer Ralph Turner said the problem was not with the wording of the law but with the enforcement. Turner was denied a place at the Freeport Farmers Market, after which he observed that some of the vendors who contributed to the market being “full” didn’t seem to fit the legal definition. The complaint he subsequently filed with the state prompted the Department of Agriculture to reconsider the statute, but not before it sent a letter to the Cumberland Farmers Market Association, the umbrella organization for farmers markets in five towns that include Freeport. Turner said the market association ignored the letter.

Pamela Harwood, president of the Cumberland Farmers Market Association, was present when Turner was relating his story. “I was told that 90 percent of the farmers markets [around the state] are in violation,” she said.

Questions overheard as farmers and market association heads hashed out the definition of “farmers market” in small groups included: If a person bakes a blueberry pie but the blueberries come from a can, does that disqualify the vendor? Can a vendor sell knit mittens if the wool is locally produced? Is stone an agricultural product? (According to Porter, stone is a “resource.” He defined agricultural products as “food or fiber,” wood being in the latter category.) Should flowers be allowed?

One vendor complained that Tupperware was being sold at the market where he sold produce.

Porter said the most significant conversations took place around the balance between agricultural produce — a literal interpretation of a farmers market — and crafts, which have crept into many markets.

The Republican Journal Reporter Ethan Andrews can be reached at 207-338-3333 or by e-mail at eandrews@villagesoup.com.