State rules bar Farmers Market from wine, beer tastings

The state Legislature has passed a law setting up a pilot project to allow beer and wine tasting in 10 farmers markets around the state - a move supporters say will boost sales for little-known local producers.

It’s a good law and will expose small wineries and microbreweries to a broader audience and likely boost their sales.

But don’t look for the wildly popular Olympia Farmers Market to be one of the 10 pilot projects. The local market doesn’t qualify. You see, in the eyes of state regulators, the Olympia Farmers Market isn’t really a farmers market.

Let us explain.

There are about 150 farmers markets in the state. Of that number, 110 are members of the Washington State Farmers Market Association, according to Joel Wachs, past president of the organization.

But of those 110 members, only 70 had a liquor license on Jan. 1. And the new new sampling law says that only markets with a liquor license on Jan. 1, 2011, qualify for the pilot project of beer and wine sampling.

Becky Holt, president of the Olympia Farmers Market board of directors and operator of Delphi Valley Greenhouse, said the Olympia market has attempted to get a liquor license in the past, but has failed. The market has had wine vendors hoping to sell from a market booth, but efforts to get a permit from the state Liquor Control Board have failed.

The reason is — you’re not going to believe this — Olympia’s Farmers Market isn’t really a farmers market in the eyes of the Liquor Control Board.

Yes, as ridiculous as that sounds, the Olympia Farmers Market fails to meet the test for what the liquor board considers a legitimate market. The details can be found in RCW 66.24.170, which defines a qualified farmers market for liquor purposes as one where “the total combined gross annual sales of vendors who are farmers exceeds the total combined gross annual sales of vendors who are processors or resellers.”

And that’s the problem for Olympia. While there are plenty of vendors selling lettuce, tomatoes, carrots, other vegetables and plants at the Olympia Farmers Market, total sales by farmers do not exceed the sales of resellers and processors such as fish, meats, jerky, bakeries and similar vendors.

Holt said every year Olympia inches closer to the point where gross sales by farmers exceeds vendors and processors, but the local market has not yet crossed that barrier. As Holt notes, it takes a lot of heads of lettuce to make up for the price of a 10-pound salmon.

Charlie Haney, market manager, said the market has not accepted a new processor in four or five years. And while sales by farmers exceed sales by processors and sales by resellers — such as the apple vendors at both ends of the market — sales by farmers can’t compete with sales by processors and resellers combined.

Because the Olympia Farmers Market does not qualify as a farmers market under the Liquor Control Board’s definition, the local market cannot apply for a liquor license and is thus prohibited from being a site for beer and wine sampling or sales.

But there’s one more small twist to this odd saga.

The Olympia Farmers Market is a member of the statewide market association. But guess what? The definition of a market by the Washington State Farmers Market Association is the same as the Liquor Control Board’s definition. The formula for the state market association says that “all farmers sales must be greater than processor plus resellers gross sales combined,” and “all farmers plus processor plus resellers sales must be greater than artisan/crafter plus prepared food.”

So how is it that the Olympia Farmers Market doesn’t measure up to the liquor board’s farmer formula, but is still a member of the state association, which uses the same standard for membership?

The answer is the state formula is written into law, but the Washington State Farmers Market Association uses the formula as a “guideline.”

The simple truth is this: The excellent diversity at the Olympia Farmers Market — a broad variety of farmers, resellers, processors, crafters and those who serve prepared food — is what makes the market extremely popular. Financially, it’s one of the most successful farmers markets in the state and is a popular visitor attraction.

But as long as the state Liquor Control Board sticks to its formula that requires sales by farmers to exceed those of resellers and processors combined, the Olympia Farmers Market does not qualify to have alcohol vendors or beer or wine sampling events.

That’s unfortunate because South Sound’s excellent wineries and microbreweries could certainly benefit from the exposure to thousands of market patrons.