Farmers take stand against public health permitting

Local farmers are asking county commissioners to support a cherished Whidbey staple — the farmstand.

Local farmers are advocating for Island County commissioners to live up to agricultural-related expectations set forth in the county’s comprehensive plan and to support a cherished Whidbey staple — the farmstand.

Kyle Flack and Paige Mueller, owners of Bell’s Farm in Central Whidbey, are currently embroiled in a dispute with the county about their self-serve honesty farmstand.

At the beginning of the pandemic, officials from the county’s public health department asked the farmstand’s owners to purchase a retail food establishment permit to continue operating. Flack and Mueller have argued against the permit, saying it is ill-fitting since their farmstand is not a grocery store.

In an email to the county commissioners, Flack said 99% of all products sold through the farmstand come directly from Bell’s Farm or smaller neighboring farms. The Bell’s Farm owners pointed to their USDA-inspected meat and temperature control monitoring system as being adequate.

They also emphasized the amount of permits they have in place already to sell their products, from cottage foods to farmers markets, as well as business licenses and resellers permits.

“I love my community, I love the unique and fragile ecosystem of this island, I love farming, and I love my family — I will gladly do what is necessary to stand up for any of those, such as resisting unnecessary and onerous permits that disproportionately affect local farmers,” Flack wrote.

By filling out the application for the permit the county wants the farmstand to get, Flack expressed concern over setting a precedent for other farmstands, CSA programs and egg stands.

County officials, however, said they don’t have the authority to waive permit requirements for food products that would go bad without refrigeration.

“I understand that Mr. Flack may not want to get a permit,” Commissioner Jill Johnson explained in an email to concerned community members, “but despite the fact that the products he distributes might come from permitted and regulated businesses, the county still needs a way to ensure that quality-control standards are met for the products while they are under his control (temperature, cross-contamination, etc.), in order to ensure that the foods and products he provides to your families are safe.”

At a county commissioner meeting Nov. 2, Public Health Director Keith Higman referred to the farmstand at Bell’s Farm as a retail operation, distinguishing it from a farmstand.

“This term ‘farmstand’ has been confusing, I think to members of our community that want to understand what the regulatory arena is for the selling of produce,” he said, adding that it depends on whether or not “time- and temperature-controlled products,” or products requiring refrigeration, are sold, according to state retail code he referenced.

Flack criticized Higman’s lack of leadership during a Nov. 9 county commissioners meeting.

“He is having subordinates attempt to enforce rules that don’t exist and has told this board that his hands are tied because he’s following state law, but also that he may choose to waive those state requirements,” Flack said, referencing the waiving of on-site water-related requirements that was done for his farmstand.

Flack added that he has communicated with other farmers who fear they might be in the same position as him because of a lack of clear rules to follow.

“A consistent answer I get is, ‘I don’t want them to come after me next,’” he said. “I assume and certainly hope that it is not the intention of the county to foster a culture of fear and uncertainty in the ag community, but that’s what’s happened.”

Mueller cited directly from the county’s comprehensive plan and appealed to the commissioners to support farmers and their farmstands.

“By leaving farmstands undefined, having unclear rules and requirements that may or may not be waived and inconsistent enforcement of a still yet-to-be-identified food safety risk posed by farmstands, you are in no way supporting the efforts to enhance profitability,” she said.

Several community members spoke in support of Bell’s Farm during the same meeting.

“I want to say that our farmstands are safe,” Tim Hazelo said. “These people love what they do. They take care of their food, they take care of us.”

“These people are honest, straightforward and do a great job,” Bill Boylan said. “They take care of their animals, their crops, and the entire farm with an eye toward cleanliness and getting things done correctly.”

Others spoke about reforming county code.

“The world is changing rapidly. Supply chain disruption is a real thing and our community needs to double down on our local agriculture, not create barriers for its growth,” said Shannon Bly, the coordinator for Whidbey Island Grown.

Marian Myszkowski, who represents the Goosefoot Community Fund and the Whidbey Island Food Resiliency Consortium, suggested that the county should establish a food policy council.

“Supply chain disruptions continue because of the pandemic. The effects of drought or flooding in our nation’s largest agricultural areas may be felt too. It’s now more important than ever to find ways to increase local food production on Whidbey Island,” she said.

Commissioner Melanie Bacon said she would be in support of creating a food policy council.

Commissioner Janet St. Clair referenced code updates that had been discussed.

“Opening up code is never a simple process,” she said. “But I look forward to making sure we move forward on this as we move towards those solutions.”

Johnson said she understood the comments about the fear of inconsistency and the need for clear rules.

“The more clear, concise and black-and-white your regulations are, the less flexible they are,” she said, adding that this is a tension point that the community will need to weigh.