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Port Orchard Farmer’s Market manager says she's gotten death threats after asking vendor to raise prices

In the wake of last week’s request that South Kitsap Helpline raise the prices it charges when it participates in the Port Orchard Farmer’s Market, acting market manager Barbara Fangen says, “I am getting threatening e-mails, voicemails and death threats because of this.”

She estimated the number of threats at between 25 and 35, adding, “We’re seeing a loss of community because of this.”

Fangen discussed the situation at the Port Orchard Farmers Market’s bi-monthly meeting on June 10, but no action was taken.

In the earlier e-mail exchange between Fangen and Helpline officials, she had asked the food bank to raise its prices in order to level the playing field because the market’s other commercial vendors had been complaining that they could not compete.

“When I first got (Helpline’s) paperwork, I misunderstood,” Fangen told the food bank’s directors, who attended the meeting. “I thought you were giving your product away. Then I realized that your prices were too low.”

In addition to the other vendors, Fangen said she is being questioned by customers about the price disparity.

“I have received 25 customer complaints regarding how other vendors are price-gouging because of (Helpline’s) prices,” she said.

Fangen said her concern was that Farmer’s Market vendors might drop out of the association because they are being undercut.

She explained, “We have to have five core vendors who are farmers show up for each market to belong to the Washington State Famers Market Association (WSFMA) and to qualify under the liability insurance policy.”

According to Jackie Aitchison, executive director of the WSFMA, however, “We cannot tell vendors to change prices or what to charge. Anyone that sells any product is subject to antitrust laws.”

Board Member Dave Osbourn said, “We simply can’t have people coming in and under-cutting the farmers. If we lose the farmers, we’re screwed.”

The market’s president, Laura Pittman-Hewitt objected to previous accusations of “price-fixing” due to Fangen’s email, reiterating several times during the meeting that vendors could set their own pricing.

“Although,” she said, “some markets have rules not allowing vendors to dump product or charge below wholesale.”

Fangen also reported in her e-mail to Helpline that its low prices were, “hurting our other vendors’ sales substantially. Most of our core vendors, those who have been at our market over 10 years, are suffering a 17 to 20 percent loss in sales.”

When Helpline Executive Director Jennifer Hardison asked if the loss could attributed solely to the food bank, Fangen replied, “No, that isn’t just you.”

Another point of contention brought up at the meeting was the fact that Helpline was allowed to sell their plants at the market and at their nursery, which has been viewed as a conflict with the market’s vendor guide.

Specifcally, the rule states that, “No person having a commercial business location may have at the market any product related to the business, except family farms and cottage industries.”

Several of those attending the meeting brought up the point that, in the past, the rule had not been adhered to and there had been vendors who sold their product at the market who also owned storefronts.

Aitchison tried to clarify this issue by saying, “The ‘no-commercial’ clause, for the purpose of our (WSFMA) guidelines, was to prevent the big commercial companies such as Walmart and McDonalds from coming in with mass-produced products. I don’t think we need to prevent local farmers’ produce stands and nurseries from selling at the markets. In fact, the Port Orchard Market has a bakery vendor that also has a store downtown.”

The board ultimately decided to temporarily make an amendment to its vendor guide to grandfather in current vendors who were selling their product off-site and allow them to sell at the farmers market.

Board members agreed that these vendors could continue to sell through the end of the current 2010 season, but that they would meet in the fall to clarify or possibly change the wording in the guide.

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