Purist farmers markets shun coffee roasters

April 16, 2012

Gourmet coffee roaster Joel Finkelstein has long coveted a stall at the Dupont Circle farmers market, where face time with affluent food lovers could boost his sales and raise the visibility of Qualia, his cafe in Petworth.

But Finkelstein and the rest of his coffee-roasting ilk are banned from participating in the renowned Sunday market and nine others operated by FreshFarm Markets. The nonprofit group allows only vendors who sell products from what they grow or raise on local farms and facilities. Which leaves purveyors of coffee, olive oil, shrimp and other non-local specialty foods on the sidelines.

“It’s pretty expensive to participate in Dupont, but in terms of the amount of money you can make and the amount of coffee you can move, it would be pretty remarkable to sell there,” said Finkelstein, 40, who sells his beans at less picky farmers markets in Petworth and at American University.

David Starr, co-owner of Beanetics Coffee Roasters in Annandale, has run into the same problem in Fairfax County. Starr sells his beans at the Falls Church city farmers market, but would love to get into the 11 markets operated by Fairfax County, where he’s been rejected.

The county, which operates markets from Annandale to Herndon, bars anything grown or raised beyond a 125-mile radius to support area farmers, said farmers market coordinator Mae Carroll.

As dozens of area farmers markets gear up for their busy spring and summer seasons, their managers face an increasingly contentious conundrum: Are they purists devoted to local farmers? Or are they free-wheeling capitalists who don’t mind a few vendors hawking New Jersey kosher dill pickles or Dominican Republic chocolates mixed in with local farmers offering dry-aged, pasture-fed bison that is, by the way, low in fat and cholesterol?

Who gets admitted and rejected also raises a more philosophical question hovering over farmers markets: Is a “local” product something grown and raised within a certain geographic area? Or can “local” mean something more expansive — a raw product from elsewhere transformed here in a significant way?

Over the past five years, “this idea of what constitutes a farmers market has been something that has really come to the fore,” said Stacy Miller, executive director of the national Farmers Market Coalition, a Charlottesville nonprofit representing many of the 7,000-plus markets nationwide.

“In some cases, nonprofits are asking on our list-serv about selling t-shirts, or maybe the market itself wants to sell bottled water that wasn’t bottled locally,” Miller said. “We had one question about whether a market should allow in a franchise.”

Keith and Lynn Voight, founders of All Things Olive, which sells California extra virgin olive oil in Maryland, have twice been rejected by the region’s Vatican of farmers markets: FreshFarm Markets, which oversees markets in Crystal City, Silver Spring and the Penn Quarter, along with Dupont Circle and others. The Voights, who import their oil and sell it locally, have also been turned down by a market in McLean.

“We’re not taking business away from local olive oil producers. There are none. We’re as local as you get,” said Keith Voight, a communications manager for the Edison Electric Institute, a trade association. “We certainly think we could have more business at those markets.”

Some of the most intense farmers market debates surround coffee roasters, who view themselves very much like the bread and pasta makers welcomed at even the most restrictive markets.

“This wasn’t a difficult debate back in 1997 when we started our markets, and there weren’t so many roasters around,” said Bernadine Prince, FreshFarm’s co-executive director. “Now, we certainly see more roasters asking to be included, but we’re trying to include only the freshest, locally sourced food.”

FreshFarm’s rules say that all participating farms and producers are subject to annual visits from the nonprofit’s inspectors and that the reviews may not be announced in advance. Any new participants get checked out before they get accepted.

Coffee roasters don’t fit the FarmFresh mission of promoting agriculture in the Chesapeake Bay region. Plus, Prince said, “there are a lot of coffee shops, like Starbucks and Firehook, surrounding our markets, and we want to support them, frankly.”

But other Washington farmers markets are happy to include coffee roasters. They believe that the local-only rules are too difficult to administer fairly and that coffee is an important staple that cannot be grown locally.

“When you talk about the FreshFarm, their bread has flour milled in North Carolina, and the wheat could be grown in the center of the country! That’s why, for us, we weren’t going to get into that silliness,” said Mitch Berliner, co-founder of the Bethesda Central Farm Market, which features a coffee roaster, a fishmonger who sells shrimp from the Carolinas and the Voights’ bottles of olive oil.

Although Finkelstein pays an importer to bring in beans from Central and South America and Africa, he practically coddles them once they’ve arrived.

In Qualia’s cramped backroom, he dumps the beans in a huge drum roaster, which spins and heats them into temperatures soaring well past 300 degrees Fahrenheit. With the help of computer software, Finkelstein monitors how fast the beans heat up. And he constantly inspects the beans with a wooden scoop as they swell and gain flavor during the precious roast.

“What sticks in my craw is that some markets always shut me down when I ask about applying,” he said. “If they were fully informed about the value-added of locally roasted coffee, I wouldn’t be bitter about it. It’s fresher and tastes better.”

Finkelstein and other Washington area roasters say they do not understand why FreshFarm bars them but permits breadmakers who are using wheat grown and milled elsewhere in the country.

Prince, FreshFarm’s executive director, said breadmakers are asked to use eggs, fruit, and herbs raised and grown on local farms for flavored breads and pies, and that all products are handmade.

Ned Atwater, the owner of a Maryland bread company that sells at several of Prince’s markets, sympathized with the roasters. “Why Fresh Farm chose bread over coffee, I am not sure,” he said. “But I am glad they did.”

At the Dupont market on Sunday, many people drinking out of Starbucks or Le Pain Quotidien cups said they would have preferred buying from a roaster at the market.

Mike Chlipala, 24, a District engineering programmer for Living Social, used to live in San Francisco, where he visited markets that did have roasters. “I actually came to this market expecting to find a roaster,” he said.

Some coffee roasters are so accustomed to hard times that they are seeking new revenue opportunities, so to speak.

Arondo Holmes, 54, who owns a coffee farm in Honduras and roasts his beans in a District warehouse, said he’s tacked on new items to his repertoire: kimchi, pickled okra, hot pickles and horseradish pickles, typically made with cucumbers and cabbage grown in Virginia, depending on the season.

Pickles, it turns out, are a lucrative business for Holmes, who sells his wares at farmers markets in Falls Church, Dale City and Purcellville, and Kensington.

“Pickles allow me to follow my passion for coffee,” Holmes said. “Pickles move fast.”

Ian Shapira is a features writer on the local enterprise team and enjoys writing about people who have served in the military and intelligence communities. He joined the Post in 2000 and has covered education, criminal justice, technology, and art crime.
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