One farmer offers a plate of cantaloupe chunks on toothpicks. Another hands out tomato slices. Across the market, a basket full of pieces of pumpkin bread sits on a baker's table. It's all part of the laid-back, uncomplicated spirit of farmers markets.
In fact, offering samples at a farmers market is anything but an off-the-cuff decision. As the markets have bloomed throughout the area and concern over food safety has risen, vendors say authorities in Virginia, Maryland and the District are getting stricter about enforcing regulations that govern a wide variety of issues -- from when and where food is cut and how it is refrigerated to how knives are cleaned after samples are prepared. Virginia, for example, requires that dirty knives be dunked in three separate tubs: one for soapy water, one for clean rinse and one for a sanitizing solution. The District does not have any regulations regarding utensil sterilization, but health officials say they are drafting some.
Many Northern Virginia market vendors say they increasingly are not offering samples for fear they will be cited for not complying with the rules or be shut down, even though the nibbles of fresh produce can mean a significant boost in sales -- 35 percent or higher, they say. The samples can be particularly important during a rainy summer when produce flavors can get diluted and a taste of the fruit on display can prove its sweetness to a potential buyer.
Maryland agriculture officials say there also has been concern about regulations among farmers who sell at the state's 64 farmers markets. The state has planned workshops to educate people about the rules. And those who think the regulations regarding produce have gotten out of hand point to what occurred in May, when Ocean City health officials ordered the Mar-Del Watermelon Queen to stop giving out samples at an event called Springfest because the fruit was not chilled enough.
"I think some of this is ridiculous," said Charles Wright, who owns a farm market in Mardela Springs, on Maryland's Eastern Shore, and was president last year of the Mar-Del Watermelon Association.
Wright said some safety inspectors, for example, are obsessed with farmers washing a melon's outside with bleach because they think terrorists could have sprayed poison on crops. "In government, the pendulum swings from one side to the other; it never stops in the middle," he said. "And I think we're seeing it way to one side."
Ann Harvey Yonkers, who manages four of the District's 27 farmers markets, said that as markets become more innovative and sell more new products, "it just raises the profile of the markets and begs some questions about how these things are regulated."
Regulation is a nonissue for Moie Crawford, who used to wheel farm carts around Washington 30 years ago and was arrested for selling on public land when there were no farmers markets. Today she sells fruits and vegetables at two D.C. markets, but she doesn't give samples. "To me, it's too messy. It takes too many people," Crawford said.
In Virginia, state agriculture officials insist they are not doing things differently, but many vendors say inspections have seemed more frequent and rigorous in the past year.
Excluding the dozens of roadside stands or markets run by farmers on their own land, Virginia Agriculture Department officials say there are about 80 farmers markets, defined by the state as "a gathering of growers or producers who sell directly to the public." A new rules guide published in the past year for those markets is being distributed by the state, along with firm warnings, according to some vendors.
Spotsylvania County's two new markets do not allow vendors to sell produce that has to be sliced. Longtime vendors at Fredericksburg's downtown market say they stopped offering samples last month after sellers there were cited for such infractions as not washing a knife in the three different containers after cutting fruit. And one Westmoreland County farmer said he now gives away entire apples rather than chunks to avoid the regulations.
"It's a big part of the business. We always put out samples, but now we're kind of getting away from it because you don't want to get cited too many times and you won't be able to sell anything," said Craig DeBernard, who owns C&T Produce in Stafford with his wife, Tracy. "Someone who isn't set on buying a cantaloupe or watermelon who walks up and there aren't samples -- they won't buy it. That's the name of the game, to get people to buy anything and everything."
The DeBernards make 90 percent of their sales at farmers markets in Fredericksburg, Dale City, Manassas and Sterling. They said they had tried to meet the state regulations but believed that buying enough ice to keep the samples chilled was too pricey and the rules requiring that samples be in a covered tin were too restrictive.
"Ninety percent of people will shoo a fly off a piece of cantaloupe and then eat it before they will remove the lid," Tracy DeBernard said.
Kathy Pulzone, a baker from Springfield, said, "The inspector has been showing up so many times this year I asked him if he was stalking me." Typically, she says, inspectors never come to the three Fairfax markets where she sells lemon-blueberry, pumpkin and banana breads, among others.
Pulzone did not complain, though she says she once was cited for not having explicit enough labels on her baked goods. State law requires that labels on market goods list all ingredients ("in descending order of predominance by weight," the rule book says) and their weight.
Pulzone says she has noticed that a few of her fellow vendors seem to tattle to inspectors if they think, for instance, that their competitors' produce has been bought, not homegrown, as required.
Cathy Belcher, the direct marketing program manager for the Virginia Agriculture Department, said the rules have not changed, but the number of inspectors has grown recently by more than 10 percent. In addition, food safety has garnered more attention nationwide because of some well-publicized incidents of contamination, she says.
"Food safety has become a very important issue," Belcher said. "And maybe some farmers markets didn't know about these kinds of things. Now that they know, they are a little more strict with regulations." The new rule booklet, she says, contains the same information but is "more concise."
Some of the restrictions, such as "no litter" rules, have prompted some markets to stop selling such things as strawberries and watermelons for fear that discarded rinds and berry caps will get them in trouble. Other districts -- including Fairfax County -- simply ban certain products, such as poultry, eggs and cheese, out of fear of health problems.
"Overall, the rules are getting tighter," said Eli Cook, co-owner of Spring Valley Creekside Farm and Orchard, which is based in West Virginia but sells its produce in 14 Washington area markets. Cook says the region's suburban markets are stricter than the District's, citing the rules on selling milk, which his brother does. "It's hurt Fairfax, in my opinion," he said. "You'd think if you were allowed to do it in the nation's capital, you should be able to do it anywhere."
Sandy Flowers, who oversees Fairfax's nine markets, says the county has never allowed the sale of meat, eggs or dairy products.
The Reston market tried to sell prepared foods one season, but county health officials stopped the practice because the market had no public restrooms, Flowers says. Fairfax requires markets that sell prepared food to have facilities similar to those at a restaurant: restrooms for the public and hand-washing facilities for the cooks.
Flowers says she does not see more enforcement from the state, though some people continue to insist there is more.
"We've always had people who have been in this a long time," she said. "They cut tomatoes with their knife and wipe it on their jeans . . . because that's what they do at home. But we can't let them do that with the public."