The localvore: Running a very small business a learning process

By Ruth Rhodes June 20, 2009 01:26 pm

 Today is the start of the Farmers Market, and this year I’m especially excited because my friends and I are going to have a booth. Our plan is to sell homegrown spices (along with recipes), produce, and unique crafts.

I’m an educator, not an entrepreneur. Running a small business, even a very small business, has been a learning process. A few weeks ago, I got an education about food regulations—along with some insight about human nature.

I had a lot of questions about tarps, tables, and signage, and the people who run the Farmers Market were incredibly helpful. But there was one question they couldn’t answer, so they referred me to a nice fellow at the county’s Health Department.

Here’s the question I posed to him: we want to sell some spices in dried form because that’s when they are most flavorful. For example, bay leaves are best two weeks after cutting. Could we cut the leaves in advance, letting them dry naturally — or would that constitute “processing”?

I should explain that the market allows two kinds of food products: unprocessed food (cut, washed and trimmed), and processed food (like pesto, salad mixes, salsa, and bread). The second category requires, among other things, the rental of a commercial kitchen and the creation of a rather long paper trail.

We didn’t want to “process” anything; we wanted to keep it simple. But it seemed to me that letting bay leaves dry naturally — hanging, say, in a clean outdoor shed — wouldn’t really involve a process. We wouldn’t be cutting, chopping, mixing, or adding anything, right?

Wrong, said the nice fellow at the Health Department. “Drying is processing.”

“How can that be?” I asked. Since all of our spices would be cut and stored in clean containers—even those being transported to market the day they were cut — I frankly couldn’t see any additional steps constituting a “process.” It wasn’t like we were turning fruit into jam. It was more like we were letting apples ripen. Time was the only added ingredient.

I tried a different angle. “How long in advance could one remove a leaf from a plant — and where might one conceivably store that plant in a clean and safe manner?” (Can you tell that I seriously considered a career in law?)

“Well, you can’t bring them inside your house. We don’t inspect in there. We don’t know if the cat is going to walk all over them or what.”

I kept at it. “If I dry them outside, would that constitute processing?”

But I felt like I was talking to one of those automated systems where you press a button and you get a recording. He talked to me about local certification, organic certification, and even how to report violations to the Health Department. But he didn’t answer my question!

“What is processing?” I asked. “How is it defined?”

I could tell he was getting angry by his tone, “I’ve never met someone that didn’t understand what that word means. Processing is when you do something to food that puts it through a process.”

He actually called me back with a legal definition. All in all, we spent over 40 minutes on the phone. Neither one of us got anywhere. I admit it. I was making life difficult for him; he was just doing his job. For all he knew, a cat was walking on my bay leaves that very minute. He was only trying to protect the public from imaginary feline menaces.

But I was too angry to be reflective or play nice. I couldn’t see how the safety of the public was in jeopardy, and he certainly couldn’t explain it. And I certainly couldn’t let go. This is what separates real business owners from college professors: a sense of perspective.

“I get that I can’t use a dehydrator or cut up spices in my house. That’s clear. But how long can I cut the bay leaves in advance of market?”

“This isn’t my area, you know,” he said in exasperation. “My wife does all the shopping.”

We just went round and round, both of us miserably motion-sick over it. What’s the outcome? Here’s the official statement: As a result of my consultation with the Health Department, we will only be selling fresh spices at the market. However, if you buy bay leaves, we recommend you hang them up to “ripen.” During that time, we do not recommend that you let your cat walk on them.