What happened to the Trumbull Farmers Market?

The produce, the jams, the baked goods and soups that were sold by farmers and local artisans on the Long Hill Green every Thursday are gone — for now — following a decision by the Trumbull Farmers’ Market organizer not to return this year. Much of the blame for the market leaving is being placed on what the organizers have called  "over-the-top” regulations placed on the market vendors by the Trumbull Monroe Health District.

Following the news and outcry on social media, Trumbull officials, including state Rep. DaveRutigliano (R-123) and First Selectman Timothy Herbst, are trying to get the market back on track. The TMHD has also responded, saying it has been enforcing regulations used for all temporary food events in town, and is focused on protecting the public from food-borne illness.

Nancy Moore, the organizer of the Trumbull Farmers’ Market for the last 15 years, is also owner of Moorefield Herb Farm in town.

“We do eight farmers’ markets a week with our business, mostly in lower Fairfield County — Darien, Westport, New Canaan,” Moore said. “We get down to some of the wealthier communities where the regulations are a bit more flexible.”

She said the decision to not return this year was a hard one, but she made it following what she claims are a number of difficulties she, or other vendors and farmers, had encountered with the health district.

Moore cites a few examples of her issues with the department, dating back about three years to the present. She noted that SoNo Baking Company, well known on the farmers’ market circuit and for being a favorite of Martha Stewart’s, decided to leave the market a few years back because of stricter regulations.

“I do a market with him in Westport and for some of his savory items he brings a cooler with ice packs and the health director comes by with a thermometer,” Moore said. “For the Trumbull market he was told he needed a refrigerator to plug into the gazebo or use a generator. He couldn’t be bothered with that, since in every other community he has not been asked to do it.”

Similarly, another vendor, Carrot Top Kitchens in Redding, complied with bringing a refrigerator for their soups, but when they were then required to bring a larger refrigerator, that would require them to bring a trailer, they dropped out as well, Moore said.

The final straw for Moore came just recently, when a friend who has a clam bed off Milford Point was involved in a catastrophic boat fire, where he was injured and their business was hurt. Moore said her friend, while still recovering from injuries, brought an application to the district for the Monroe Farmers’ Market, which they had been part of for a few years, that was denied.

“I had just had enough,” Moore said. “I think our regulations go over the top in Trumbull and Monroe and I’ve lost so many good people.”

Keeping the public safe

Patrice Sulik, director of TMHD, disagrees that the regulations of the district are the main reason the market is not returning, citing many factors in running a market. Sulik said if the public could see what the health district staff see on a day-to-day basis, they would have a better understanding of the need for the district’s requirements and regulations.

“I think that something was posted on social media that gave people the impression we forbade or discontinued the market and that was just misread,” Sulik said.

Sulik said they have offered to meet with the market organizer to discuss issues.

Sulik said the district takes food safety very seriously and is applying the same restrictions it asks of other temporary food events, like Trumbull Day.

“There are a lot of documented food-borne illness outbreaks in Connecticut and there is strict confidentiality laws in the state,” Sulik said. “We have them happening in our community and throughout the state. At a fair or common eating event there is huge potential for a large number of people to be made ill.”

Sulik said vendors are going to several markets and items are traveling, and potentially reaching unsafe temperatures, so regulations are crucial.

She noted one outbreak of salmonella at the Norwalk Oyster Festival in the 1990s, where more than 600 people were ill as a result. Food-borne illness isn’t always reported publicly if there is no danger of more poisonings, Sulik said, based on patient confidentiality.

“We really try to work collaboratively with people,” Sulik said. “When people are doing food outside in very hot temperatures, we are just really trying to protect the public, and it takes more work for us to do it this way, but we are trying to the job to the best of our ability.”

State, town respond

State Rep. Rutigliano, who himself owns several restaurants and is certified in sanitation, heard a rumor a few weeks ago that the market was closing in Trumbull. He went to the state Department of Agriculture, who contacted the local health district, and said the closure was just a rumor. However, last week, when he saw from organizers that it was closing down, he wanted answers. (Rep. Rutigliano wrote a letter to the editor this week on the market that is in our print edition and will be online soon).

He and officials at the Department of Agriculture were upset the market was closing, Rutigliano said, citing too strict regulations from the local health district.

“I share the concern for protecting the public,” Rutigliano said. “However, there is an element of reasonableness that needs to apply in all situations.”

He cited that a requirement in the state that farmers’ markets last four hours, and coolers are usually an acceptable way to keep farmers’ market items cool for that period of time. He said a town event serving food, like Trumbull Day, is another story, due to its length and the type of food being served.

“In my opinion, she is applying the standard not the way it’s intended,” Rutigliano said of Director Sulik. “There is no history of abuse at this market and in fact, farmers’ markets are gaining steam across the state. In my opinion, one of the bright spots of our economy is our local agriculture.”

Rutigliano said he is shining a light on this issue because he wants to find a solution. Rutigliano spoke with First Selectman Timothy Herbst Tuesday about his concerns and Herbst said he is taking action.

Herbst said that, according to his conversation with Rutigliano, the regulations imposed by the TMHD are not required by many other districts and are considered “onerous” by officials at the Department of Agriculture.

“If that is in fact the case, I have a problem with that and I will be talking with Ms. Sulik,” Herbst said. “There is an obligation to protect the health, safety and welfare of the public, but if we are imposing regulations that are so onerous it discourages farmers’ markets and other meaningful enterprises from doing business, I will take that up with Ms. Sulik and the board of directors she reports too.”

Herbst’s Chief of Staff Lynn Arnow said she has reached out to Moore and wants to talk with her about solutions for getting the market back on track, whether it be working with the health department, location or anything else.

“It is our community,” Herbst said of the market. “Trumbull used to be a farming community and I want people to come here and sell and participate. I don’t want people to feel abused — that’s not what Trumbull is about.”

Moore said she isn’t sure what can be done at this point to bring the market back, but it “hurts her heart” to let it go.

“It’s truly a farmers’ market and I always ran it that way,” Moore she said. “It’s a producer-only market — they sell what they grow.”

Moorefield Herb Farm will be at several markets throughout the season, including Stratford on Monday and Westport on Thursday.

“There is such a camaraderie among farmers,” Moore said. “There has been such a proliferation of markets in our state, some communities have more than one.”