USDA Raids Wyoming Farmer’s Market
Federal Inspections at Lakeway Market Cause Confusion; Concern
(Gillette, Wyo.) Tuesday morning, after a dispute between vendors, the building owner, and the building manager, members of the Lakeway Farmer’s Market vacated the premises on 401 Lakeway Road, shortly before the Tuesday outdoor market session was to begin.
Only a week before the year-round indoor market was set to have its Grand Opening party, vendors were asked to leave, and all but a few quickly removed their merchandise from the building to find different accommodations. Frank Wallis of EZ Rocking Ranch and John Thompson of Big John’s Chili remained behind to conduct the outdoor market as planned, along with a couple of other vendors.
That’s when more trouble arrived.
Three USDA agents were on site to do random inspections, which Wallis described as “a raid.” The agents started questioning Thompson about his chicken chili.
Under the Wyoming Food Freedom Act, the selling of processed foods is allowed at farmer’s markets as long as they do not contain any meat other than poultry. Thompson told agents that the chicken in his chili had been purchased from a grocery store, and so had already been subjected to federal inspections.
State Representative Tyler Lindholm, who wrote the Wyoming Food Freedom Act, says that Wyoming’s law is clear and that while the USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service has the authority to check up on restaurants and farmer’s markets without warning to the businesses, they still need to notify local authorities that they are operating in their jurisdiction.
“We had no clue that they were coming. They didn’t notify any of our state agents,” said Representative Lindholm. “These were products sold from Wyoming vendors to Wyoming people. In my opinion the FSIS didn’t have the authority to inspect that food because it didn’t involve interstate commerce.”
Thompson was told he was in violation of federal law and had to either surrender his product or dump it. He offered to throw the chili away. According to Wallis, as the agents were writing up their report, they began to harass him and the other vendors who were at the market.
“Some of the agents got out of their car and were very threatening to me and another person standing there, saying we were intimidating federal agents,” Wallis told County 17. “We were standing in a public parking lot, witnessing what was going on.”
One of the vendors was video taping the incident on their phone, which the agents said was illegal to do. In response the agents called Gillette Police about a breach of peace. Two GPD officers arrived to check on the situation.
“They were very professional and acted like a public servant should act,” said Wallis about Gillette Police. “They were there to keep the peace, but there was no threats going on from our side. It was the USDA agents that were threatening us with arrest.”
Gillette Police Sgt. Jason Marcus confirmed this morning that officers were at the market yesterday afternoon but found no evidence of a breach of peace, and directed us to the USDA for more information on the inspections.
The USDA wrote the entire encounter up — though they got Thompson’s name wrong at first, said Wallis — and read it back to police. County 17 is attempting to contact the USDA about this incident. Wallis will be able to upload video that he says supports his statements as soon as they are back in town today to search for a new location for the market.
As far as what Representative Lindholm plans to do, he says he’s been in contact with the Governor’s office, the Attorney General’s office, and the Department of Agriculture in regards to the situation. He is also planning to reach out to as many county sheriffs as he can throughout the state to ensure they understand that they should call the USDA and make sure that those inspectors notify them if they’re coming in to the county.
But first and foremost, he wants to educate local producers about their rights and protections under Wyoming law.
“You don’t have to admit any kind of guilt or be intimidated,” he said.
The Downtown Sheridan organization has a copy of common questions about the Food Freedom Act available on their website here.
The Lakeway Farmer’s Market operates Tuesday through Saturday under normal circumstances, and is not associated with the Farmer’s Market put on by the UW Extension and Campbell County Master Gardeners at Gillette College every Saturday. The Saturday Farmer’s Market has received several questions regarding yesterday’s incident, of which they have no knowledge, as they are not connected organizations.