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By Casey Ross
Globe Staff / October 22, 2011

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A public food market in downtown Boston would sell exclusively Massachusetts-based products under a plan being considered by state agriculture officials, a move that would provide the rare guarantee of truly local food but significantly limit the facility’s inventory.

The concept is generating considerable debate among potential vendors worried about striking the right balance between emphasizing local products and providing enough items to attract a large customer base.

The Massachusetts-only model would mean nearly all the products would be supplied by in-state agricultural businesses, with some provisions for other specialty foods from around New England. Officials are still trying to answer nettlesome questions about sourcing, such as whether a product is from Massachusetts if its raw materials are not.

Some businesses interested in opening in the market fear that limiting inventory to such a degree could turn off customers.

“In theory it’s a cool idea, but we’re not San Francisco,’’ said Christina Theophanis, general manager of Dave’s Fresh Pasta, a specialty foods store in Somerville. “It’s almost impossible to have a diverse enough market in the winter months to be successful.’’

Several state growers strongly support a local-food-only facility, saying it must draw a sharp distinction from supermarkets that import goods from all over. “The difference to me is about taste,’’ said Glenn Stillman, owner of Stillman’s Farm in New Braintree. “I could show you beets from a supermarket and beets picked fresh, and they don’t look wildly different. But they do taste wildly different.’’

The Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources has discussed the facility in recent meetings with growers, fishermen, and other food sellers. The ultimate decision falls to a public market commission supervising the opening of the market in a state-owned building on the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway. The commission is expected to soon issue a request for proposals from market operators that will provide more definition on the mix of products to be sold there.

Agricultural Commissioner Scott Soares, chairman of the market commission, said using local products will educate consumers about the state’s natural food base and support the farmers and fisherman. “The original intent of the market is really to support our producers and primary agricultural industries,’’ Soares said, adding that increasing use of greenhouses and other methods will help keep the market fully stocked throughout the year. “Even if it’s winter crops, I’ve seen different types of beets, carrots, potatoes, and other products that offer great diversity for consumers.’’

The public food market has always been planned as a showcase for local products and cuisine. But requiring that all items be state-based would take it to another level, harkening back to a time before mass shipping when people bought almost all their food from local producers.

The idea carries some romance for those who place a premium on fresh fruits and vegetables and like the notion of living off the local land and waters and supporting Massachusetts producers. But it would also mean the market would not offer bananas, citrus fruits, salmon, and other products that many people eat regularly but are not natural to Massachusetts.

Some following the process fret that an exclusively Massachusetts market would limit boutique items such as beer, cheese, and chocolate. While the state has many skilled producers of those products, consumers might want to sample selections from across New England. “The concern I have first and foremost is that it eliminates a huge number of diverse products we could buy from Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, and Rhode Island,’’ said Gordon Hamersley, owner of Hamersley’s Bistro in Boston. “Think if you could only buy Massachusetts oysters. How limiting would that be?’’

Mayor Thomas M. Menino has offered support for opening the market as part of an expanded food district centered around the Haymarket pushcart vendors. He supports the idea of a locally focused facility to “help farmers create jobs and open a great hub for healthy, local foods,’’ though he has not delved into the details of what constitutes a Massachusetts product.

The debate is producing deeply nuanced opinions about how the market should be sourced. While nearly everyone agrees it should favor local products, some feel only certain categories of food, such as produce or seafood, should be 100 percent from Massachusetts; some believe products from elsewhere would undermine the market’s appeal, while yet others argue the market should be able to sell certain fruits not grown here.

“The big question, is are there going to be strawberries in January at this market?’’ said Pamela Robinson, co-owner of Robinson Farm in Hardwick, which sells grass-feed beef, farmstead cheeses, and other items. Her answer is no, saying the market could serve frozen strawberries and jams to help fill the void.

“There needs to be a way in which this market is unique from other competing venues for buying fresh produce,’’ Robinson said. She would support selling some foods from other New England states as long as Massachusetts operators get preference.

Some food sellers said a key benefit of keeping the market local is supporting jobs - not just at the farms and food producers but at the market itself. Stillman, the New Braintree farmer, said the market would allow him to retain people he would normally lay off during the off-season and spur him to hire more people to handle retail sales in Boston. “It’s really a win-win situation,’’ he said. “I’m not going to go into Boston seven days a week in the winter. Hopefully we can find great people and train them to be part of the farm.’’

The facility is particularly important for small operations that struggle to find year-round retail outlets. Dave Buchholz, owner of Stow Greenhouses Inc., a seller of lilies and other flowers, said his profit margin is significantly higher when he sells directly to consumers and that having the public market would allow him to expand and increase production throughout the year.

“It would be a challenge’’ he said. “But if we have an opportunity and a place to go do it, I think we could handle it.’’

Casey Ross can be reached at cross@globe.com.