A few years ago, I was watching a Charlie Rose interview with Tori Amos, the musician. She was going on tour with Alanis Morrisette and Charlie asked her how that worked-how could they combine their shows. Tori frowned and said (I’m sort of paraphrasing here):
it’s not like that. I have a pirate ship. I have a captain, I have my own mates…..and so does she.
That comment stuck in my mind, and when I went to work the next day, I shared it with the Executive Director of Market Umbrella. We were constantly searching for metaphors for farmers market organizing and we had used a few to indicate that this IS moving towards being a true movement (rather than a series of random events in towns and cities) but still wondered if we had yet found the best way to describe it.
“A pirate ship. hmmm,” he said.
Often my job is to listen to market organizers and network leaders like Richard and help them move forward by creating resources, encouraging partnerships or adding skills. However, when I’m out in the field, I find that much of what we do in markets and in food systems is duplication of the worst sort, meaning unnecessary and a time waster for hard-working markets or networks, or as bad, an expectation that all markets should operate the exact same way. Why is that, I often wondered? Why don’t markets or organizers talk more to each other, sharing more tools peer-to-peer and find the strength to resist being measured and judged by inappropriate metrics?
Well, I do know why it happens. It happens because the work of community organizing is so delicate and yet unrelenting that it is hard to find time to share. And then what should be shared and how it could be shared is often as complicated.
The Tori Amos interview spoke to that idea. The idea that innovation and creativity is handmade and often an individual exercise, or coming from a small committed group learning as they go. And that sharing is not necessarily about combining efforts, but more about connecting when needed and not overemphasizing one set of values over another.
That individuals or small groups need some autonomy and yet, in order to build a movement there are times when building the networks is as important.
So from that Amos interview came this line that Richard and I created while standing outside of a coffeehouse:
Sail Alone, Anchor Together
Like pirate ships or if you prefer, privateer ships, markets have their own flag, their own code and their own mates. However sooner or later, they may need to join up in order to defend themselves from other forces or come together to succeed on an issue.
How they do that is important. When they do that is important too.
The lack of a national or even a regional convening for farmers markets alone may be starting to hamper our efforts for long term policy changes and capacity building. We can (and should) moor our nimble little ships to sides of elegant liner like a re-imagined public markets conference or join a strong armada like a well-organized school food initiative when we can, but when we don’t know what success means to us is it’s hard to contribute meaningfully. Yes, we do learn a great deal when we hear about our fellow food organizers working on other projects, but we still need to deal with our own issues too.
What about SNAP at markets? Disaster planning for market farmers? Training for market managers? Food safety issues? Permanent locations? Sustainable funding? Building appropriate networks for policy work? Evaluation? We need to work this stuff out together and decide how it’s appropriate to our scale.
Honestly, some market networks are lucky. They have solid food systems that they work in and grow in sustainably. But even the best need to anchor with the odd little markets and share and hear, because innovation often comes from unlikely sources. And sometimes it’s as hard to get the larger, more established markets to take the time and find the right voice in which to share their ideas and plans, to do that even as they are piloting ever more complex projects. It’s not easy to build these convenings, to find the money and the right timing; THAT I know and am grateful to CFSC, PPS and others who have made room for us.
Yeah it’s hard, but I say get those flags ready; it’s time to anchor together to build our markets.