Two Loops

Two Loops

Two Loops

Some of you have seen this image within one of my presentations. I first saw it myself at Kellogg Foundation’s 2008 Food and Society meeting. The idea was shared by Deborah Frieze, one of its creators as a way for organizers to understand networks and system change and not just focus on their silos of work. In essence, when you are changing a system, there are many places to intervene, from stabilizing the old system (think of school lunch programs working with the old rules even while pushing the envelope to build new systems), to bridge builders (writers like Michael Pollan and entities like Wholesome Wave) to the creators of new systems (those early market leaders in the 1970s up to and including networks like Detroit Black Community Food Security Network)

I know that when I brought it back to Market Umbrella, it helped us to understand how to expand our work.

The key to making this 2 loop graphic dynamic are the connections. As is explained in the videos and text accompanying this image, system change only happens at the network level. Individual efforts can galvanize,  name and/or define the changes needed, but they need to work collectively to make it happen.
I believe the sooner that farmers markets see and act as networks and not only as stand along organizations, the better. This doesn’t mean that markets cannot protect their assets as  incorporated organizations, but rather that every chance that they can act as a network or think as a network, the stronger they will grow and be able to respond to pressures and to opportunities. .
It also means that every project and idea connects more people back to the market world. And producers are able to stabilize and grow their businesses carefully to ensure they are still here decades later.

The quotes below are from the Two Loops site and are very helpful for food organizers to see how it relates to our work.

There were no rules or guidebooks. They had to start. They had to do what they could see and learn as fast as they could. For a time, everyone was working separately. But…people began to connect with each other. They began to form networks.
These initial networks were important. People just started sharing with each other. They worked in many different colors or themes, and they had a lot to share. Often it was just talking with each other about what they were doing and about the changes that were happening inside of themselves. This kind of initial connection is essential. It helps us remember that we are not alone. What people started seeing more and more was that this networking alone wasn’t enough. But what else is needed? The people who are working on the same themes started to reach out to each other, connecting within communities and between communities. I think of this as the beginning stages of forming communities of practice:

Some people say can this actually happen? Yes, it can. It takes time. It is a long road. But we can, I believe create ways or living in a new paradigm. Let me give one example:
Back in the 70s in the US some people started “going back to the land.” They went to grow their own food and, like most innovators and entrepreneurs, at first most of them failed. Some got discouraged and quit. Others kept learning. Back in 1974 I invited poet and farmer Wendell Berry to speak at the EXPO ’74 Environmental Symposium Series in Spokane. He said it was not only possible, but necessary to find more ways of producing food locally. His remarks led to the formation of Tilth[ (see note at end of page), an early community of practitioners committed to local food production. People both practice and started talking about what else was needed now. Eventually, among other things, they started working with people in urban areas to create Farmers Markets. I remember co-founding the Farmers Market in my hometown of Spokane in the early nineties – it was a new and exciting addition to the community.
Now, almost 40 years after this local foods movement began, most supermarkets have local foods sections. Costco has a reputation for selling local foods whenever possible. People buy local foods now because it just makes sense to them.
Part of what’s happened is that it became possible for people who knew nothing about local foods to easily buy them. They didn’t go through any sort of systemic analysis of the benefits of eating local food – it just made sense. New choices had been illuminated, building a bridge so people could easily cross to the new.


Source: Two Loops

Dominion wants to put a pipeline through farmland designated for conservation

On Thursday, the Southern Environmental Law Center filed a motion with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), asking the body to reject Dominion Virginia Power’s permit application for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, a 600-mile natural gas pipeline from West Virginia to North Carolina.
According to the motion, Dominion’s proposed route goes through at least 10 properties that owners have placed into a Virginia conservation program intended to prevent future development.

“Dominion has proposed the largest conversion of conservation easement land ever undertaken in Virginia,” the motion says. “If allowed, it would seriously undermine public trust in the state’s conservation easement program and jeopardize the continued vitality of this critically important tool for open-space land protection.”

Source: Dominion

How the First Farmers Changed History 

Theory that the early farmers’ need for expanded trade routes caused humans to finally mingle genetically is included in this fascinating article that covers some new findings on our early farmers:

The new research also shows that even after agriculture was established across the Fertile Crescent, people remained genetically isolated for thousands of years.

“If they were talking to each other, they weren’t intermarrying,” said Garrett Hellenthal, a geneticist at University College London who collaborated with the Gutenberg University researchers.

But the DNA research also shows that this long period of isolation came to a sudden and spectacular end.
About 8,000 years ago, the barriers between peoples in the Fertile Crescent fell away, and genes began to flow across the entire region. The Near East became one homogeneous mix of people.

Why? Dr. Reich speculated that growing populations of farmers began linking to one another via trade networks. People moved along those routes and began to intermarry and have children together. Genes did not just flow across the Fertile Crescent — they also rippled outward. The scientists have detected DNA from the first farmers in living people on three continents.

Source: How the First Farmers Changed History – The New York Times

Bob Dylan and Contract Theory

As excited as many are about an American folk/rock singer composer winning the Nobel Prize for Literature, the economic prize is also worthy of mention here. First though, my favorite song lyrics of Mr. Dylan:

I ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s farm no more
No, I ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s farm no more
Well, I wake in the morning
Fold my hands and pray for rain
I got a head full of ideas
That are drivin’ me insane
It’s a shame the way she makes me scrub the floor
I ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s farm no more

I ain’t gonna work for Maggie’s brother no more
No, I ain’t gonna work for Maggie’s brother no more
Well, he hands you a nickel
He hands you a dime
He asks you with a grin
If you’re havin’ a good time
Then he fines you every time you slam the door
I ain’t gonna work for Maggie’s brother no more

I ain’t gonna work for Maggie’s pa no more
No, I ain’t gonna work for Maggie’s pa no more
Well, he puts his cigar
Out in your face just for kicks
His bedroom window
It is made out of bricks
The National Guard stands around his door
Ah, I ain’t gonna work for Maggie’s pa no more

I ain’t gonna work for Maggie’s ma no more
No, I ain’t gonna work for Maggie’s ma no more
Well, she talks to all the servants
About man and God and law
Everybody says
She’s the brains behind Pa
She’s sixty eight, but she says she’s fifty four
I ain’t gonna work for Maggie’s ma no more

Many of Dylan’s interpreters suggest this is a criticism of capitalism or of the military industrial complex. That actually leads us to a chat about the economic prize this year, given to Oliver Hart and Bengt Holmström for their contributions to contract theory. (Disclaimer: not only am I not a economist or a lawyer, my understanding of these theories is very casual and centered on my community organizing work. I may over or understate many of these theories and will always edit when better information comes my way. Feel free to add to my knowledge via email as needed.)

Contract theory focuses on the relationship between the parties in a contract, including those which are asymmetrical in terms of information. The world contains scads of examples of information asymmetry: media, police or military, employers, technology providers etc. When one party has access to more information than the other, the fairness of the contract can be questioned. The other issue that is relevant here is what are called incomplete contracts. This covers the likelihood that a contract in present time cannot always cover every possible outcome and so often must be renegotiated at some time; in that case it is possible that renegotiation can off the rails because of lack of trust.

In many ways, this describes much of our alternative food and farming movement impetus. Certainly, the desire for fairness and trust for both producers and for eaters has led to transparency being one our chief indicators.  The heart of our movement is direct marketing  which offers straightforward ways to create fairness between its agents. But even within those models, there can be an information asymmetry. For example, some farmers markets have created systems where information only flows from vendor to market and not the other way around. In others, vendors cling to systems that ask little of them as far as information sharing with the market. One way to gauge whether this is an unequal contract is at the time that the agreement is being changed by starting to ask for sales data or to request changes in other rules over time. The difficulty in negotiating that update may signal the need for a more detailed market agreement that outlines the requirements and benefits for the market and its vendors.

Still, the very nature of the mutual dependency and face to face nature of farmers markets and their vendors can correct any imbalance. Same goes for other type of direct marketing contracts, especially CSAs which began as a elegantly simple contractual relationship between producers and eaters for a single season and a single farm. Now,  when there is an imbalance it often benefits the shopper and not the farmer because many CSA farmers move outside of the implied agreement in the desire to build consecutive-season relationships. An example of this is when a farmer offers a credit for lost crops, even when the contract in a CSA explicitly states that the shopper loses their investment if the crop fails. Or, when a CSA farmer begins to morph into an aggregator of goods from nearby farms and cottage industry producers without creating a updated contract with their shoppers that outlines the new rules of bringing those goods to the shopper.

However, the concern over unfair contracts really “scales up” for me when systems move into intermediate (back door or bin sales) and wholesale (middle-man or pallet sales) contracts. We certainly hope that restaurant owners and wholesale buyers will build contracts with our producers with the same transparency and information sharing as those in the direct marketing sector, but often that has not been the case.

The key to mutually beneficial agreements on all levels of our food work relies on building contextual contracts and incentivizing them for all  involved. What are the main benefits for a producer to sell at a  lower cost to a chef? Well, two might be consecutive sales and the ease in delivery, and yet rarely are these benefits described in agreements for most of our producers when they sell at these levels. What is the main benefit for the buyer? Often it is either the quality of the product or the name recognition of the producer attached to the goods and yet rarely are those benefits understood and outlined in these agreements.

One way to incentivize the fairness of the contract in these situation may be to create a shared asset owned by all of the parties. Another way to make them contextual might be to have an external party monitoring the agreement. Maybe this is where farmers market leaders can grow their influence?

And of course, markets managing transactions through card technology has led  to lopsided contracts with processors. Markets scramble to understand these complex agreements which exist over different eras of management and open markets  to many new layers of liability.  Another issue is that the energy that markets must reserve for reaching and encouraging benefit program shoppers is often wasted by the lack of good information about the client lists from local or federal government authorities. Too many markets I talk to have no idea how and where to reach these shoppers in their area and when you take in the short time that the majority of these shoppers remain on these programs at any one time (also not shared by most government entities), successful outreach becomes even more unlikely. The vendor in this situation is also underrepresented in a fair contract, as most markets – or the processors working directly with farmers – use boilerplate agreements about card processing with their vendors.

So, one can see from just these few examples that center around direct marketing and intermediate farmers how many contract issues arise. So maybe before the alternative food system becomes another one of Maggie’s farms, let’s spend some time on increasing transparency and incentives for everyone’s benefit.

Economic Assessment Toolkit-USDA

I recently attended a two day workshop on the new toolkit, conveniently held in New Orleans during the Food Distribution Research Society’s  2016 Conference: Exploring Linkages in Food Market Innovations. FDRS has a very sensible membership rate for anyone interested in research on food systems, which should be just about everyone reading my blog.

The first part of the workshop provided a general overview of the purpose and the layout of the online toolkit with time for a round of introductions from the attendees.  The gathered group (SRO by the way!) was a wonderful cross section of municipal projects, regional assessments and some feasibility/benchmark needs for newly emerging initiatives. 32 states were represented among the attendees which meant lots of networking happened in the hallways.



Day 1 breakout, facilitated by toolkit team member Dr. Todd Schmit of Cornell University



Day 1 breakout, facilitated by Dr. Dawn Thilmany the coordinator of the toolkit project.


The next day, one could choose either of the tracks to learn more detailed information. True to my usual m.o., I traveled between  both rooms depending on the topic being discussed.

Track A: Advanced Economic Impact Assessment

  • Review of Economic Development Principles
  • Modelling Issues to Consider in Economic Impact Analyses
  • Hands-on Customization of IMPLAN data for Analysis
  • Assessing your Community’s Efforts

Track B: Integrating Benchmarks into Your Local Food Assessment

  • Food System Typology
  • Economic Benchmarks across the Typology
  • Mapping the Range of Economic Multipliers



The two days contained amazing detail on unpacking data for analysis when using secondary dbs such as the Ag Census. The researchers also did a great job discussing (in layperson terms)  how to think about economics within the food system as a whole and across connected sectors as well as frank discussions on sorting out long-held assumptions that one might have about data ( I find markets need this reality check as much if not more than other project leaders so do take note).

If this workshop comes to your town, I’d recommend that you invite your Extension partners and any market planning on conducting in-depth research on their own. They may even be offering some travel scholarships as they did to this one.

I am gratified to see that the work the FMC team has done for the last 5 years or so to research and adapt existing tools into the still-in-development Farmers Market Metrics training and pilot materials closely follow the same framework used by this very smart group. I think FMM will be the market-focused portion of data collection and data use that toolkits like this rely on existing in local communities that make their work easier.

With all of this attention being paid to collecting and discussing data, it is becoming more evident that practioners and researchers will have many ways to share dynamic and disciplined ideas on the impacts that local and regional food systems have on their communities. Join in, won’t you?

In case you haven’t heard of this yet, I urge you to check it out online:

USDA-AMS’ The Economics of Local Food Systems: A Toolkit to Guide Community Discussions, Assessments and Choices

DIY vendor cart

JD Farms in Mississippi has innovated another direct marketing idea while vending at the Crescent City Farmers Market. They have built free-standing carts to better present their goods and offer some flexibility in how they set up their stall. They have two of these with a third fixture being the yellow plant stand that can be just seen to the right in the picture.

What I like about this cart is how they incorporate customer needs like the waist-level display area, the middle shelf seen to the right of the shopper in the pic (which folds down), and the chalkboards on the bottom. The vendor side has recessed spaces for bags and a place for the cash box. Obviously, the umbrella slots into the middle of the display.

They can use a pallet jack to load these into their van and will be continuing to update the design of these.I have encouraged Don and Jeff to build then for others, or at least sell plans for making them. Feel free to join me in urging this side business for this talented duo.

vendor cart.jpg


Motion Card newest card technology to stem fraud

Motion Code to the rescue

At first glance these cards don’t look any different from the ones you carry around today, but they’re hiding some technological wizardry.

The three digits on the back of this card will change, every hour, for three years.ezgif-com-crop