Letter to a fellow food organizer

a colleague asked me to give her my opinion on trends and jobs in the alternative food system retail sector. Here is the beginning of my response:

Okay,
Here’s a few of my cents as requested:

As you know, the food hub conversation has taken a lot of the oxygen in the room (and a lot of the funding) away from direct farmer support and farmers markets and as a result, it feels like we are simply treading water in a lot of instances. Spread too thin. Certainly in the expansion of direct marketing farming or in getting any serious cross-sector analysis, we’re not jumping ahead much of where we were 5 years ago.

It’s not that I’m against food hubs, but some of them sound a lot like city governments’ “one-stop shops” which I am not sure has worked either. And it smacks of “scaling up” which is a suspect phrase to someone like me who has seen how long it takes a market farmer to really be ready to price at his or her comfort level and to innovate products. The Cliff Notes version of the market vendor lifespan is that it takes years of a market organizations time and “expertise” to patiently get a farmer to an economic and social comfort level where they actually tell you that they are about to go bankrupt or get divorced or get ready for a kid to go to college and so thats why their business is changing so you can help it change for the better. And that those folks are RETAIL vendors, with tables and tents and signs designed to help them sell retail, and not necessarily the same ones to approach or to change to wholesale vendors seems to be missed by some wholesale organizers.

Sometimes, it also feel that we are extrapolating the wrong lessons of what has worked to build food retail points of entry. Let me say I’m probably not “up” on all of the good work being done, although I do know and learn from original thinkers like Anthony Flaccavento’s and M. Shuman’s excellent research and analysis work. It’s just that the a lot of the scaling up and institutional buying conversation seems wildly uneven from case to case and the skills are simply not embedded into the host area to keep the thing moving forward once a founder leaves or a project fails.

What is true in the food system is that currently the public health sector rules, so therefore the conversation around low-income and at-risk end users of healthy food is the main thing being funded, which is a glorious turn around for those who always had the plan to take the food system there (meaning to everyone) no matter what anti-localvore writers try to say.<
10 years ago, the talk was all about social cohesion and dynamic Main Streets and 15 years before THAT, it was all about farmers extending seasons and growing sustainably, and it was always about doing it for everyone.

The public health sector is staying put, and learning more and more about how to use our points of entry to get results in true behavior change. That sector has changed farmers markets more than any other stakeholder (and that includes government stakeholders) because there are so many levels of public health intervention that they are willing to try wild ideas which often work and because they measure everything they do. However, I expect that the needle will move again-what will be the next issue that leads food system work- environmental impacts or immigrant issues or racial inequities or food safety or civic planning? Who knows really. Of course, it will depend on the crisis that shows up.

As for careers and jobs, it is my biased opinion that the open-air farmers market continues to rule the hearts (if not the minds) of most of the public while inside the food system, organizers favor the urban farm as the winning hand. Oddly, no one has brought these two together in any meaningful way or even examined the impacts of the two combined or separately beyond simple economic data or numbers of projects, as if quantity of projects really mean anything.

I think you know my obsession is with measuring the economic, social, human and natural capital of markets AND also with finding a way to make markets the entry point for training food organizers on all aspects of food system work. I foresee a national training program with skills trained in the first 6 months which are transferrable to all parts of the food system and beyond. Along those lines, there is already a push for a voluntary market manager accreditation system (which is beginning in places like Michigan) that might be similar in neighboring states so someone would have a leg up regionally if they have taken the training.
Add to that a yearly networking session for market managers and for those in my mythical training program and you may have the beginning of a movement, instead of rising and falling tide of new markets and projects every year.

And after all, the farmers markets remain the best fulcrum for food systems, so what happens there should matter to everyone else.

What also seems true is in the last 2-3 years the terrain has shifted a great deal, away from larger “big tent” orgs partnering on everything to much more nimble entrepreneurial types sharing knowledge on common problems and tactics. Regionality may once again become the strongest card we can use to strengthen our systems across state lines and across single issue campaigns to truly achieve success. Interestingly, this seems to also true in DC, where there is not one national policy shop office that truly represents the entire membership of most food organizers. Collaboration there has been somewhat successful.
But to leave markets for a minute (hate to do it but I will) I also believe that the wholesale food system is ready for a boost. And no, food hubs so far ain’t cutting it, as far as really reshaping buying habits of purchasers and institutions like the farmers markets HAVE been successful in re shaping the consumer’s buying habits- the 2-3 percent that listen, that is. THAT, of course, is another looming issue-98% of the public who have not used alternative food systems much. And even for the 2-3 percent, what is the actual change-one season? Farmers market shoppers become CSA members or vice versa? What about how they feel about the environment or local businesses after they stick to the market?

So research is needed in examining what is actually been done and not just the PROJECTS, but the efforts of stakeholders, the typology of successful farmers, and the efficient host organizations.
I would also say that as CFSC struggles with it’s post-strategic planning transition (speaking as a Board member for a few more months that assures you that that info is not secret but quite transparent and shared within the CFSC community) and Slow Food reexamines it’s work and searches for a new leader and FMC searches for a new leader, it may turn out all of the national organizations turn more to each other and others to collaborate more closely along with racial equity orgs like GFJI and Alliance for Building Capacity and IATP.

They might. So the collaboration points are a good place to look for work. Chapters? Maybe. Community unionism? Maybe. Or simply skill building and shared measurement in all partnerships. That would help. However, as we strengthen the regional orgs and multi-sector orgs more -since I’m sure im not the only one thinking this way- that may be where the jobs end up too.

In any case or in all cases, what seems clear to be missing in many cases is the entrepreneur’s point of view, whether its a farmer, or a baker or the neighboring business that needs that market or even the market or other food retail organization itself that seem to be considered built already and left out of the capacity building money. (I guess many feel we had our money moment, huh?) So maybe we need more innovative financing too, like CSEs or granny accounts or even to attempt the other part of a currency system-loans and massive fundraising in the market community itself, using the wooden token system as a starting point.
After all, its the entrepreneur is who needs to be encouraged. The entrepreneurs are who need to be analyzed. And entrepreneurs will be multiplying as corporations shut down and lay off more and more, and so seems like the most obvious point of expansion for work opportunities.
So to paraphrase Abigail Adams, …remember the entrepreneurs and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors.

Hope that helps, Darlene

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7 Comments

  1. I was so encouraged to read this piece. We are entrepreneurs working in the local food/farmers market space, trying to bring technology to bear to improve the farmer’s market experience for vendors, markets and consumers. See our site at http://www.freshnation.com. But here’s what we find; the vendors and farmers are so receptive to what we are doing, while their industry leadership is mostly blind to the individual business needs of the vendors, and how the organism of the market could be such a powerful driver and force for good, and change, to make farmers’ markets so much more useful, and meaningful for all their constituencies. Farmers’ markets are, on the one hand, one of the worst business models I have encountered, and yet, on the other hand, contain so much unexploited potential that they could really become relevant to the growth of the local food ecosystem if they were properly positioned and managed. But generally market operators have no goal higher than to run that day’s market, and industry leaders don’t, or won’t, focus on the business and financial needs of the vendors. This piece by Darlene Wolnik is a breath of fresh air.

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  2. thank you for your comment. I am a little surprised at your farmers market comments about the worst business model-can you say more about why and to what you refer? there are so many business models within our movement and so many food systems that are being built atop those stable market organizations, that I wonder if a particular model and region has soured yourr taste? It is my theory that for the most part, markets are incredibly efficient mechanisms for widespread behavior change, and when successful, they do it without much funding and very little outside support. Yes, when they are run without structure or without a wide base of stakeholders, they often fail; but that tends to be the fault of the fact that they are misunderstood by outsiders or those that don’t want to wait to build a movement and so push it past its current level of skills too fast. Of course, sometimes it is lack of management skills and business planning… All things exist within the market movement; for-profits, non-profits, single proprietor, chapter of a larger organization and more. The very breadth of the types of management are what may yet sustain and build more winners. Looking forward to your reply.

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    • Last year my group operated our own farmer’s market for the entire selling season in the North East, and became intimately familiar with the economics of both the market itself, and the vendors. We not only tracked what each vendor, in each category, made each week, but interviewed perhaps one hundred vendors about their feelings about farmers’ markets. Almost universally, vendors disliked the market system. The costs of getting to the markets, staffing them, trying (mostly unsuccessfully) to plan inventory for each market, and the long hours involved in packing, unpacking, transporting, repacking and unloading (oftentimes 12 hours of work for just four or five selling hours (or less) in the market) turned many market appearances into financial losses, while the profits from the “good” markets were too meager to sustain the kind of lifestyle many of these vendors expected and deserved. Weather related issues often claimed an additional 10 to 20 percent of sales. Moreover, the market system as currently operated does not encourage or assist the vendors to communicate with their customers outside of the market itself, so the vendors could not get word out when they had a new product, or a special offer, or too many tomatoes that week that they needed to discount to sell. What kind of business can’t market directly to its customers? Some customers may want produce or artisanal foods more than one day each week – how do they get it? We found that the demand is there from consumers, but the vendors were not being given the tools to succeed, and grow. Unfortunately my conclusion from these experiences was that eventually the better vendors are going to try to find alternate methods of distribution, and that farmers’ markets will deteriorate because they do not help appreciate the real business problems posed to their vendors by the current market business model, and hence do not help their vendors to succeed.

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      • fascinating. thank you for the response! Sometime, I’d like to gather some data on your market and its vendors- as you may know, some of my research is on typology of markets and how the intent and structure of a market changes its type and therefore, how it should measure success!
        I certainly have seen markets where the majority do not believe that the market serves their purpose; often, what I have found is that the type of vendor present are more suited to CSAs or wholesale or institutional sales or farm stands,but when the food system thing started there, a traditional neighborhood-style farmers market was chosen as the point of entry, rather than a market box program, or a flagship model.
        also, you are right that some markets are not attuned closely enough to the entrepreneurial needs of their model; that work is often thrown overboard when policy partners are present in overwhelming numbers or when the market org becomes overwhelmed with survival itself.

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      • Happy to compare notes. We did not reopen the market this year; instead we ploughed our time and resources into creating freshnation.com to try to alleviate some of the problems vendors were facing and give them an opportunity through technology (which is almost entirely non-existent in farmers’ markets) to improve their businesses. Please take a look at the site and let me know what you think; we have about 550 vendors and markets already signed up.

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