Sometimes work travel can be lonely. Saying goodbye to family and friends (especially when it’s 80 degrees at home and 15 at your destination), waiting at airports for hours, being at hotels on weekends. In my travels, I see and talk to plenty of people out there who live in the spaces from airport to hotel and back and spend most of their time in dry meetings in some nondescript building. I however, get to go hang out with warm and engaged market practioners who are interested in what a visitor is doing there. How gratifying it is when you bring up a market subject and eyes light up with recognition and excitement. Or that new market manager you spend some time with at lunch has great ideas and plans and you are able to say-“wow, you have an excellent plan, I think this is absolutely going to work” and they convey gratitude which is lovely but unnecessary. Or that you get to reconnect with market advocates you met on a previous trip and laugh, talk and maybe make a friend.
This month I did that in 2 states- Vermont and Illinois. Both are states that I have been invited to previously and was very honored to be invited back again.
In Vermont, I traveled to the conference with a market leader who I admire and can bat ideas back and forth on a wide-ranging set of topics. Once on the Vermont Law School’s beautiful campus in South Royalton, I get to see many peers again who catch me up and share news. The host organization, NOFA-VT is an honorable elder organization that has true leadership and camaraderie and those qualities are shared by those who comes to their events. Everyone shows up for them, from the Agency of Ag to the state benefit program leaders and a whole bunch of assorted activists. Vermont is so focused and collaborative on building their sustainable place that it feels important to keep reminding them how far forward in the vanguard that they are and how we are all watching their work closely for replication.
Adding to that, colleagues from previous years have become friends and take good care of me and make sure I have fun and good food: this trip, Libby was on call for me.
After those few days in Vermont, I hopped over to Illinois, first to Chicago and them to Springfield for the Illinois Farmers Market Association meetings (IFMA). This association has ramped up their activities very quickly, partnering on multiple trainings, analysis, policy work and pilots in every corner of this big state. I was able to drive from Chicago to Springfield with the state’s mother hen of markets, IFMA’s energetic and multi-tasking Executive Director Pat Stieren along with a fellow baseball pal with a wise agricultural/entrepreneurial mind, IFMA board member and Local Food Systems/Small Farms Educator at University of Illinois Extension, Deborah Cavanaugh-Grant. THAT conversation was global in its range and so very entertaining.
The board of the IFMA is one of the most hands-on that I have worked with, no doubt. Washington state’s market meeting seemed this year to have about the same level of participation and leadership from their board, and I am sure that other states that I have not been to recently will email me to tell me how great their board is too, but in Illinois I saw so much integrated activity for markets across all of the disciplines the board represents that I will hold them up this year as a beacon of volunteerism and professionalism.
Illinois also had an impressive amount of partners at both of their meetings, from USDA staff to technology solution providers to regional academic and NGO stakeholders. They are very interested in evaluation for markets and so asked many questions about the Farmers Market Metrics projects being piloted at FMC. I do think that when a state reaches for common sense and multiple ways to measure what is being done at markets, that those states are really ready to boost market capacity. It is no secret that one of my goals as a consultant is to build a professional set of market managers across the nation, well-paid and able to stay in place to pilot new ideas that keep their markets at the center of their food system. Obviously without a way to show how they increase benefits across many types of capital, markets will continue to use all of their energy and strategic thinking time on just the lengthy day-to-day to-dos every market has and as a result, will never grow their markets to sustainability or increase their own leadership.
It was probably not a coincidence that both of these states (and others) have started to create more peer-to-peer discussion opportunities at these meetings, which of course, will lead to more leadership development and embedded practioner problem-solving. I look forward in future years to those discussions being recorded or notes uploaded for other markets to learn from and action items identified to complete.
What both states struggle with at these meetings is how to assist the new markets (and sometimes the even newer organizers who aren’t even sure that a market is what they will do) who tend to show up in large numbers to these events, while still keeping the experienced markets attending. It may be time to create separate tracks for new and experienced managers for half a day and then bring them together at lunch, or to ask more of the experienced managers to design and lead more workshops in the morning and then allow them to meet with their peers in the afternoon. I’d also love to see one or two states pilot a one-on-one training system with a mentor market and a newer one at these conferences, offering 2-3 hour sessions with checklists and worksheets to be completed at the end by the trainee.
In any case, it was a marvelous week of market talk and ideas being offered and expanded, and I look forward to many more of these meetings and a return to two of my favorite market states.