Since many people have written to me with congratulations on accepting a staff job with FMC (see below), while others emailed with surprise because they thought I was already on staff, I thought I’d post something about the news, but really more about my feelings about FMC, as I have had a unique vantage point to observe its evolution.
But first the news here: after many years in an outside support role with FMC, I arrived at the conclusion that the opportunity to work daily on the Farmers Market Metrics and other resource development for markets could be best done as an employee when offered that opportunity by Jen Cheek, our able Executive Director.
I also felt that the organization was at a key moment in its growth and being included in that work was right for my skills to assist and to learn. And since I am going to keep my consulting for markets going, it becomes even simpler for me to share news and ideas and looming issues heard from markets with my FMC team and then even easier to dream up or seek solutions.
What made the personal decision become an employee relatively easy was that I know first hand how thoughtfully and carefully FMC has been built by its two Executive Directors, first Stacy Miller and then Jen, supported and led by its talented and committed volunteer board. To illustrate how committed, I remember how the early versions of the board (made up of market leaders) were so vigilant about designing it in such a way to ensure its continued stability and relevancy for serving the independent market community that they even jettisoned a few early passes at it until it seemed right.
Back in the first days of being the first staff hired, Stacy asked a lot of questions (well she still does that), and I observed her as she gladly checked in with anyone and everyone who was open to talking or working with FMC on farmers market advocacy. That sort of openness to building relationships is crucial for an organization, especially one that hopes to represent a wide range of members. Out of those informal one-on-one conversations and early collaborations, she (later with membership and outreach coordinator Liz Comiskey) slowly built a respected young organization, one with some discipline and good relationships.
(I wonder how many remember those early days when the necessity of having a national organization for markets was not shared by everyone and how, when many of us would discuss the idea with outside stakeholders, we would often be politely rebuffed. How (in some circles) markets were often seen as an anachronism or at least as having found their highest level already and therefore any talk of ongoing support to expand them was largely met with indifference. That tide was turned by the valiant push to expand EBT and access to underserved populations and by constantly stretching the reach of markets as fulcrums of food systems and civic engagement. That work was done by the markets themselves with tiny funds and with a whole bunch of sharing between those early leaders and continues to this day.)
One of Stacy’s regular activities was working closely with the state and network leaders who were building resources, analyzing trends and expanding pilots within markets. It was in that part of her work that I got to know her as we both crisscrossed the US appearing at conferences or working in groups like the Wallace Center Farmers Market Working Group or supporting efforts like Projects For Public Spaces’ Farmers Market Mini-Grant program. Back then, my job at Market Umbrella was to pilot the imaginative set of regional ideas our founder had written into grants and to strategize with him and our advisors how to build the field of markets through replicating those ideas or extracting lessons or analysis. And after I became a consultant, she stayed in touch, hired me and was one of the few people back then who agreed that the Farmers Market Metrics work was necessary, letting me talk incessantly about it (well I still do that), relentlessly questioning me when needed.
When she told me of her decision to step down in preparation for the birth of her son, I was a bit deflated, knowing how hard it would be to maintain the supportive energy that FMC was beginning to take advantage of to grow its funded activities. Lucky for us, the right person found FMC next and kept the momentum going, and expanding its reach and depth rather quickly. Whether the timing was just right or Jen visualized it all, she did a speedy job adding the right components while listening to those with opinions or ideas about markets and now, with opinions about FMC itself. And that is a crucial point to make: each ED had a very different primary challenge to overcome and Jen’s was to exponentially grow the income and programs at the same pace as the number of members and partners, while managing the expectations of an emerging organization with its own personality and inertia. All of which is harder to do than it may seem. Far too often, organizations have too many programs at once and members can feel left out, or not enough money for non-project staff and therefore calls and issues are not handled in real time. Having served more than three decades in non-profits, I have seen more entities fail than succeed at being true membership organizations, not guarding against duplicating what is better done by the members or partners, or losing sight as of the issues and remaining barriers that must be addressed at the grassroots level.
Well long story short (although, as my friend Roger would say, it’s too late for that), FMC has ably managed its core purpose without failing its membership on any critical tasks and has important long-term programs in place to support partners and ideas big and small, all the while tirelessly advocating from the seat next to, not in front of markets. Jen also grasped the potential of the Farmers Market Metrics and asked clear questions of Stacy and I (and our early measurement advisors like Paul Freedman of University of Virginia and Alfonso Morales at University of Wisconsin-Madison) and led us in thinking through our plan and kept fundraising to get the ball truly rolling.
Add to that, she had a plan and the skills for staffing with first-rate minds and caring individuals in order to manage its work while asking everyone to remain available for a call or email from a market in need of a reality check or a solution. She also had the maturity and tact to keep Stacy on to assist with analysis and resource writing and Stacy reciprocated with the same and so FMC has had the benefit of her continued presence in crucial ways.
So, when I tell you that I am grateful and honored to be on staff at FMC, I think you can see why. Market Umbrella under Richard McCarthy’s leadership was a tough act to follow and I think somewhere in my mind, I always suspected that FMC might welcome me sooner or later for a spell. Of course, I will remain a roving and critical eye in the market field, offering comfort and strategy to any market or food system that needs my help, but for now, expect that the FMC resource and capacity building work that I gladly get to do these days for (at least) half of my time will continue without interruption for the foreseeable future.
And welcome to my fellow FMC newbie, Honesta.