It is time for my end of the year post that I hope will encourage, appreciate, and yet challenge us in our work to build farmers markets. Do know that my posts here are separate from my role at FMC, although I hope align with my work as Training and Technical Assistance Director. In that vein, the advice I give below is all predicated on the need for sustained capacity for market operators (the kind that FMC is poised to give, starting in 2020. To make it work, markets will need to consider issues like these.
This article is worth starting with:
I think it’s an important piece. Whether you think this writer has it all figured out, what is absolutely true is that most farmers – even market farmers – cannot continue as they have been, and market operators must understand and react accordingly. He is certainly saying an extraordinary thing for any small business owner: we have to cooperate with each other in order to survive. So how do producers do that within the framework of the DTC capitalist system and how do markets reinvent themselves to encourage this? Maybe we start by appreciating the boldness of this approach by our farmers.
So here is my TL:DR for 2020: Scale up Cooperation
My most well-traveled 2019 pocket quote from Wendell Berry may help too:
“it is a formidable paradox that in order to achieve the sort of limitless that we have begun to call sustainability…strict limits must be observed. Enduring structures of household and family life, or the life of the community, or the life of the country, cannot be formed except within limits. We must not outdistance local knowledge or local affection, or the capacities of local persons to pay attention to details, to the “minute particulars” only by which, William Blake thought, we can do good to one another. Within limits, we can think of rightness of scale. When the scale is right, we can imagine completeness of form.”
That quote covers farmers markets or even the future of small farms and aligns with Berry’s point about not outdistancing local knowledge or affection.
It is undeniable true that the emergence of the modern farmers market movement in the 1970s has been one of the few bright spots for farmers, including highlighting the role of the community farmer as leader, increasing cohesion between rural and urban populations, showing the success of civic engagement strategies for public health outcomes which now include regional farm items in their delivery, and actualizing the promise of regional economies to municipal leaders. However, these outcomes fall almost entirely under the first strategy, community support. So what about the other two: retail know-how, and market day analysis?
What do market operators know now about retail, specifically food retail, that can assist our small businesses, especially cooperatives? How does the current trend of fragmentation and the increased consolidation of food outlets help or hurt DTC channels and their producers? For example, this week I wrote on FB about the closure of a local specialty store in New Orleans that had dedicated itself to local growers; it has even received a NYT article about its work! So what went wrong then?
What do we know about market day analysis in terms of production and in light of growing concern around climate disruptions? What do we do about inauthentic claims by non-DTC operators of local or small? How will the emerging models for small-scaled agriculture help in the face of these pressures?
The future of market vending clearly relies on policy changes, encouraging meaningful innovation, and a diversity of approaches for DTC channels that can quickly respond to internal and external pressures. Some examples of what I mean:
•I hope we all agree that farmers market success cannot be based on solutions that live forever outside of the policy arena, as it then punishes farmers who want to expand their business into more DTC outlets, or want to bridge the emerging alternative food economy and the dominant industrial system by selling to both. I bring this up as GAP/GHP, expanding cottage food laws, and even more so, emerging “food-sovereign towns” or “food freedom” laws in some states are so new that most market operators are not aware of their impacts or how to interact with them at this point. The patchwork of laws surrounding production of food surely affects small farmers selling through any outlet and puts the onus on them to figure out where to go next, which means their decision is often based on the least bureaucratic path, rather than what is best for that business. The question is how can market operators help? What is their role in order to enact better policies for production and for more channels to succeed?
• Market farmer success cannot be based on a solution that requires profitable producers to have no short-term debt as that also reduces their innovation. Note that I said requires; I am not advocating for DTC farmers to add debt, but the lack of debt cannot also be entirely seen as the solution. As we rightly highlight the Census data indicates that DTC farmers stay in business longer and have less debt due to less need for large-scaled equipment and other inputs, market operators should be able to encourage DTC farmers to keep exploring appropriate technology. To do so, they need sustained profits to offset those investments and the space to test those innovations. What analysis, new partnerships or open-source technology would help?
• Market success cannot be only based on government voucher or SNAP programs as a conduit for new shoppers to enter the system. These systems are now being brilliantly piloted at many markets but can become political footballs with ebbs and flows of funding and support, and are still in testing mode only. Yet, the piloting of these efforts and the balance of currencies and users at markets are in itself a model for a type of inclusion; in a country that increasingly has two systems for rich and poor in almost every sector of society, the farmers market field is diligently working to bring a majority of socioeconomic strata to the same place each week, which increases shared experiences and outcomes. For all of these reasons, this work must be expanded so more at-risk populations get to their town squares to use their benefits and find long-term health strategies, but even so, higher program redemptions cannot be the single goal of any market.
• Food justice is an energy that is lifting all boats in our food work yet many established markets are still unaware of how to cooperate with these activists and communities. Even while we see increased use of markets by shoppers who are people of color, it is often only through benefit programs reach, therefore perpetuating a specific type of tokenism around institutional racism. Especially since it is rare to find sustained or network-level efforts in creating space for producers of color to these same markets. Cooperatives will certainly help land-challenged farmers get to market level.
If you accept that modern farmers markets goals are transparency and curating direct relationships in order to affect changes in land use, in defining the type and paths to economic stability, and in decreasing isolation, then the next step might be to see how this mechanism can do more to help producers beyond its current primary version with the family table shopper. For example, what is the solution to what some call “too many markets”? I gave it my best shot in a 4-part post for FMC, found here. In short, using the transparency and relationship building of farmers markets to build other type of curated transactions, such as intermediary shopper markets where the organization could curate relationships with specialty stores and restaurants and create the same type of purchasing transformation that has happened with family table shoppers at current markets. In many cases, these purchases are still pushing farmers back to an uneven and unfair relationship. Here is an anecdote that I shared in an earlier post:
An example of the type of information that could help a market manager is a discussion I once had with a vendor who had stopped selling to chefs after being a favorite for many years. When I came behind the table and sat down at a quiet moment to have him tell me what was up, this is what he said:
You see, what happens is at the Saturday market, Chef (from fancy restaurant & supportive guy) comes by and asks me if I can sell him some of my crop this week; he wants to do a big dinner and give me some publicity. So he tells me to call him first thing Monday morning. I go out to harvest, come in around 10 and call him. The kitchen answers and tell me he is running late, but to call back in an hour. In the meantime, the deadline for the Tuesday market is coming and so I call you and tell you I am not sure if I am coming tomorrow but will confirm before the afternoon. (As you know, that market has been a little slow lately as it is this time of year so if I can sell it all to one place quickly I’d prefer it this week.) I wait an hour and call the chef back; they tell me I just missed him and he is in a waiters meeting but told them to tell me he will call me immediately after. You call me back about coming to market but I have no answer so I don’t answer when you call. Finally, he calls me, still enthusiastic about the crop but tells me regretfully the numbers for the dinner are lower than expected so he can only buy 1/2 of what he thought. That means I have to drop off 1/2 and could bring a little to the market now. Or should I call another chef to sell the rest? I still haven’t called you to confirm one way or another, so I finally decide to call you to tell you I am not coming even though I’d have a little to sell; you are not pleased of course.
I finally decided the stress compared to the sales were not worth it.
Now this is only one vendor’s story and there are differing situations of every hue to uncover about each market. The point is to know exactly how each of your small businesses are doing, with which shoppers and with which outlets. And to know the demographics of your area to know how you can add shoppers to that group. That takes time and support from your board and vendors.
Or, another example of how for market operators to be paid to train and support other channels more directly. Something along these lines is already happening with the FINI work where market operators are in (passive) partnership with small grocery stores to expand incentivizing SNAP for healthy food purchasing; let’s hope the learning on both types of outlets will be shared equally. Or market operators could be paid by investors to assist farmers with aggregation hubs or in designing specialty store purchasing programs. Or market operators could be offered funding to manage databases of all direct marketing farmers so that in times of disaster, they become the point people for recovery. The likely answer relies on markets showing they are willing to cooperate an d to understand production issues.
The outcomes Newman lists in his article also would benefit markets:
- Costs of production would decrease significantly. Orders of seed, feed, equipment, and supplies would no longer just be in bulk, they’d be at regional scale. Labor hours would be reduced as dozens of farmers are no longer replicating the same tasks (e.g. purchasing, bookkeeping, inventory, etc.)
- Marketshare would swell. Owing to lower prices, larger quantities, and more accessible markets (B&M and delivery), we’d be able to service a much larger segment of the market. Increases in volume would reduce overhead costs, more than offsetting the reduction in each unit’s top-line*
- Wages and quality of life for farmers would rise in real terms. The confluence of reduced production costs, cooperative labor, and increased marketshare will mean individual farmers are working less and getting paid more. We’d actually be able to enjoy creature comforts of other industries like evenings and weekends off, PTO, group health insurance, even retirement.
- The barriers to entry for new farmers would be much lower. New farmers would not have to learn to be entrepreneurs, marketers, agritourism experts, and social media mavens in order to make it work. A farmer could actually make a living as a trade journeymxn, just like any other trade, and brand new farmers could be trained by the co-op itself. On a related note…
- Sustainable farming could be de-gentrified, since it would no longer be a “labor of love” only available to people that can afford to work for free or next to nothing (i.e. afford to be exploited, which is a bad thing even if they don’t seem to mind very much). Everyone — people of color in particular — would be able to look at farming as a viable career choice.
- Farmers could follow their passions instead of diversifying. The co-op has producers of livestock, produce, fruit, mushrooms, grain, dairy, flowers, etc. Ecological diversity is managed at the co-op/landscape level rather than the level of the individual producer, so the latter can focus on what they do best, still make a living, and still operate within an ecologically-restorative framework.
- Farmers could operate at the scale they choose. If someone just wants to grow microgreens in their basement and sell them into the co-op’s single payer market, so be it. If they want to range a cattle herd followed by sheep and chickens across a few hundred acres leased or owned by the co-op, go for it. The only constraint is that the producer must follow the co-op’s production standards.
so for 2020, I agree with Newman and many others that the idea of a cooperative future for small farmers seems key to expanding the reach of the markets and in achieving better support for those vital to each and every market: farmers. Yet many markets have rules that restrict this activity, and many states and municipalities do not understand the role of cooperatives. The author said it very well:
The point is, these farmers would no longer be alone. We’d present a united farmer-owned (this is key) interface to the rest of the world — suppliers, customers, landlords, regulators, media, etc. — that, at present, each farmer is left alone to handle. It’s that isolation that makes us weak and ineffective against incredibly well-resourced competition.
We have to evolve if we’re going to survive.
So let’s cooperate.