Hernando Farmers Market Data Collection Day

I kicked off my summer of market travel in northern Mississippi this year, which is one of my favorite places to work and to visit in the U.S.

Hernando is in DeSoto County (someone had to point out to me the appropriate alignment of the names of the city & county, honoring the first European known to cross the Mississippi) and it ranks highest in most indicators for good health in Mississippi, but is next door to a slew of counties that are at the very bottom of that same list, in what is called the Delta.

I first got to to know the Hernando Market when I was doing research a few years back for a report for The Wallace Center on existing challenges for direct and intermediate marketing farmers in Mississippi. Everyone told me to go talk to this market to see what impressive work was being done there. And so I went up and met with Shelly Johnstone, who founded and ran the market while working as the Community Development Director of the city. The market had been running for only a few years by the time of my visit but already was one of the largest and most productive in economic terms for area producers. I remember well what she told me about being Hernando as a  regional leader during that visit: “We’re grateful to be leading the state in healthy behavior but we know we need to assist our fellow counties and get those folks in the same situation. It won’t be enough to fix Hernando.”

She invited me back up to see the kickoff for her weekday local food market box program called 4Rivers, created in partnership with the Northwest Mississippi Community Foundation, which has done a great deal in food and active living projects for the area. She also discussed her work to provide technical assistance to neighboring markets and to support the expansion of organic/sustainable farmers through the Mississippi Sustainable Agriculture Network. All of this and more happened because of the leadership of Mayor Chip Johnson, who remains a strong proponent of the weekly farmers market.

I left impressed with the mayor and Shelly’s connections and drive, looking forward to many years of their leadership. Of course, news came to me within a year that she was retiring from the city and her post(s), but would stay involved with the efforts in her area. Unfortunately, circumstances have not allowed her to be as visible as she would probably have liked, but the good news is that her successor at the city, Gia Matheny, has the same drive and empathy for her fellow citizens. Of course, coming into the market some years after its founding has meant some catch up for Matheny, but luckily, she has deep skills, an open personality and is willing to ask about what she doesn’t know.

So when the request was sent out by Farmers Market Coalition for markets in MS to become a pilot site of the Farmers Market Metrics work, I was pleased when this market asked to be considered as one of the sites. The 3-year data collection project would teach the research team at University of Wisconsin-Madison a great deal about the unique qualities of markets and regions and so having this strong market in the mix for Mississippi was going to be beneficial for everyone.

Hernando (like the other 8 pilot markets) was instructed to choose metrics that best represented the current impact that the market was having on its vendors, its visitors/shoppers, its neighbors and the larger community.

Here are their choices:

Dollars spent at neighboring businesses by market shoppers on market days

Percent of customers who were first time visitors

Average number of SNAP transactions per year

Total dollar amount of Senior FMNP redeemed annually

Number of different fruit and vegetable crops available for sale annually

Percentage of shoppers walking,bicycling, carpooling, driving or taking

public transportation to the market (estimated annually)

Percentage of shoppers from represented zip codes (estimated

annually)

Additionally, all 9 markets were asked to collect the same data on these metrics (called the Common Metrics):

Average number of visitors per market day:

Total annual vendor sales at market

Average distance in miles traveled from product origin to market

Acres in agricultural production by market vendors

Once the metrics were selected in the fall of 2014, the UW research team created a unique Data Collection Package (DCP) for each market detailing how and when they would collect the data for each metric. Each market then chose their collection days for the summer/fall of 2015 and searched for and scheduled volunteers accordingly. June 13th was one of Hernando’s four scheduled dates for visitor surveys and visitor counts and so I drove up to observe the day and offer any assistance I could. I was also lucky enough to be asked to ring their 100-year old market bell to open the market:

The 100-year old Hernando Market bell

The 100-year old Hernando Market bell

FMC FB post of the video of me ringing the bell

Gia mapping out the day

Gia mapping out the day

GiaMHernCollectors

The Hernando Market Welcome Table

The Hernando Market Welcome Table

One of the two team members that would be doing the visitor surveys

One of the two team members that would be doing the visitor surveys

The other member of the team conducting the visitor surveys- yes that is an iPad which was being tested for use in doing surveys; unfortunately, the WiFi signal was not strong enough to use and so paper surveys were used instead.

The other member of the team conducting the visitor surveys- yes that is an iPad which was being tested for use in doing surveys; unfortunately, the WiFi signal was not strong enough to use and so paper surveys were used instead.

The set of clickers to be used for Counting Day

The set of clickers to be used for Counting Day

Gia doing a survey

Gia doing a survey

Some of the team were assigned at advantageous locations to count the visitors, while others were to complete visitor surveys. The volunteers were a mix of folks, from corporate volunteers (Walgreens corporate office staff for this Saturday) arranged through Volunteer NW Mississippi, to a city youth leader and Gia’s daughter and her friend. They picked up on the tasks easily and (and something that is not unusual in my experience) offered good feedback throughout the day and even gladly volunteered to take on more data collection tasks when necessary.

Overall, the data collection went extremely well and the immediate and ongoing analysis of it will mean an even smoother day for the next round for  the market leaders. It was impressive to see how many city officials, visitors and vendors wanted to know more about the pilot and and were eager to discuss the market in measurement terms with me.

Next up: Chillicothe and Athens OH

Mythbusting farmers markets

Myth 1: Markets (and by relationship all of community food) is only concerned with cozying up to the converted.

Myth 2: Markets encourage high prices for their items.

Myth 3: Markets are all the same.

But the largest myth about the farmers market movement spread by its detractors is that it is just about selling trendy food. Yet if selling food when trending had been the only aim, availability would artificially be kept limited, possibly even sold only by special invitation only or through bidding.

Instead, the farmers market movement has remained devoted to multi-faceted goals of building community involvement through remaining casually inviting, locally relevant, expanding the offerings and those accessing them each and every decade. The history of our movement makes that clear. And debunks all of those myths.

(•The history of the eras I am referring to has been written up by me many times before, and so not to annoy my long-time readers, I have put it to the bottom of this post.)

 

In the most recent era unfolding now, networks and cities interest in their markets has grown and deepened. Leaders are more comfortable with engaging with their farmers markets in terms of collecting and using data around wealth creation and creative output. Cities such as Pittsburgh PA, Austin TX, Minneapolis MN and Hernando MS, among others, are leading the way in partnering with their markets as both a platform for establishing grassroots metrics and for expanding awareness of the ecological perils of relying only on imports.

The last 45+ years show the intentionality and versatility of the market field and skewers the myths of any single origin. It also shows the effort to reach beyond food to include other assets and assorted civic leaders interested in building a new town square. And that market leaders are firm in the choice that design of the market should remain nimble by keeping most open-air or with easily-managed and low-cost infrastructure. That last point often frustrates city leaders or funders. That begets another myth, one where the market is not a serious mechanism for economic activity because of many markets’ use of secondary space, temporary structures and a refusal to go into storefront mode. The truth we need to share is that for grassroots initiatives expending time and money on infrastructure can solve some problems, but can also create others. So it is up to markets to find ways to show their serious intention to stick around without always resorting to brick and mortar. And when they do, to plan carefully and to allow for changes and other users of the same space.

Of course, there are other myths that need to be addressed in food system work. Scaling up, uniformity, efficiency are some others.

I’ll leave it to our dean of place, Wendell Berry, to take on some of those through a passage from his recent essay, “The Thoughts of Limits in a Prodigal Age” where he talks about capacity, scale, and form in agrarianism. He says: “It is a formidable paradox that in order to achieve the sort of limitless we have begun to call ‘sustainability’… strict limits must be observed. Enduring structures of household and family life, or the life of a community or the life of a country, cannot be formed except within limits. We must not outdistance local knowledge and affection, or the capacities of local persons to pay attention to the details only by which 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 triptych of capacity, scale and form has appeared on this blog before and will again because it so perfectly describes both the problem and the solution. It also encapsulates why the dominant paradigm cannot “see” us or work in tandem with us. It also beautifully describes the localness of organizing that markets know well. Those limits are exactly how our market founders staked a necessary place in their community and now can manage the outcomes of their projects or mission with respect to that place. So remember: Don’t hide the hard work your organization has done that is embedded in the decisions of location, products, procedures, and the goals of your market.  It’ll help bust some of those myths.

(history of market eras)

  • 1970s-1980s: Back-to-land farmers and ecological advocates begin markets. Their organizing principle is “Grow it to sell it” -a provocative statement at the time by the way- asking for a steady commitment up front from both the growers and the buyers to act honorably and collectively. These markets opened in places (interestingly, in a lot of university towns ) such as Madison WI, Carrboro NC, Athens OH, Berkeley CA, Montpelier VT.

 

  • 1990s: Community leaders, aware of those first growers-only markets, begin to open markets as holders of civic space adding a “learn together”/social cohesion motif to the grow it to sell it mandate. Places including San Francisco, Seattle, New Orleans, Portland, Cleveland, District of Columbia were the recipient of this round of founders. Interestingly, many of these leaders also became the founders of larger networks, including Farmers Market Coalition.
  •  

    1990s-2000s: Main Street markets in smaller towns and in rural communities add markets to their revival initiatives in towns like Ocean Springs MS, Natchitoches LA, and Durham NC. These markets encouraged value-added items and new non-farm vendors, focusing on incubating new businesses and supporting nearby Main Street initiatives.

  •  

    2000s: As technology advanced to allow at-risk populations to access markets with their EBT card, public health strategies became useful and the field of practioners and agencies in that field began to partner with and sponsor new markets to expand good food by getting markets in new places and adding public health incentives. One network that must be commended is Kaiser-Permanente’s markets on their own hospital campuses and markets such as Crossroads Farmers Market in Takoma Park MD.

  •  

    2000s: Deeply embedded, longtime organizers add food initiatives to their portfolio of activities, utilizing the community assets of residents and responding to their requests for markets. Markets in and around central Brooklyn NY like Brooklyn Rescue Mission, East New York Farm and the ReFresh and Sankofa Markets in New Orleans learn from earlier markets using the market mechanism to offer residents the opportunity to be both the buyers and the vendors.

From 0 to 35 in MS

I have worked with markets and farmers in Mississippi for a dozen years and have found more barriers to getting regional food accepted than in most other areas of the US, yet also have met some of the most optimistic and capable people  working on it there.
What’s interesting is that in going from a deeply (still) entrenched commodity/plantation culture of farming directly to a new economy of small family farming for markets and restaurants can mean that some of the middle steps can be skipped, which is beneficial to innovative growers.

In other words, the situations is similar to what has happened in many non-industrialized or colonized countries in regards to technology; having skipped the landline era, the new users adapt much more quickly to the technology of mobility*.
I can see this leapfrogging in play for sustainable farming in the Gulf States with new farmers pushing the envelope with pesticide-free and heirloom varieties at markets and in CSAs, rather than  being influenced by the less inspiring midcentury distribution system that hardened growers’ experience into growing the hardiest and tasteless products to ship.
The area around Oxford MS is one that is ready for takeoff. The small farmer markets offer organic products at a higher rate than the New Orleans farmers markets for example, and the average age of the vendors seems markedly less than the US average, to my unscientific eye. The chef quoted in the article below is a pal of mine and had been the Board President of the New Orleans-based Market Umbrella before Katrina, and now is a leader in the regional food movement in Oxford. He offers his knowledge to the markets and farmers around the area as well supporting the leading agricultural advocates, Mississippi Sustainable Agriculture Network (MSAN), which was founded with Wallace Center support a few years back. Corbin and MSAN are good example of the quiet revolution happening up there.

Additionally, the folks in Hernando MS (north of Oxford, closer to Memphis TN) are leading the state in innovative healthy living strategies and thinking deeply about how to expand regional farming to support those strategies. Their weekly market is large enough to attract serious attention from regional funders and even policy makers, and I have hopes that they might soon attempt to create a year round market.

Continue reading

July Market Data Collection: Athens (OH) Chillicothe (OH) and New Orleans

Since 2002 or so, my public market focus has really been two-fold: designing grassroots markets and creating replicable ways to measure and share their success. Both are necessary in order for markets to remain at the fulcrum of viable and equitable food systems. And THAT means that the desire for programs and funding to create long-term stability and build professional skills must be integral to the field (which includes markets partners), which is far from the case as of yet.

One way we will get there is by capturing data that explains shared success measures while still illustrating innovative and unique approaches in each place. I am honored to be the eyes and ears for Farmers Market Coalition (FMC) and its partners on their Farmers Market Metrics work which we hope will serve those ends. I am in the middle of a summer of travel to sites to observe actual data collection at markets using the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s data collection protocols in the Indicators for Impacts AFRI-funded project shared with FMC and whenever possible, to stop at other markets to view their data collection too.

One of the big bugaboos seems to be in doing direct data collection with visitors or vendors; on a side note, it occurs to me as I write this how rarely I see Dot Surveys (or as we redefined them, Bean Polls!) any longer. Seemed to me that markets did them constantly in years past, but they may have began to decline for the same reasons I made the Bean Poll; vagaries of weather, managing blow-y pieces of paper and light-as-air easels outside, keeping track of previous hours responses etc. Let me stop for a minute to be clear: Bean Polls can only be used in very specific instances as described in the link above. Don’t think I mean that they can be used to collect sensitive data or replace intercept surveys-they cannot. But they can introduce the community to  regular data collection and offer a mood of the day response about possible trends. I wonder if the lack of Dot Survey I see is an indicator of something retreating in data collection at market level, or if I just show up at the wrong time…

And counting visitors- I don’t think I’ve ever suggested to a market that they should count their visitors regularly without them telling me it was near to or outright impossible. Okay, that maybe an overstatement, but I have heard that exact phrase quite often! I respect the low-capacity efficiency of markets, but I do think every market can do good Counting Days and I continue to dream up new ways that counting can be done without a slew of volunteers or paid staff. If anyone is up for trying them out, contact me at dar wolnik at gmail; but do know, it’ll require some planning…

In any case, what I see out there already are some very good systems for data collection that will probably work for small and large markets and everyone in between. As soon as those systems are tested and able to be replicated you’ll hear about it.

The Farmers Market Coalition website hosts the resources and updates  for all the Farmers Market Metrics work, so do check in there for more information.

And if you missed it, here is an account to my first market visit: Hernando Mississippi.

Next: Ruston LA, Williamsburg VA and Takoma Park MD (Crossroads)

Please click on the first photo to view the gallery. My apologies to my Facebook followers who have seen most if not all of these pictures.