Recently, I had the opportunity to talk at length with a few market network leaders who are thinking deeply about potential issues for markets they expect over the next few years. It is important to note that all are doing excellent work either overseeing multiple markets or managing partnerships on behalf of markets, and that they remain hopeful about the great possibilities of the work they do. And they know everyone is doing their best to create the right programs, based on what they know about market culture.
And yet, they are thinking about difficult decisions.

What made these market leaders feel this way?
They are all receiving a great deal of support to grow one part of the customer base-namely, attracting benefit program users either by adding technology or incentives to existing markets or through adding more points of sale/outlets in underserved areas. There is no doubt that those markets and networks are grateful for that support, believe in the need to do it and are pleased that markets are seen once again as for all people (as they were before 1995), but that they also see the beginning of a few lopsided effects and unintended consequences to these efforts. Here are some:

That added support is not based on any regularly used capacity benchmarks (i.e. markets with the financial or management systems able to manage back office systems or those with significant data collection capabilities), nor on any uniform measure designed in partnership with the markets (i.e. # of vendors enrolled in FMNP or availability of SNAP-eligible goods versus sales) but primarily on geography and the willingness to participate.

  • In many cases, new markets or struggling markets are the first to raise their hand to add these programs, and yet these leaders know that accurate timing in a market’s growth cycle is essential to a successful rollout. Unfortunately, they know this through personal experience and anecdotal evidence of past failures and standout successes, and not from any comprehensive analysis of these systems. And since the level of participation in these programs must remain at a certain level, they cannot turn away those who they suspect are not ready for the added programming.
  • Since the key success indicators are often preordained and limited to increases in sales, most markets do not measure that which is more useful for their community goals, such as is developing a new trusting relationship with a community support agency, reaching the level where a significant number of the products necessary to offer a healthy family meal are regularly available or students learning about regional food production firsthand.
  • The systems are usually designed to expand into a very specific type of market; typically, one with a dozen or more producers participating, with significant F&V items available and paid staff with skills for implementing these projects. Yet, even among those that share those characteristics, other factors may be present to severely reduce the ability to successfully open or implement more than a season of this type of programming.

Secondly, assistance for incentivizing “middle-class” shopper participation and farmer participation is not available.

  • As had been said many times by smarter people than me, successful markets rely on multiple cycles of participation that best represent the community’s evolving demographics. In many cases, markets are using either a deep but limited or a wide, shallow approach to community engagement which may not create MORE shoppers or farmers, but just replace the existing with others or adds new ones at the wrong time, or asks existing farmers to anchor a number of outlets far beyond their comfort level.

Thirdly, the data that markets are gathering on those programs is not always contextualized to their system, is not shared back with analysis useful for their continued participation in these programs and in many cases, the actual data collection and entry is overwhelming those markets.

  • I’ll take this a step further; in almost no system that I have spent time listening to or working with, have I found robust data that the grassroots leaders developed themselves and then shared with their partners, or many that were able to participate deeply in the analysis. Therefore, the strategy for creating any new program is haphazard and built from the outside in rather than the way we all want it to be designed.

I’ll keep it to those points for now: So in a nutshell, they see that many of the interventions markets and their partners make – and the policies and systems built from those interventions – are often out of scale and lack credible data. And that they believe this is the market field’s responsibility to fix.

Why now?
What those leaders seem to be sensing is there is enough now enough activity and history in the farmers market field to make possible and necessary finding the appropriate tools for our work. And that using any other sector’s system of interventions without closely adapting them to our scale is no longer appropriate. That we are big enough and yet small enough to be able to decide what we need and to do so with deep deference to the resources that we are honor bound to steward and the people that we rely on for that system, the producers.

As any student of food or civic systems knows, people like Jane Jacobs, E.F. Schumacher and Wendell Berry have brilliantly offered these ideas in terms of the systems that each participated in and wrote about, such as political engagement, economic activity and resource husbandry. All three wrote about being smart about scale and about honoring local decision-making constantly and warned us of the outcomes if those things were not taken into account when working, advocating or protesting.
The ancient Greeks had a term to describe a mode of communication that truly reflects the present conditions: kairos.. Kairos can also describe a decisive moment and the right intervention for it.

Seems like we are there now, in the moment were we need to not only continue the necessary work to expand our programs to more community members, but to also simultaneously build and share the appropriate tools and interventions at the most opportune times.
Along those lines, it is time to be careful of just using “more” as a success measure or in only thinking of our community in terms of those who shop. And to expect that every market should share their particular context when designing any future interventions. And that any tool or intervention that is used has transparency with data to be shared, including any unintended consequences.

As you can imagine, this subject is just beginning, and I look forward to more conversations through email and chatting in person as I travel to winter/spring conferences.


Baker shutting the door on markets


I had written about this baker giving up the weekday market almost exactly 2 years ago and now via his wonderfully written email newsletter excerpted and linked at the bottom of this post, I see that he is about to give up the remaining farmers market that he attends.

I have certainly heard a wide range of reasons given by producers about why markets no longer work for them, and thanks to my long ago human resources training, I learned to ask myself and my market peers what I used to ask of my staff about departing or failing employees:

Did we do all that we could do to help this person succeed? Did we offer the same resources and attention that we could offer or do offer to others? What else should we offer (if anything) to help situations like this not happen as often in the future? Or are there just circumstances out of anyone’s control that made this inevitable?

When I post this news on my personal FB page, I guarantee you I’ll hear  responses from market shopping friends as well as non-market shopping friends telling me their opinion of his products and his stall, both good and bad, a few who will blame the market and still others who will shrug and say it goes with the territory.

I also guarantee you that when I go and talk to him directly about this email, he will be fair (he always is) to the market management but also specifically critical about markets. He will suggest marketing ideas to me, some of which might very well work for this market and some that have been tried and not worked in the past, all of which may or may not have helped his business. I expect that we will find ourselves in somewhat of a standoff, although I will agree with him that markets should be reactive to the needs of their anchor and to their specialty vendors. I’m not saying that this market was not – I cannot know what the recent relationship is-  but wearing my hat of a market strategist for a minute, any and all markets should constantly fine tune their management and marketing based on their measurement of positive and negative impacts, and that does include measuring a spectrum of individual stall activity across the market.

The trick is to measure within the context of each business’ set of goals and true interest in being at markets long-term.

As a specialty item vendor (he’d  disagree with that description I am guessing, but his breads are unique enough for purchase that they have to be seen as specialty rather than staple goods still), finding his customers can be slightly more tricky than it is for the market to find the anchor vendors customers. And to further confuse matters, in some markets, once in a while the specialty vendors ARE the anchor vendors.

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