As usual, I’d like to offer my thoughts as to what may be in store for farmers market organizers and producers in the coming year (as I did in past years: 2018, 2017…)
With the end of year passage of the Farm Bill (coming as a welcome surprise after watching the summer-long legislative shenanigans in the House), the organizing for direct marketing for 2019 is now slightly altered -as soon as the government opens up again that is! The inclusion of LAMP in the farm bill offers markets some stability for grant funding over the next 5 years and also means a better-to-great chance of FMLFPP funding being included in future farm bills. Two other changes may be significant for farmers markets: the requirement of a 25% match for FMPP proposals (it had only been required for LFPP proposals previously), and the language to “support partnerships to plan or develop regional food systems” which is funded at 5 million per year. The FMPP match requirement seems to indicate that the grants will be prioritized for those who build deep partnerships into their proposals, and seems to be born out by the added 5 million for partnership work. Getting this funding could put market organizations in leadership roles in regional policy work, especially in terms of vendor needs (more in a minute on this), disaster response planning, and climate change initiatives with municipalities- that is if the grant language (when written by AMS) directs this funding to individual markets. If it turns out that the funding is really directed more to your state and network associations, I would expect them to use it to build capacity for their markets, especially in the area of increased data collection capabilities and dynamic data-driven analysis. That would align with my 2017 mantras for markets:
Don’t Hide the Hard Work
Function like a Network Whenever Possible
Two other areas that I expect to be active among markets in the coming year and beyond is in verification of local claims and in product development initiatives. The first has been climbing the ladder of priorities since the explosion of meal kit box programs, grocery store fragmentation, and the use of “local” in marketing language by every kind of player in intermediate channels (i.e. specialty stores, restaurants.) Farmers Market Coalition has even begun to discuss this regularly in house and included this topic in the farmers market track of 2018’s inaugural Direct Marketing Ag Summit. It was ably covered in a presentation by Washington State Farmers Market Association’s Colleen Donovan whose work on market integrity is well known, and by Boulder County Farmers Market CEO Brian Coppom who is fast becoming a great national spokesperson for farmers markets on the subject. FMC also added to the conversation around brand integrity in 2018 by taking over the management of the Buy Fresh Buy Local brand.
There is much to do on local verification and protection of the brand, but my sense is the best way for markets and other local food authorities like BFBL leaders to own it is (1) going through a process to find out the community definition of local/regional that works best there, and (2) transparent verification systems that explain/illustrate geographic proximity and proper stewardship of land and water. Once those are accomplished, state legislative language protecting it may be helpful.
The product development work is a little less visible, but is happening among some innovators. I’ve had recent conversations about this work with Grow NYC and a few others and expect to hear more, especially with the increased use of Metrics by markets to collect data. That data collection has been a game changer for market organizations as the necessity of collecting data from their vendors has sometimes turned out to be a point of contention. That tension is usually because those markets have never systematically collected market day data or used longitudinal data as the basis for market day decisions, relying entirely on management levels or outside funding priorities to decide when to add vendors or market days or even when doing event planning!
In the past few years of pilots with markets, the Metrics team (which includes me of course!) has advocated that the best way to make the need for collection understandable to ones vendors is to openly and simply share market level data which can then be compared privately with their own business and product- level data, allowing for more complete business intelligence for those entrepreneurs. Building this type of partnership with vendors also levels the field, as data becomes the lingua franca of market day decision-making rather than those decisions being (or seeming to be) made willy-nilly or behind closed doors without vendors input. The more market leaders think about, research, and support development and marketing of biodiverse items at their markets, the more they will understand their vendors businesses and consumer preferences and will be able to build partnerships and find funding to add products that data shows will do well at that market. All of that will quell much of the pushback on data collection-over time.
Throughout this post, the one word I have used again and again is the one that I hope sticks with markets: partnerships. These need to be more foundational (meaning include those partners in how the market itself is managed not just about the shared program), more dynamic (check in regularly to see if they are working and why), and be more diverse (hopefully self-explanatory). These partnerships, if designed well, will absolutely reduce the wear and tear on market staff and minimize turnover and burnout.
If every market reading this post set a goal to add two more (*non-traditional) partners to their program development planning, and started to consider their vendors as partners, I think 2019 would be a banner year in farmers market development.
*non-traditional: meaning partnerships beyond those who have shared outcomes in terms of direct marketing agriculture or increasing use of federal benefit programs for healthy food (although the latter were non-traditional partners not so long ago). This could include immigration services agencies who could help with vendor and shopper development, agencies working on public transportation amenities who could help with adding walking, biking, bus-riding people to markets, social justice organizations working on civic engagement, real-estate professionals who are in contact with new residents and could direct them to their local market, and so on.