Farmers Markets Need Support to Collect and Use Data

For the past year and a half, I have been attempting to wrangle the last seven years of FMC’s technical assistance around market evaluation (and the last 18 for me) into some sort of timeline and “lessons learned” to present to researchers and partners interested in farmers markets and data.

The process of writing a peer-reviewed paper was new to me and my fellow authors and the entire FMC team soldiered on with me as best they could, cheering me on and adding much needed perspective and edits at different points of the process. After a year and a half of drafting and reviewing, we released the article linked below through the skill of the JAFSCD team, but also because of the support of the USDA/AMS team. I think it should be said as often as possible that the AMS team is firmly dedicated to assisting farmers markets with whatever trends that arise, and in developing programs at USDA that reflect the current conditions of markets in order to increase their ability to support family farmers and harvesters. The evaluation work is just one example of how they have watched developments and offered support where they thought applicable.
The reason for FMC to put effort into this type of academic article is to make sure that researchers see the opportunity to have market operators be part of the process around what data is collected via markets and market vendors, and how it is used. It certainly doesn’t mean that we think that all of the work to collect and clean the data should be shouldered by the markets only or that using the data is their work alone. I hope that is clear in this paper. But we DO think that market work is increasingly focused around managers and vendors making data-driven decisions, and so the way the market team spends its time and how well it analyzes and shares data also has to evolve. That isn’t our choice; that is the result of the world taking a larger interest in regional food and farming, as well as the constant pressure from the retail food sector. Many in that latter group want to cash in on the trust and authenticity we value without holding the same accountability to producers that we have. We have to fight that, and doing it with data is the best way.

Finally, we think there is still much to know about the barriers to embedding data systems for grassroots markets; this paper only covers what we have learned since 2011 and up to the beginning of 2018. Much more is constantly being learned and will be reflected in the TA we offer markets and their partners.

Please email me with comments and questions about the paper and its findings.

Dar

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FMC press release: December 18, 2018 – Collecting data at farmers markets is not a new endeavor. But until recently, the data was largely collected and used by researchers, often to understand the role farmers markets play in the broader food system. Over the last seven years, the Farmers Market Coalition (FMC) – a national nonprofit dedicated to strengthening farmers markets – has partnered with research institutions and market organizations to better understand how market organizations have begun to collect and use data.

While until recently it was rare for market organizations to participate in the collection of their own market-level data, more and more markets have reached out to FMC over the last decade for data collection technical assistance. In 2011, the organization began to identify common characteristics and impacts of market programs, and realized more research into evaluation resources and tools that could be used easily by understaffed market operators was needed.

In a new article published in the Journal of Agriculture, Food Systems, and Community Development (JAFSCD), FMC outlines the industry need behind creating the Farmers Market Metrics (Metrics) program, and a timeline of the steps and partnerships that led to the creation of the tool, as well as best practices uncovered during its development.

Key recommendations include:

Create assigned roles for the market’s data collection team, and choose training materials that set expectations for seasonal staff, volunteers, and interns to maximize time and efficiency.
Prioritize staff support to allow market leaders more time to oversee data collection.
Gain vendors’ trust in the program for sharing and storing sensitive data.
Patience and support from funders and network leaders for each market’s level of capacity and comfort with data collection.
More assistance from funders and network leaders in helping markets select metrics to collect, as well as advancing data collection training for market staff.
The use of tools such as the USDA’s Local Foods Economic Toolkit, coupled with consistent support from academic partners, will encourage market leaders to delve more deeply into economic data and to feel more confident sharing results.

“FMC’s efforts to craft a suitable set of resources and a data management system for high-functioning but low-capacity market organizations has helped many stakeholders understand and share the many positive impacts their partner markets are making,” said FMC Senior Advisor and article author Darlene Wolnik. “But our analysis concludes that there is still foundational work to be done by those stakeholders to aid these organizations in collecting and using data.”

Wolnik continued, “The good news is that market-level data collection yields important information that markets can use to improve operations, share with researchers, communicate impacts to stakeholders, advocate for and promote vendors, and more.”

Sustainability while Shopping

The Hartman Group’s research has found that 87% of consumers are inside what we refer to as the World of Sustainability. Those inside the world are impacted in their attitudes and behaviors by sustainability in some way. Most consumers are aware of sustainability as a term. However, attitudes, depth of knowledge, and engagement differ according to where they are within (or outside of) the World of Sustainability. Here are three key factors consumers consider when making purchase

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Resources:
Click to view full infographic
Report: Sustainability 2017

Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago’s Tool Maps Peer Cities 

Let me share one of my (not so) secret goals for FMC’s Farmers Market Metrics program – to be able to assist markets by using the profile data to build dynamic peer networks through matching typology of those markets.
This would mean that a market searching for information about trends or ideas for programs would be connected to a market that has the same type of programs, location, governance and vendor makeup. As it stands now, too often markets that are simply near to each other are unfairly compared, or markets will try to adopt programs managed by markets designed very differently from their own.

I also hope that we can also do the same for direct marketing vendors at some point, using the business characteristics to match them to peers, resources and to help select the right outlets and success measures for their business.

In the meantime, check out this tool to find data on cities similar to your own.

The Peer City Identification Tool is like a DNA test for civic data, allowing users to tell at a glance where certain cities’ specific interests and challenges align, and where they deviate—in effect, who their real siblings, cousins, and other relatives are.

Source: CityLab

Communicating community

Hopefully, all of you who read this blog are okay with my use of Vermont as one of this blog’s recurring examples of food system work. I will caution my readers to refrain from assuming that the Vermonters think they have it all figured out just because their residents are rightly proud of its glorious revival of small-acreage farming and its rep as an organic stronghold. I’d say the state food and farming leaders are very honest about the issues that they continue to face and their assessment of what remains to do. For example, there are still no full-time market managers at all and the average market manager makes less than 10,000 per year (really, it’s likely much less but I am trying to not overstate it here) and, in a state with only 625,000 residents (the most rural state in the union with 82.6 percent of its population living in either rural areas or small cities, and many of them poor*), the 80 or so markets are always struggling with maintaining attendance and sales amid strong competition from co-ops and other well-regarded outlets. And of course, like everywhere else, the state’s farmers are pulled in so many directions trying to serve every outlet at once while dealing with weather and regulatory woes and the typical small business challenges that many are not profitable.

What is exciting is that they all try to work collaboratively at the network level to seek appealing ways to showcase producers and organizers’ hard work. The pictures below are an example of that. My home team there (NOFA-VT) has an artist who does lovely work that hang on their walls and whose art is used by NOFA in many other ways. During my last visit, Erin Buckwalter showed me this bowl in their office of farming “affirmations” from that artist some of which also include actual data. She encouraged me to take a handful and so I have been asking people at markets to reach in to my bag of cutouts and take one. What a simple way to display the difference in our system from the one that reduces everything in a store to a place for purchased advertising. So if you see me, ask to dip in and see what you get…

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This one, from NOFA-VT’s imaginative and thoughtful Executive Director, will remain on my board to inspire me.

 

 

• Income and Poverty in Vermont

iMedian household income (in 2015 dollars), 2011-2015 $55,176 (US $53,889)
iPer capita income in past 12 months (in 2015 dollars), 2011-2015 $29,894 (US $28,930)
iPersons in poverty, percent Warning Sign 10.2% (US 13.5%)
Fifteen states have more than half their populations living in rural areas or in towns under 50,000 population.

One business shares a gratitude index

In what has to be the most common topic in this blog for 2016, I offer another illustration of how data collection can be simply managed, yet offer meaningful data for a wide variety of audiences.
The elegant metrics from a small value-added business in Charlottesville VA are below. It seems important to note that Stacy was my comrade for the original creation of the FMC Farmers Market Metrics work (and FMC’s founding executive director before our current excellent Jen Cheek) , and did a incredible consulting  job in 2016 assisting FMC with metric refinement, data collection research and devising the workbooks that are at the core of the FMM program. Those tasks are in addition to what the output shows in the metrics below, her devotion to fitness as a student and a leader and (along with her ever cheerful husband Joe) raising their energetic son.

2016 was good phyte foods’ first full calendar year of operation, after our first humble sale at Charlottesville City Market in May 2015. Since January this year, the business has made from scratch and sold 57,024 crackers, 1,003 bars, 157 pounds of granola, 978 pumpkin muffins, 533 kale cookies, and a motley assortment of odd-looking experimental snacks. In so doing, we have bought sustainably grown (and often certified organic) vegetables and herbs from at least twelve farms² in Central Virginia. We are grateful not only to our loyal and patient customers at City Market, but to our enduring local partners at The Juice Laundry, Random Row Brewing, Blue Ridge Country Store, and ACAC Downtown. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. It is a humbling honor to be part of this evolving local food economy.

And for those who think cottage industry producers only care about their own cash flow:

In the coming year, we want to expand our reach to more retail partners, reinvest in new equipment, train some cracker apprentices, experiment with early summer cracker flavors, and give back to community organizations that are helping kids eat more vegetables. I have recently been appointed to the Advisory Council of the Urban Agriculture Collective of Charlottesville, which, among other things, teaches children of limited economic means how to grow, use, and appreciate fresh organic vegetables.

Go Stacy Miller; Keep the goodphyte going.

Source: getting specific: gratitude counts in our 2016 index