London to Berea: a fall farmers market story

Leaving my London KY hotel while it’s still dark, I head north to Berea. As always, I’m gonna arrive too early even for the farmers market and for that reason (but also to soak up the local) I choose the state highway over the interstate, or as author William Least Heat Moon named these old roads, the blue highways. This road runs almost perpendicular to or crossing I-75 for most of the trip, at times less than a few hundred feet separate them. When it does come that close to the big booming noise of traffic just to the left, I look at the houses and businesses that have an interstate behind them and this road in front and wonder how those living there felt to be spared from the bulldozers and if “spared” is how they felt and or still feel.. 

Route 25 has existed since 1926 between Georgia and Michigan – well really now just to Covington KY just across the bridge from OH since I-75 eliminated all traces of it in Ohio and Michigan. It was once known as the Dixie Highway, which was the first road to connect the Midwest to the South starting in 1914. 

At first, I am momentarily blinded by cars (trucks mostly) heading the other way, and can see little that makes this drive worthwhile. But as the light starts to peek over the horizon, the shape of the surrounding area can be seen. Hills with sunlight highlighting the reds, oranges and green colors with scattered homes (almost all painted white), old barns (almost never painted but left to weather in browns and greys), churches (mostly red brick), and work buildings (almost all with dozens of mechanical items crowding them) placed throughout. In each coven of buildings, the oldest are being allowed to melt back into the soil rather than tearing them down, the next oldest leaning leeward but still probably functional, and the newest most often designed in one story ranch style or mobile home. The main road is newly paved (thanks Big Govt) and I pass hilly gravel roads on either side with names like Old Crab Orchard Road, Old Hare Road, and can see tantalizing signs for John Swift’s Lost Silver Mine and Daniel Boone’s Historic Campground.

The road crosses the Daniel Boone National Forest which covers 21 counties of Kentucky with more than 708,000 acres in its glorious free space (once again thanks Big Govt). I pass through Livingston in Rockcastle County which is one of the park’s Trail Towns, where you can expect to find supplies and guides and food for traversing this rugged park.  

My trip is quiet and even peaceful as few vehicles are heading my way, and likely because of the next door interstate, no 18-wheeled trucks roar up behind or on side of me, menacing my little van.

Once in Berea, I spy the farmers market with its gorgeous new pavilion which is easily seen from all directions. From the road, I can see the vendors are still setting up and, knowing how anxious it can make them to have someone wandering around before they are ready, I instead take a right and head downtown, feeling confident I will find a good coffee somewhere near the famed college. More indications of Big Government doing its job appear on the way, including remodeled bridges, pedestrian crosswalks, smooth streets. I spy a jumble of signs that indicate culturally significant activities to the left, so I turn into an area named Artisans Village District which is a cluster of little cottages with retail signs designed to pull visitors looking for culture and craft. 

Not much going on there yet, but I find the open bagel and coffee house on the main road on its edge and get a honey wheat with maple bacon cream cheese with a good espresso and sit down in its modern, well-lit and friendly space.

 The line grows as soon as I sit and I note the number of families and working men and women already up and at it, all smoothly ordering a NY style bagel and artisanal coffee in Kentucky.

I finish my bagel and head to the market as it is opening time. I try to get to a market at its opening, and make some mental notes. Most of those things I look for do not have a right or a wrong way, they just reveal its culture. Things I look for:

Are all vendors set up by opening time?

Does the market indicate opening time with a bell or other manner?

Does the market have a welcome tent?

Are vendors offloading (walking their items in) or are their vehicles directly behind their table?

Is signage uniform or does it vary table by table?

How much diversity is there among the people vending? How about in its shoppers?

Do any vendors or the market indicate they can process government benefits like SNAP or FMNP?

Are there craft vendors?

Are there hot food vendors?

And so on. The list is extensive but with practice I have found I can note many things without being overt about it. Most of what I learn comes from the conversations with market manager and vendors and this day was no different.

I started by having a pleasant chat with its manager Olivia, who had a beautifully set up market welcome tent all ready to go, with SNAP signage very noticeable for those seeking to use their benefit dollars there. I assume that the tent with its Doubling Dollars information printed on it is likely given to the market by the entity that manages the program in Kentucky. 

The overall impression of the tent and of the market is one of extreme tidiness and with good sight lines.

I start at the right row of the 2 parallel rows, with a woman selling a variety of goods including persimmons, so I engage in a conversation about the varieties she sells. She knows a great deal about them and we talk about how shoppers now ask for them and how they are a food that is likely seeing a resurgence because of farmers markets (since so many varieties do not ship well to be able to sit in grocery coolers for weeks at a time.) When I ask, she (like most of their vendors) agreeably takes cards for payment for her goods. Having the ability to to swipe credit and debit cards has only recently moved to almost universal acceptance among vendors at many markets. Where it has happened all note the COVID era of risk mitigation as its cause when some markets were unable to use wooden tokens or were forced into drive through sales or unable to open at all. In all cases, farmers had to find an added method of processing payments and did. Now market managers happily tell shoppers to go through the vendors to swipe credit and debit even while SNAP is usually still handled at market level to everyone’s appreciation.

I see a friendly couple next to the persimmon seller who also have a variety of goods on their tables, including micro greens and beautiful tiny turnips. I would dearly love some micro green sprouts but being on the road I worry I wont be able to keep them safe in my coolers. I am regretfully about to turn away when I realize they also dehydrate and grind their microgreens into a powder, which I can store. I once again ask if I can use a credit card- they immediately answer yes but then cannot get a signal to process the card. The farmer grows anxious with the delay, although I am not as anxious. He mentions the signal is intermittent at this new pavilion and we discuss whether the city or the market can and should add a signal strengthener nearby. I finally root about my wallet to find that I have the exact dollar amount in there to cover my purchase; I offer it instead and he asks me if that’s “okay” to take my cash. “Of course” I answer and I silently turn that exchange over and over in my head because cash being used as the secondary payment  method is such a new development between customers and vendors at farmers markets.

I walk past other vendors beyond theirs but I keep my distance from the tables because I can see that they have vegetables I am unlikely to purchase. I do, however, catch their eye and say hello and, when I feel moved to do so, comment on their table or its products. I know that being ignored when selling in an open space can be uncomfortable and even painful and that a friendly hello can make a quiet sales hour seem slightly less scary.

I speed up to get to the second row and note that this has a slightly different feel with (seemingly) more younger or newer vendors on this side. (Which makes me wonder if vendors choose their own space or are assigned).

Close to the middle of the row, there is a kombucha and nutrition bar vendor with a tap encased in a beautiful wooden dispenser for cold brew and samples of kombucha. The vendor tells me the vendor 2 tents down (who is seated to the back working on other craftwork while someone else handles sales), made the display. We have a longish discussion about markets and intermediate sales for their business. They tell me they sell to a number of small businesses in the area but expect to maintain their farmers market presence to support farmers and to grow their business there, maybe even taking on more farmers markets in the future. 

I share tidbits of my research on markets including that many of the first “modern era” (1970-) markets began in university towns like Berea because the back-to-landers decided to stay  and grow organic food, so then created many of these new “grow it to sell it” markets; I say that it is interesting to me that markets in these towns continue to impress me with how they hold and even grow markets’ role in improving sustainability and introducing the area to products like hers Her quiet and firm reply that “it shows they (markets) are really about the shared culture” strikes me as rich with simple truth as we stand in an open pavilion on a cold fall morning in a town of 15,000 or so.

Finally I realize I am blocking a very polite shopper behind me and move away. I catch the eye of the woman I had purchased the persimmons from and smile from afar in thanks as I head toward my van to drive it to the next town.

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It’s a Make, Break, or Take set of moments. Get ready.

Dear Colleagues,

I am thinking of each of you,  your teams, and communities as you make decisions and adapt your Direct-To-Consumer (DTC) channels. If I can help, I hope you know you can contact me and also access our FMC resources,  and any updates.

Once we get get to the healing side of this pandemic, there are many things that markets may have to operationalize into best practices. Some of those we have noted already:

changing markets designation from special events to essential food and social space services.

writing rules for vendor food handling during outbreaks

having emergency layouts for smaller-than-usual markets

plans for fast pick up for items that don’t penalize the vendor with massive added fees or convert markets into something it cannot return from

communication plans for media

communication plans for vendors

          partnerships for emergency situations

and of course much more to come. And as always, those ideas and solutions will come from you and your community leaders, and mostly not from an academic or government partner or from other “experts.” At FMC, our team continues to scour the internet, participate on our listservs, answer emails, and be ready to pick up the phone to learn what is going on.


 

 

This moment is reminiscent of the disasters that we worked through here in New Orleans while I was Deputy Director of Market Umbrella, and is also reminiscent of so many of our peers work on their own emergency situations. It is similar, and yet it has new wrinkles that most of us have not had to address.

That is something that I dread will be the new normal: cycles of disasters that remind us of previous examples and that we can draw from, but that bring brand-new challenges that we need to quickly assess and master too.

And as important as it is as to bravely and clearly react to the moment, how we protect our fragile community from profiteers and bureaucrats and how we prepare to share any learning for the next one is equally as important.

Make moment examples

Of course, José Andrés World Central Kitchen team is already out there. Not only is WCK  immediately ready to deploy healthy food and community at the first moment necessary, the entity illustrates Jane Jacobs’ “eyes on the street” model that is as crucial during emergencies as in everyday life. Because they are there and attract media attention, they are able to call out the policy changes that have to be made, especially challenging those that push aside local knowledge or responses.  Our DTC channel organizations can clearly learn from that approach in getting media attention during these events.

“In emergencies, locals know best how to take care of their own,” Andrés said as he decried the tendency of government personnel to tell locals “how you should run your lives” when they enter disaster zones. “We need to achieve a better moment where those organizations come in to help people in America or around the world, listen to the locals more and bring them into the solution.”

Beyond the famous chefs, there are so many of these types of interveners that come to us during these moments. In New Orleans we had tens of thousands of respondents over the decade of recovery: everyone from the Rainbow Family setting up a wonderful emergency camp and doing soil mitigation right after the levee breaks to massive numbers of faith-based volunteers that came for years every summer to build houses. Be ready to spot those for this emergency: it may be someone with a better temporary space for your pop up market, a policymaker willing to suspend rules that limit the exchange of healthy foods,  a school bus driver to deliver food,  a fellow NGO leader with an idea for getting healthy food to more communities, or a farmer able to deliver to a multiplicity of neighborhoods or towns.

Also crucial to remind ourselves is that any make moment uses the assets and goodwill of the local community to respond, but also accounts for the length of the disaster. Some  of these last days, some weeks, some months or years. COVID19’s length is still undetermined, which is deeply frightening  especially as this timeline relies on a the response level of a weak medical system and a lack of a concerted response from our national government.

What those of us who have been through an emergency know is that it is vital to recognize the different phases as stages, each of which may require different responses and partners. The GoFish YouTube videos we did at MU with support from Kellogg Foundation helped us capture some of what our markets and small businesses came up with as responses and allowed us to record them across the length of that response – and not least, get those businesses money for those innovations over the long official response to Katrina.

Break moment examples

Cities closing down open-air food markets because they are viewed as events rather than as essential services are the main break moment we have to prepare to meet in this moment. In the weeks after Katrina, I was called into New Orleans City Hall (which was still set up in an eerie, blackout curtain-covered, borrowed hotel space) to defend the idea of selling food from what had been flood-covered land. What was interesting about this question from City Hall was they were unaware that most of our vendors came from the surrounding parishes outside of the levee breaks that had inundated New Orleans with water.  Only three vendors were growing food in the city, and all had already sent in soil tests to LSU. So, by sharing that information and plan, we were able to move quickly past that question. And since we operated in parking lots, building renovation – which slowed other retailers down for months or for years – was not an issue that we had to deal with. The open-air and transient nature of our design absolutely helped us, taking what would have  been a break moment into a make moment for our small market organization in the months and years after 2005. We never forgot that lesson for our emergency-prone area.


And we also learned that adaptation is the key.  As described again by Andrés:

“If we plan too much, chances are that things are gonna be completely wrong. And once you have a plan, and everybody agrees on the plan, if the plan goes out of line, people freeze,” Andrés admitted. “Adapting always in these scenarios is gonna be more important than planning.”

So don’t let the urge to make each moment the exact right response break you.

In other words, do what market organizations do best:  pilot something, learn from it quickly, adapt from its lessons and regroup. 

Take moment examples

There are also what we’d down here call “carpetbaggers” in every disaster situation. Already the NYT had a story of someone hoarding tens of thousands of hand sanitizers hoping to profit from this pandemic. Luckily, online stores shut him down, although he made plenty before it happened, and there will be others who will not caught or penalized.

I have already been contacted by many online stores and developers about aiding DTC channels. Now some of them are absolutely dedicated to helping and not hurting and offering their expertise- but some are not. The wrong ones can break our small businesses with hidden fees and bad design. Good, indifferent, or bad, don’t let them take our value proposition or our message for theirs. They are still two different business models and even if we borrow from each other, we have to remind our shoppers that we will return to our model because our DTC farmers and vendors are still not able to benefit from most of those models. Use your peers to ask about these opportunities, and ask them a lot of questions too. Yes, take advantage of the right opportunity, but don’t make a good idea into a bad situation by not being careful.


Another important point is to be ready and open enough to take the gifts that will come your or your community’s way.  Whether it is a a friend offering to make dinner for you, a market shopper willing to help with social media,  asking a peer to get on a webinar on your market’s behalf, or stopping for a moment for a walk or to close your eyes even on a busy busy day, take it. Being givers, market leaders and vendors are loathe to take their share, but for this moment, it is vital that you do. 

I just dropped some juice off to local culture bearers and small business owners who have been feeding me this week with their art and with healthy food. That was my gift to them; the fruit I used was a gift to me from neighbors and friends.

the bit I left at my pals door, photographer Cheryl and musician Mark.

And I was able to harvest so much this last week due to a gift of time and help by my Vermont food system pal Jean Hamilton who was in town for the National Good Food Network meeting.

Jean up in that tree!

I’ll add more examples here as they come to me through the extraordinary, creative community of food and civic activists that make up my world. I know we will grow stronger through this trial, and hopefully rebound by reminding even more people and community leaders why local farmers and businesses and their markets, farm stands, and CSAs are vital to a resilient, healthy place.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Solnit on mutual aid economies

Almost anyone would say our society is capitalistic, based on competition and selfishness. But huge areas of our lives are already based on gift economies, barter, mutual aid, and giving without hope of return. Think of the relations between friends, between family members, the activities of volunteers or those who have chosen their vocation on principle rather than for profit.

Think of the acts of those who do more and do it more passionately than they are paid to do, of the armies of the unpaid at work counterbalancing and cleaning up after the invisible hand of the market and even loosening its grip on our collective throat. Such acts represent the relations of the great majority of us some of the time and a minority of us all the time. They are, as the two feminist economists who published together as J. K. Gibson-Graham noted, the nine-tenths of the economic iceberg that is below the waterline. Capitalism is only kept going by this army of anti-capitalists, who constantly exert their powers to clean up after it and at least partially compensate for its destructiveness.

Hope lies in the future, but my work on disaster and society convinced me that much that is remarkable is with us already, undescribed.

Rebecca Solnit

Grocery and farmers markets

I just finished a blog post for FMC co-written with Alex Canepa about Amazon and Whole Foods. Our short answer in our rather long piece was we don’t know how this merger will affect food generally and local food specifically, but it doesn’t look promising.

Because of that post, I have spent even more time recently reading about grocery stores and food purchasing in reports from trade papers, some general books, and articles, all of which are sure of only a few things:

  1. Current storefront retail sales are sluggish.
  2. Consolidation of stores or of chains doesn’t help the consumer.
  3. Online sales of food is one of the few growth patterns in food but if anyone has figured out how to use this method to actually make a profit it’s still unknown.

One of the reasons why the media is obsessed with stories about the big chains is because the story is simpler: success only means profit which means either increasing the number of stores or same-store sales and no matter where you are in the US, it’s the exact same story. There is no need to worry about seasonal interruptions, cultural uniqueness or local factors or find other measures of success.

All of this means that in this age, the farmers market story has to be powerful, exciting and positive. The days of flyers in the coffeehouses and yard signs on market days as the only way to let folks know about the market are basically done.

The stories we tell need to encapsulate what our marvelous markets of the modern era actually do:

Offer civic space to all citizens, with no purchase necessary;

Introduce people to good food produced by their neighbors;

Increase access to healthy foods for our at-risk neighbors;

Encourage wise stewardship of land;

Champion the innovators of our good food system;

Support the larger food and farming system as leaders;

Advocate for better policies at the city, state, and national level.

All of that goes back to one of my action phrases for market leaders for 2017 which was laid out in this blog earlier this year:

Don’t Hide the Hard Work.

In order for the community you live in to understand how their markets do all of these things, the market organization needs to be constantly visible and engaged. The staff, board, advisors and anchor vendors need to let people know their role at the market, invite feedback and then share what they learn with the market community.

Language that defines those things markets do has to be put into metric form and shared regularly with the larger community. That is because anecdotes and stories are not enough for those who do not know us. They need simple and directed assertions as to why shopping directly for their food matters. They need it in 140 characters or less or in a single picture on Instagram or even told them by an influencer whose blog they follow.

Now, you may find those ideas ridiculous; I can understand that thinking as someone who gave up her smartphone a few years back (after being one of the first with a Blackberry, and then an iPhone and then an iPad), but the reality is mass communication has changed forever. And not just for young people: most studies of social media show that some channels – like Facebook – are increasingly used by older people. And not just how, but what they are looking for has changed. That is why the sector that is most sensitive to any change in people’s lives – grocery shopping – has become a free-for-all.

We need to face it head on and decide how the farmers market and larger good food system will flourish in spite of this chaos. Each market needs to check in on all of these areas above and ask itself how is it doing on each and then act upon the findings.

This is the best chance we have to not be submerged by the mess that is retail right now. By aligning ourselves and our farmers as community leaders and our markets not simply as sales outlets, we can continue our revolution even as the storefronts around us change names and focus and even in some cases, disappear from view.

 

Update: check out this story about the new NEW players in food: (and yes the first is “related” through the Albrecht family to Trader Joe’s): Aldi and Lidl.

 

 

 

Why strong and weak ties are both necessary

A good article that describes bridging and bonding types of social capital. It is important for markets to understand which of them are at play in their market and how that depends on the market type the community is building. Basically, a person gets comfort and advice from their strong ties (bonding) and new information from weak ties (bridging) and so both are helpful for any type of behavior change.

For example, Food Access and Neighborhood/Niche market types often prioritize bonding social capital, while Flagship and Main Street market types focus on bridging social capital.  There is no one answer to how to build (or to measure) social capital, but it is important for every intervention to understand the two and which is preferable based on the strategy involved.

At a time when the United States is becoming more starkly and rigidly unequal, when Americans are sorting themselves into demographically uniform clusters, we are evidence of the problem. We are, at least passively, the cause of the problem.

This is the downside of high neighborliness. It is a classic case of “bonding social capital,“ which tightens the weave of trust among people who are already alike—as opposed to “bridging social capital,” which helps generate trust among unlike groups.

Bonding capital makes for in-group loyalty and unity. But a civically healthy society depends on bridging capital, and what social scientist Mark Granovetter has called “the strength of weak ties.” America is sick today in part because the weak ties that used to be fostered by diverse neighborhoods and associations are dissipating….

The Worst Thing About Good Neighbors – CityLab

 The Art of Noticing, and Then Creating 

A wonderful interview for anyone interested in community and creativity. So anyone working in markets, food and farming.

 

MS. TIPPETT: And I want to — I want to bring in the word tribes that you used, because that’s another way, you’re using a word that we associate with something primitive. Right? That we think, that we thought modernity was about outgrowing.

MR. GODIN: Right.

MS. TIPPETT: You are actually really affirming that… We choose who and what we belong to. It’s not just about survival. It’s about connection and flourishing.

MR. GODIN: So, you know, in the desert or the jungle, the tribe was defined by geography alone. That you were in the tribe based on where you were born. And then if we fast-forward to, I don’t know, Mark Twain. Mark Twain would show up in a city and a thousand people would come to hear him speak. And everyone who came was in his tribe. They were in the tribe of, you know, slightly satirical, slightly jaundiced people who were also intellectuals who could engage with him. And he had never met them before, but within minutes, they were part of a congruent group who understood each other. And so if we fast-forward to today — you can take someone who hangs out in the East Village or Manhattan who has 27 tattoos — they go to Amsterdam, they can find someone in Amsterdam who talks their language and acts like them, because they’ve chosen the same set of things that excite them, and that they believe in. And we divide tribes as small a group as we want. But what the Internet has done is meant that we don’t have to get on a plane anymore to meet strangers who like us.

That — the Linux operating system, which is on a billion computers around the world, was written by a group of strangers who have never met, who are part of the same tribe. And so the challenge of our future is to say, are we going to connect and amplify positive tribes that want to make things better for all of us? Or are we going to degrade to warring tribes that are willing to bring other groups down just so they can get ahead?

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So, you know, on the way into the studio today, I passed a 1934 Rolls Royce. And in those days, if you were really rich, you bought a fancy expensive car like that. So we went through this era where you would value something that was physical. But now the things we pay extra for are connection. Right? The things we pay extra for are what are other people using — what networks can we be part of — what conference can we go to — who can we be with? And the people we choose to be with, the products and services we choose to talk about are all interesting and unique and human and real, as opposed to industrial and cheap and polished and normal.

Seth Godin — The Art of Noticing, and Then Creating – | On Being