“What Works, and Doesn’t, About Farmers Markets? “

Good article linked at the end on Vermont’s market saturation from someone who has been a vendor at some of these markets. There is no question that these very real concerns from vendors must be addressed and soon. However, I think that more attention could be paid to the details and challenges of building new food systems by this author in this piece. The “new” market idea works best when a market is not organized as just another purely consumer activity but instead designed and actively managed as a community activity that reactivates the town square vibe and rewards its ecological mindset. (And that means everyone must honor the town square role, including competing market vendors.)  Let me elaborate:

First, I hope most of us really don’t think we have reached saturation and cannot find a way to bring the 95% of those who don’t yet shop for local food regularly, and don’t think we can’t encourage more producers to provide it even if it means some different organizing tactics. I can certainly see how existing vendors and some long time organizers  may have that opinion but as advocates, I say let’s dig a little deeper. This also includes longtime vendors of markets, many of whom have become comfortable in their spot and with their regular shoppers and spend less time than  they should thinking about newer visitors to markets (notice the lack of prices or details on the farm’s story at many booths as possible indicators) or in assisting in the growth of the market organization once market sales arrive at a sustained level.

A few years back,  I did some early analysis of the VT SNAP token system  and found that the less-than-robust numbers for SNAP use at markets at that point seemed closely related to the extreme low capacity of their market organizations (people are always surprised to hear how there are no year round full-time market managers in the state and low, LOW pay for seasonal managers*) as well as the need for a suite of market technology and scrip set ups and outreach strategies, depending on the market situation. (What I wrote then about technology was that some markets needed only a EBT machine as their small town had the ATM available right next to the market location. Others could have best used a dedicated phone line and plug in as wi-fi connectivity is sparse. Still others could have used anchor vendors to have the EBT machine if they are the only ones with SNAP-eligible goods in a micro market and so on. Some of the situation around EBT is changing since that report was written, but the need for nuanced technology and outreach answers for markets and vendors is still vital.) As far as capacity, the added work of these permanent programs requires training and relationship-building with a kaleidoscope of agencies and entities around the market; that training should be invested in both the organization and in the person of manager. In other words, systems to strategically build these and other programs must be created at the market level and at the network level.

Included in that is the necessary redesign of the market manager job, which in the last decade has seen the need for a whole bunch of new skills and to-dos for the market day that keeps them from the deep customer service and the spot analysis that previous generations could do. Yet:

 * In 2011, Vermont market operators reported an average budget line item of less than $1500.00 to pay for market management with most markets reporting between $3,000- $5,000 as a stipend for the manager and no Vermont market reported having a full-time market manager on staff in 2011. In 2010, 59% (37) of reporting markets paid their manager/coordinator, with amounts ranging from $348 to $14,600, with the funds coming primarily from vendors’ stall fees. Of the 37 reporting markets, only 16 markets paid managers/coordinators more than $2,000 for the year.

 

Once established, those systems would free  managers and overworked vendor board members from the stressful work of recreating the same market structure each season and instead, encourage them to plan mid and long term and spend more time with their community which will lead to better outreach and more intuitive interactions. One of the most obvious indicators of this lack of planning time is the reduction in time in working with or visiting farms or farm leaders. I believe that the move away from markets by some farmers is directly related to their suspicion that some markets see them now only as a tent and a table and are unable or unwilling to assist them with their development as a small business. Another indicator to me of the need for more professional development is the lack of alignment between food hubs and farmers markets that should share the development of vendors businesses even if they have different goals. Another is the mission drift that I often see with older markets that makes it difficult for them to plan for the future,  or the lack of effort to update the outdated bylaws that don’t respond to the issues that their managers currently face.

Back to the vendors: the capacity of current market vendors has certainly become a storm cloud looming: to understand this issue, data on the number of competing outlets that market vendors now use should be gathered and analyzed. It may be that the issue is not too many markets but too many other outlet types that tax the current vendors. In that case, it may mean that new markets should align their strategy with those outlets to at least set up the market to maximize the 4 hours for a smaller group of vendors,  knowing that the vendors have other outlets to sell to as well. Really, just knowing what each vendor is about and who and how they sell is the goal.

An example of the type of information that could help a market manager is a discussion I once had with a vendor who had stopped selling to chefs after being a favorite for many years. When I came behind the table and sat down at a quiet moment to have him tell me what was up, this is what he said:

You see, what happens is at the Saturday market, Chef (from fancy restaurant; supportive guy) comes by and asks me if I can sell him some of my crop this week; he wants to do a big dinner and give me some publicity. So he tells me to call him first thing Monday morning. I go out to harvest, come in around 10 and call him. They answer and tell me he is running late, but to call back in an hour. In the meantime, the deadline for the Tuesday market is coming and so I call you and tell you I am not sure if I am coming tomorrow but will confirm before the afternoon. (As you know, that market has been a little slow lately as it is this time of year so if I can sell it all to one place quickly I’d prefer it this week.)  I wait an hour and call the chef back; they tell me I just missed him and he is in a waiters meeting but told them to tell me he will call me immediately after. You call me back, I have no answer so I don’t answer when you call. Finally, he calls me, still enthusiastic about the crop but tells me regretfully the numbers for the dinner are lower than expected so he can only buy 1/2 of what he thought. That means I have to drop off 1/2 and could bring a little to the market now. Or should I  call another chef to sell the rest? I still haven’t called you to confirm one way or another, so I finally decide to call you to tell you I am not coming even though I’d have a little to sell; you are not pleased of course.

I finally decided the stress compared to the sales were not worth it.

Now this is only one vendor’s story and there are differing situations of every hue to uncover about each market. The point is to know exactly how each of your small businesses are doing, with which shoppers and with which outlets. And to know the demographics of your area to know how you can add shoppers to that group. That takes time and support from your board and vendors.

Data on number of visitors per market, average sale, length of time the average shopper remains at market, # of vendors they visit, and the number of shoppers per anchor vendor for example should be examined by each established market suffering with a slowdown in sales. Some tendency may be revealed, such as an abundance of longtime shoppers who purchase from a small number of vendors first thing in the morning with too few newer shoppers who roam the market later trying an abundance of items. Or, it may be that events that look robust and fun are actually not helping sales but impairing them and should be curtailed during the busy season. Or, products are not displayed with prices and details in all cases, driving away those uncertain about the protocol at a market to find out the information shoppers need. And in some cases, the number of products has decreased, especially in number of new products offered each year. Like it or not, shoppers grow tired of making the same items every night and look for inspiration.

At the state level, the passive approach to the design of direct marketing outlets from some states’ leaders seems an issue. (This seems to be more prevalent in states with a strong farmer/activist core but limited state associations). To increase the chance of success, it seems necessary for leaders to become more involved in exploring and understanding the typology of markets and programs in order to help markets use limited resources extremely efficiently. By doing that work,  they will develop a spectrum of interventions that offer local organizers realistic outcomes for those market types and allow for appropriate and attainable growth to be likely.

Of course, I have great faith in the wisdom and earnestness of the Vermont folks and expect that articles like the one below will keep the conversation going on how to strengthen the fabric of their esteemed direct marketing tapestry.

An excerpt from the story:

What would make things easier? How can we improve? These are questions that farmers market boards and individual vendors grapple with as they reconsider nearly every aspect of the market model. Although many farmers are resigned to markets being less moneymaker and more marketing tool, it would be better if they were both. For the farmers markets of Vermont to be sustainable, and lucrative, most of them will need to change.

Overall, it is the consumers — those who have the least at stake and so much to gain — who have the most power over the fate of farmers markets. Consumers decide whether to show up with cash in hand, ready to shell out for their weekly supply of local goods, or merely hang out eating dumplings or cookies made with nonlocal ingredients. They’re the ones who may not show up when it’s raining … unless there’s a Pokémon to find.

Source: What Works, and Doesn’t, About Farmers Markets? | Food + Drink Features | Seven Days | Vermont’s Independent Voice

 

Embrace Difference to Achieve Health Equity

Health equity is gaining prominence in public conversations about community well-being…

…Every community has its own culture and assets on which to build. These can direct efforts to achieve health equity by addressing the avoidable and unjust social, economic and environmental conditions that lead to health inequities. Active Living By Desig (ALBD) considers Community Context to include the residents, location, history, policies, systems and resources and the interplay of these factors. Those various factors have a unique influence on health in each community and must be understood and accounted for at every stage of the healthy community change process. This includes the selection of strategies and the order in which those strategies are implemented. To support this process, ALBD helps communities tailor their approaches using the Community Action Model as a guide through community change.

Source: Embrace Difference to Achieve Health Equity | Joanne Lee | LinkedIn

Can Hospitals Heal?

Read a great report today by The Democracy Collaborative that should be a must read for all food system organizers. It is vital that markets build their capacity to anchor their food systems, and hospital partnerships have evolved tremendously to assist with that. Hospitals can offer space for campus and other  market types, fund incentivizing healthy eating, change their purchasing to offer farmers another sales outlet, conduct research with markets, offer trained health professionals to assist with strategy and outreach and much more.

More on the campus market: this is one of the early types that came from Market Umbrella’s trans•act work; I have continued to use it as a framework when working with new market partners. I think campus markets can work in more cases, but the governance, products and partnerships have to be aligned closely to the goals of the market: So in this example, since the shopping population is usually drawn entirely from inside the campus,there may be a natural ceiling on sales for the vendors. Yet, the well designed campus market may find other ways to incentivize or reward these vendors including offering more exclusives on product offerings, rewarding consistent vendors with reduced fees, putting them first in line for institutional purchases, offering a pre-sold market box to campus members to bolster sales or even allowing those vendors to access the services for free on the day they come to sell at market!

The market may even hire its manager from the campus and should include campus market champions (using Kaiser-Permanente’s early language) on their board. Since the shopping base is more or less a controlled population, projects could focus more on sharing information for the campus and creating a welcoming and attractive respite or reward of hospital work or appointments.

 

The University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute found that over 40 percent of the factors that contribute to the length and quality of life are social and economic; another 30 percent are health behaviors, directly shaped by socio-economic factors; and another 10 percent are related to the physical environment where we live and make day to day choices—again inextricably linked to social and economic realities. Just 10 to 20 percent of what creates health is related to access to care, and the quality of the services received.

Some call this new approach to health “the anchor mission,” meaning that a hospital not only provides charitable and philanthropic support for the community, but begins to re-orient its institutional business practices to benefit the place in which it is based.

Big Data and Little Farmers Markets, Part 3

I used these examples in Part 2 of this series, but wanted to use them again for this post. To review:

Market A (which runs on Saturday morning downtown) is asked by its city to participate in a traffic planning project that will offer recommendations for car-free weekend days in the city center. The city will also review the requirement for parking lots in every new downtown development and possibly recalibrate where parking meters are located. To do this, the city will add driving strips to the areas around the market to count the cars and will monitor the meters and parking lot uses over the weekend. The market is being asked for its farmers to track their driving for all trips to the city and ask shoppers to do Dot Surveys on their driving experiences to the market on the weekend. Public transportation use will be gathered by university students.

Market B is partnering with an agricultural organization and other environmental organizations to measure the level of knowledge and awareness about farming in the greater metropolitan area. For one summer month, the market and other organizations will ask their supporters and farmers to use the hashtag #Junefarminfo on social media to share any news about markets, farm visits, gardening data or any other seasonal agricultural news.

Market C is working with its Main Street stores to understand shopping patterns by gathering data on average sales for credit and debit users. The Chamber of Commerce will also set up observation stations at key intersections to monitor Main Street shopper behavior such as where they congregate.

Market D has a grant with a health care corporation to offer incentives and will ask those voucher users to track their personal health care stats and their purchase and consumption of fresh foods. The users will get digital tools such as cameras to record their meals, voice recorders to record their children’s opinions about the menus (to upload on an online log) with their health stats such as BP, exercise regimen. That data will be compared to the larger Census population.

So all those ideas show how markets and their partners might be able to begin to use the world of Big Data. In those examples, one can see how the market benefits from having data that is (mostly) collected without a lot of work on the market’s part and yet is useful for them and for the larger community that the market also serves.

However, one of the best ways that markets can benefit from Big Data is slightly closer to home and even more useful to the stability and growth of the market itself. That is: to analyze and map the networks that markets foster and maintain, which is also known as network theory.
Network theory is a relatively new science that rose to prominence in the 1980s and 1990s and is about exploring and defining the relationships that a person or a community has and how, through their influence, their behavior is altered. What’s especially exciting about this work is that it combines many disciplines from mathematics to economics to social sciences.

A social network perspective can mean that data about relationships between the individuals can be as useful as the data about individuals themselves. Some people talk about this work in terms of strong ties and weak ties. Strong ties are the close relationships that we use with greater frequency and offer support and weak ties are those acquaintances who offer new information and connect us to other networks. The key is that in order to really understand a network, it is important to analyze the behavior of any member of the network in relation to other members action. This has a lot to do with incentives, which is obviously something markets have a lot of interest in.

From the book Networks, Crowds, and Markets: Reasoning about a Highly Connected World. By David Easley and Jon Kleinberg. Cambridge University Press, 2010. Complete preprint on-line at http://www.cs.cornell.edu/home/kleinber/networks-book/

From the book Networks, Crowds, and Markets: Reasoning about a Highly Connected World.
By David Easley and Jon Kleinberg. Cambridge University Press, 2010.
Complete preprint on-line at http://www.cs.cornell.edu/home/kleinber/networks-book/

From the foodsystemsnetwork.org website

From the foodsystemsnetwork.org website

network analysis

network analysis

I could go on and on about different theories and updates and critiques on these ideas, but the point to make here is this is science that is so very useful to the type of networks that food systems are propagating. Almost all of the work that farmers markets do rely on network theory without directly ascribing to it.

Think about a typical market day: a market could map each vendors booth to understand what people come to each table, using Dot Surveys or intercept surveys. That data could assist the vendor and the market. The market will benefit in knowing which are the anchor vendors of the market, which vendors constantly attract new shoppers, which vendors share shoppers etc. The market could also find out who among their shoppers bring information and ideas into the market and who carrries them out to the larger world from the market. All of this data would be mapped visually and would allow the market to be strategic with its efforts, connecting the appropriate type of shoppers to the vendors, expanding the product list for the shoppers likely to purchase new goods and so on.

Network theory would be quite beneficial to markets in their work to expand the reach to benefit program users and in the use of incentives. Since these market pilots began around 2005/2006, it has been a struggle to understand how to create a regular, return user of markets among those who have many barriers to adding this style of health and civic engagement. Those early markets created campaigns designed to offer the multiple and unique benefits of markets as a reason for benefit program shoppers to spend their few dollars there. Those markets also worked to reduce the barriers whenever possible by working with agencies on providing shuttles, offering activities for children while shopping, and adding non-traditional hours and locations for markets. Those efforts in New York, Arizona, California, Maryland, Massachusetts and Louisiana (among others) were positive but the early results were very small, attracting only a few of the shoppers desired. When the outcomes were analyzed by those organizations, it seemed that a few issues were cropping up again and again:
1. The agency that distributed the news of these market programs didn’t understand markets or did not have a relationship of trust with their clients that encouraged introduction of new ideas or acceptance of advice in changing their habits.
2. The market itself was not ready to welcome new benefit program shoppers- too few items were available or the market was not always welcoming to new shoppers who required extra steps and new payment systems.
3. Targeting the right group of “early adopters” among the large benefit program shopping base was impossible to decipher.
4. Some barriers remained and were too large for markets alone to address (lack of transportation or distance for example).
4. Finding the time for staff to do all of that work.

Over time, markets did their best to address these concerns, which has led to the expansion of these systems into every state and a combined impact in the millions for SNAP purchases at markets alone. The cash incentives assisted a great deal, especially with #2 and #4. However, this work would be made so much easier and the impact so much larger if network theory was applied.
Consider:
Market A is going to add a centralized card processing system and has funds to offer a cash incentive. But how to spend it? And how to prepare the market for the program?

If the market joined forces with a public health agency and a social science research team from a nearby university, it might begin by mapping the networks in that market to understand the strong and weak ties it contains as well as the structural holes in its network. It might find out that its vendors attract few new shoppers regularly or that the market’s staff is not connected to many outside actors in the larger network, thereby reducing the chance for information to flow.
It might also see that younger shoppers are not coming to the market and therefore conclude that focusing its efforts on attracting older benefit program shoppers (especially at first) might be a strategic move. If the market has a great many low-income shoppers using FMNP coupons already, the mapping of those shoppers may offer much data about how the market supports benefit program shoppers already and how it might expand with an audience already at market
The public health agency might do the same mapping for the agencies that are meant to offer the news of the market’s program. That mapping might find certain agencies or centers are better at introducing new ideas or have a population that is aligned already with the market’s demographic and therefore likely to feel welcomed.

As for incentives, what markets and their partners routinely tell me is more money is not always the answer. Not knowing what is expected from the use of the incentives or how to reach the best audience for that incentive is exhausting them or at least, puzzling them.
If markets knew their networks and knew where the holes were, they could use their incentive dollars much more efficiently and run their markets without burning out their staff or partners.
They might offer different incentives for their different locations, based on the barriers or offerings for each location. (They may also offer incentives to their vendors to test out new crops.)
If connectors are seen in large numbers in a market, then a “bring a friend” incentive might be offered, or if the mapping shows a large number of families entering the system in that area, then an incentive for a family level shopping experience may be useful.
One of the most important hypotheses that markets should use in their incentive strategy is how can they create a regular shopper through the use of the incentive. Of course, it is not the only hypothesis for a market; a large flagship market might identify their role as introducing new shoppers to their markets every month and use their funds to do just that. But for many markets with limited staff and small populations in and around the market, a never-ending cycle of new shoppers coming in for a few months and then not returning may not be the most efficient way to spend those dollars or their time. So this is also where network theory could be helpful.
By asking those using their EBT card to tell in detail where and how they heard about the program and by also tracking the number of visits they have after their introduction, we could begin to see which introductions work the best. Or by asking a small group of new EBT shoppers to be members of a long-term shopping focus group to track what happens during their visit (how many vendors they purchase from and how long they stay) and after (see Market D example at the top), we could learn about what EBT shoppers in that area value in their market experience. We may also find out that the market has few long-term return shoppers from the EBT population or we may find out that connectors become easy to spot and therefore they can be rewarded when sharing information on the market’s behalf.
In all of these cases, it will be easier for the staff to know what to do and when to do it if they understand their networks both in and around the market.
And of course, mapping the larger food systems around the markets’ systems would be exciting and could move policy issues to action sooner and allow funding to be increased for initiatives to fill the holes found.

However markets do it, what seems necessary is to know specifically who is using markets and how and why they decided to begin to use them and to whom those folks are connected. Network theory can be the best and widest use of the world of Big Data, especially to accomplish what Farmers Market Coalition has set as their call to action: that markets are for everyone.

Some reading, if you are interested:

http://www.foodsystemnetworks.org

The Tipping Point

http://www.cs.cornell.edu/home/kleinber/networks-book/networks-book-ch03.pdf

http://www.sciencemag.org/content/301/5634/827.full.pdf

http://melander335.wdfiles.com/local–files/reading-history/kadushin.pdf

Washington Ag Today talks about farmers markets

These are excellent audio snippets from Colleen Donovan, Washington Small Farms Program Research Coordinator at WSU about some benefits of farmers markets.

Community Impact of Farmers Markets

These are so well crafted that anyone could embed them into their website to show the impact of markets and market farmers, no matter where they are located.

What is most useful about Washington’s work is that it uses the context of organizational capacity to gauge if and how those multiple benefits are being forwarded to shoppers, farmers and the larger community. For reports that offer data without explaining that a volunteer-led effort managed it or that markets are often doing complex projects with part-time labor, I recommend to them that they consider adding it to any future analysis or funder report. The Farmers Market Metrics work we are doing at FMC and University of Wisconsin right now will add that piece into any resources or templates that we design, I promise you that!
In any case, associations in Washington and Michigan are truly the leaders right now in doing excellent analysis and resource development and then spending time sharing as well. (And if it was up to me, I’d give Illinois the rising new star award.)
Colleen did a webinar with FMC in fall of 2013 on the results of this report which is found on FMC’s YouTube site. Yes that is me (talking too low) introducing Colleen:
Link to YT recorded webinar