Drive-thru farmers market report for 4/05/2020, New Orleans LA

 

Today my local farmers markets reopened as strictly drive-thru. No question that it was a great success in terms of the order levels (reported by vendors as I motored through) and the appreciation from shoppers. In addition, the staff looked MUCH more relaxed than they did with their once-only, timed entry, open-air market pilot that happened in mid March.

Our Baton Rouge-based Red Stick Farmers Markets are doing drive-thru markets as well, but slightly differently, as it is not entirely pre-order. Keep an eye on the BREADA website to see what Copper Alvarez and her team come up with next.

CCFMED at entranceDrive Thru

Executive Director Kate Parker at entrance of today’s market

For some background:

The Crescent City Farmers Market in New Orleans LA is normally held in parking lots around the city 6-7 times per week year round (one or two locations have been seasonal, and one recently closed for good, but they are almost always running 6 markets or more per week.) This entity’s parent organization, Market Umbrella,  has long been known for their innovative work to increase access and provide support to regional farmers and small businesses.

The CCFM vendors are almost all only direct-to-consumer businesses with a smidgen of side-door restaurant sales, although most of the chefs around town simply come to the market and buy what they need. From my experience as Deputy Director 2001-2011 this is because most of the vendors are not able to do delivery or even invoice sales because they are so small, so understaffed, or so far away. After all, this is a commodity-driven region that has mostly resisted building support for DTC farmers. And yes, the Deep South does seem to be even worse than most areas across the US.  So even in good times, its pretty rough for these farmers and businesses to find resources or support to pivot or to do multiple types of channels.

The market organization decided that walk up markets would not work for them for the duration of this emergency, for many reasons I am sure. I believe that each organization gets to decide exactly how they will handle this moment. Of course, this aligns with my long-held market TA response about which rules a new market should adopt: I answer (probably maddeningly) “use those rules that are understandable to your team, to your vendors, and to your shoppers and stakeholders. After all, you need to defend them and explain why you have them.”  So the same thing goes for this moment too. And all of that market context around rules has to co-exist within the rules (if they exist) set by your local municipality, county, and/or state.  As I’ve discussed elsewhere, for markets our usual go-to agency is agriculture, which  in this case has been mostly unable to do much to help us, as this is not a food-borne virus.  Instead, it’s been public health or disease control making the decisions,  agencies which often have less awareness or fewer partnerships with  open-air farmers markets and so less understanding of our protocols.

So that’s number one. Do what is best for your organization and your vendors. Just be transparent with your shoppers and stakeholders exactly WHAT that decision is and HOW it was made.

Next, how to order: First, it’s important to share that this very sophisticated, well-advised, well-staffed organization attempted an preorder app a few years back and it was not a success, so they shelved it.   After they closed their walk-in market a few weeks back, they instead began by partnering on a box program with a 3rd party entity where the local items are pre-selected and can be paid for with SNAP or other cards. It costs 40.00 and is also available for delivery. I have only seen a few pics and it looked a little light to me, but that just may be how the pictures have been taken. I think many regular and new market shoppers are perfectly fine with this box, but it seems that many others were not and that many of their vendors were unwilling or unable to sell this way. I am one of those unwilling to do a preorder box and instead I reached out to those vendors I usually purchase from and made arrangements with them whenever possible. I also took advantage of some of these other non-market choices below:

  1. A couple of market vendors began working with local chefs to sell a box directly from only one farm at their restaurant:PocheFMboxesApril
  2. Another version has been coffeehouses et al adding local produce to their long list of items they will pack up as a preorder. My local heroes here are Good Karma Cafe because they offer coffee, tea, their tinctures, their prepared items, and are selling the produce without asking any fees from those farmers. They need the local goods themselves for their prepared items, and they feel they benefit by adding customers who want a little local produce. And they truly believe in the quality of locally grown items. There are others around town doing something similar from what I am hearing.
  3. The local news featured a farm which usually sells only to restaurants selling boxes to walk ups outside one of those shuttered places. Not sure yet how that is working but it seems to be doing well.
  4. We had a few (and I mean a few, maybe 1 or 2)  farm aggregators selling to consumers already running successfully with farmers Kate and Grant Estrade from Laughing Buddha Nursery as the model that everyone else should learn from. (LBN is their longstanding retail nursery shop and their farm is called Local Cooling Farms.) They tell me that demand is way up, and even though a few of their usual farmers are using one of the other above methods and don’t need to sell through LBN as of now, that allowed them to pick up new farmers. And instead of doing their usual 6-7 drop offs at their hub partner sites around town each week, they are selling only at their nursery which has refrigeration and allows them to set up contactless pick up. (This couple should be doing monthly webinars for DTC farmers and maybe, sooner or later, they will have enough time to do just that. I’m a big fan as you can tell.)

Okay, so how well did the drive-thru market work?

At the beginning of this post,  I mentioned the level of vendor sales channel diversity because it matters.  I understand via a quick convo with market staff through face masks that getting this small group of vendors ready for this was a HUGE undertaking, which is no surprise to me. The vendors that agreed to participate were listed on the organization’s website with the items they would have, the cost for each, and the way to order from each individually (phone or text or email) and the manner to pay (Paypal, Venmo, manual card entry over phone, etc.)

CCFM website DriveThru

I say small group because the number of vendors at this market were far fewer than their usual open-air market. I understand that some told the market “I can’t sell enough to do pre-orders, so no thanks.” (And again, every vendor ALSO has the right to decide what works for their business without scorn, but I do believe when they hear how well this went for those this week, more will want to try it. I can tell you that this reticence may be partly based on their experience with a half-dozen 3rd party aggregator projects around town over the last decade which all started up to great acclaim and then all shuttered, often still owing them money.)

Other vendors told the market casually that they would take try it and take orders over the phone not knowing how many people would call in the first few hours! I think part of this rush to order was that news of this drive-thru came to most through the local media- and only a few days before the actual market.  So that type of publicity made it much bigger than it might have been without. (I might suggest that small less-staffed or experienced markets try week one through just reaching out to their email list at first if possible. Maybe ask local writers to hold the story until after week 1 is in the books-that is if the market is confident enough in their list.)

As a result of the great publicity, and the deep attachment to this market with its 25 years of service, vendor voicemail mailboxes were immediately full. And when  vendors called folks back, I’m not sure that each figured out they needed to do it in order of earliest calls to the latest, so it may be that some of those who called earliest lost out. (I think that happened to me with one vendor. And no biggie. I’l get them next week).

Some vendors did texting which seemed to work pretty well but to work it needed to be confirmed and sent to payment immediately. I tried two that were listed as text orders and only one called back. The one who did, did it exactly right- texted me the total, told me their Venmo account and I paid immediately.

Clearly, this requires that there is one person handling orders for each vendor for the open window period.  And that is easier said than done. (I’ll do another post on vendors soon with some feedback I received. Let me just say that the few I had time to answer me were very positive on this as a short-term solution during this pandemic but clearly exhausted from the added work. One vendor told me on camera he came close to his usual Saturday market in terms of the number of sales. He had 92 preorders, and he estimated that he usually gets 120 or so transactions over 4 hours at the Saturday market  but thinks he didn’t meet or exceed his usual Saturday only because “his system wasn’t ready for this.” And he promised he will get better at it. I’d also suggest that the anecdotal data from markets across the US seems to indicate that the average sale is higher than the normal market in present circumstances. Likely because people buy more, and we are also hearing that meat vendors are doing tremendously well.)

Location

In terms of where to hold this market and when, the organization had some (I assume informal) help from City Hall. Most of their current locations were not going to work as a drive through; sadly, one of their best locations has had too many cases of Covid-19 at the assisted living place that is situated on the same property to hold this there.  City Hall employee and engineer Jennifer Ruley, who has been working on safe street programs for almost 20 years stepped up; she personifies what I wrote last month about finding partners for this moment. She and the Market Umbrella E.D. Kate Parker were well acquainted from neighborhood work that both have been doing for decades. The team chose the parking lot of the most popular and community-minded po-boy* shop in town, which has been closed for the duration and is right next to the new multi-use greenway that MU wanted to use but was not available because of other uses. Jen met with market staff and Parkway owners on Saturday to think through traffic design. See their map below.

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Lafitte Street is under construction as part of the Greenway, and has houses on only one side. It has 6-7 side streets that dead end into this street and two major avenues on either end.

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Orange was entrance, green was exit.

All in all, I’d say that it worked beautifully – up to a point. The early problem that I saw was that a few folks came down the side streets and poked in the line which, honestly, most of those already in line let go and didn’t get all screamy on them; after all, why? their order was already made. And really, most shoppers politely went to the end of the line without urging.

The other traffic issue that can be easily corrected next time was that the police should have closed the street off to all other traffic. Folks were turning on to the street unaware of the market, meaning to simply drive somewhere and often got caught up in the crawl. Additionally, the street should have been made only one way towards the market for these hours, and all shoppers directed to the far end avenue (Broad) to turn on to Lafitte. Again, all easily fixed for next time.

Yet this location seems like it is going to top out around 16-18 vendors and so the question becomes does CCFM add another location while keeping this one for the duration for that number of vendors, or just go find one big spot for all of their drive thru markets and vendors?  Seems like some of the vendors feel like 2 locations a week may max their ability to take orders and to take those, but they may feel differently as time goes on. If they add a second location what would the criteria be? My guess is easy access from main streets and from many parts of town, large parking lot with a fence or barricade around it to maintain safety and keep pedestrians out, in or near zip codes where there is density of drivers/shoppers, a well known location, vendor restroom access, and a partner/host to help.

Once in line, one CCFM staffer came down, said a cheerful hello and explained how it would work, and asked shoppers to get their trunks open before entering. Another staffer wrote the shoppers name on a piece of paper that was then stuck on the outside of the window so vendors could see the names and get their orders up.

 

The shopper drove in, made the circle with vendors checking your name and putting your orders in the truck. The last would close it.

I understand they figured out how to do some SNAP sales, but as I didn’t bother them any longer than I had to so I’ll have to get more info later. One way this may work is for those shoppers to have their pre-orders total written out, separated by  vendor and swipe their card for the total as they arrive and attach the paid receipt on the window for each vendor to see it was paid. Or have them place the orders as everyone else does, and the vendors to pack those and hand them to the market org before the bell rings to process on the machine in another line.

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CCFM tent at entrance/exit which (maybe) could still process SNAP?

a few issues:

Long market

Took longer than the 4 hours it was scheduled. There were timespans with long lines and then timespans with very short ones, so staggering the arrival next time may help.

There were too many vendors without PPE at all, no gloves or masks. All CCFM staff were equipped and had their market t-shirt on to make clear who they were, led by their E.D. who again, was out there at the entrance checking on everything. I am SURE that CCFM strongly suggested that vendors equip themselves but clearly too many had not paid much attention or could not find any.  One idea that I will float via my own social media  is for fervent CCFM shoppers to purchase cloth masks made by locals for their favorite vendors, and maybe get them a pair or cleaning gloves to wear if nothing else.  Since no money is changing hands, there is little need for dexterity.  I am sure that many of your shoppers would be happy to help get masks made and could possibly get gloves and sanitizer for your vendors too. (Update: within 15 minutes of me posting it, local people are getting masks made for these vendors! Update #2: NOLa folks made almost 200 masks for farmers which I have given to Baton Rouge, New Orleans, and Covington farmers markets.)

Big purchasers versus small. Some cars were stopping at every vendor and some only were picking up one or two items.  (It may work to stagger those by the number of vendor pickups one has, so that those with fewer transactions come later. Still to do that would require a LOT more work for the organization and it simply may not matter when vendors get better at this.)

How to check orders. Vendors were madly looking through page after page of orders, which didn’t seem to be in alphabetical order. (It might be helpful for the market organization to offer a simple spreadsheet that they can use for their orders and/or then print them out for everyone in order.It might also help for the organization to also have shoppers – when they arrive – list the market location number of each vendors who they had an order with, so if vendor #4 isn’t marked, vendor #4 doesn’t need to look through their list.)

Impact on the neighborhood. This needs to part of the measurement for any market: the positive and the negative impact on that area. Too often, markets only measure economic impact- which should always be measured – but also should also view the effect of noise, cars, trash, and other impacts on that area. These neighbors, without warning, had a line of cars belching exhaust into their houses for a few hours at a time when the weather is so beautiful that every window is probably open. It may help to stagger shoppers by time, to add another market day in another area, or to simply ask folks to turn their car off and let the police move clusters of cars at a time. I’ll find out more about how many cars came through but it sounded like the line was down to only a block long after an hour or so.

CCFM line in first hourDrive Thru

Costs. The design did require more staff than a regular market day and clearly a lot more planning was required. It did require police which I would assume will have to be reimbursed.  And the fees per vendor are assessed at a flat rate in this organization;  as the numbers of vendors were lower than they would normally be during this extremely busy market season**, they will have less income there. I will say that the partnership with Parkway Bakery’s free lot was inspired because they also came and helped, AND gave each car a free bag with a roast beef po-boy, local chips and water. And they have a very well-tended lot.

ParkwayGift

local chips, roast beef po-boy, branded memo pad, paper hat,  and a water bottle.

 

All in all, I hope these vendors and this staff sleep well tonight, knowing they have pulled off an extremely delicate and complicated market day. And that we deeply thank them.

I’ll let a shopper give the last word with what he told me after he picked up his items:

“It is a blessing, no matter how long it takes.”

AngelinaCCFM

Director of Markets Angelina Harrison watching it all.

 

 

**We’re in the middle of berry, lettuce, and just beginning tomato season and the weather is great in March and April here, usually low humidity and little rain which is holding true this year.

 

 

2019 data collection strategies-South Champlain Islands and Capital City Farmers Markets – Part 1

Checking out different ways that markets collect and use data is one of my chief duties in developing evaluation tools over the past 20 years. And since part-time at FMC, I have also contracted directly with some markets and networks, mostly on data collection strategies, which also informs my FMC duties.
One of those delightful synergies can be illustrated through my long time relationship with Northeast Organic Farming Association- Vermont (NOFA-VT). For the last few years, I have worked on an FMPP-funded project under the supervision of NOFA-VT’s Direct Marketing Coordinator, Erin Buckwalter. This project will aid in building a culture of data collection at Vermont’s farmers markets and has included resource development, evaluation strategies for all market types, and direct technical assistance and training. Because of this, I added a second annual trip besides my usual winter conference attendance.  And luckily for me, it was scheduled for the mid-summer rather than the usual winter trip, which, although very lovely, is somewhat limiting for this Southerner and has meant few market visits.

Erin suggested that we create a team of market managers, agency leaders, and market volunteers to gather data for markets in August. The goals were multiple:
1. model good data collection habits
2. network markets interested in data collection
3. test out some methods for different types of markets
4. look for opportunities for needed resource development on evaluation
5. see more markets and make a direct connection with market leaders
6. collect some data!

She sent out an email to a few markets to nominate themselves. Obviously we needed to be able to do them in a short span of days, the successful applicants needed to have a use for the data, and they would have to have some capacity to assist the team.

We ended up with 2 excellent choices: Champlain Islands Farmers Market – South Hero, held Wednesday afternoons 3-6 pm, and Capitol City Farmers Market (Montpelier) held 9-1 pm Saturdays.

They were wonderful choices because they were so very different, and because they have enthusiastic leadership that are very interested in the data and learning more about collecting it.

Champlain Islands Farmers Market – South Hero
is one of those organizations that operate markets 2 days a week in 2 different locations. As such, it means the two are actually quite different in terms of vendors, products, programs, and visitors.
The Wednesday market is held behind a church and its location was partly chosen to take advantage of the visitors who are on that part of the island before they turn to the ferry. It has around 16 vendors, offering a wide variety of what is needed by seasonal visitors who will be cooking in their vacation kitchens and what permanent residents need for their table. Because the site is offered by a third party, sharing data on the positive impacts of this location is always helpful, as is analyzing the functionality of the site. Cindy Walcott, Market Chair/Treasurer and Julia Small (market manager) were gracious hosts, giving a lot of assistance to our team.

The team:
Erin
me
Dave Kaczynski , Montpelier FM board member, VTFMA board member
Sherry Maher, Brattleboro Winter mkt leader, and NOFA-VT’s lead for in-state data collection strategies on this project
Janice Baldwin also from the Brattleboro Winter Market
Alissa Matthews, VT Agency of Agriculture, Food, and Markets (VAAFM)
Anisa​ Balagam​, the new market manager of the Winooski Farmers Market​.​

This market organization has collected data previously and has devised an almost fool-proof way to count their visitors. Since the parking is routed from the main road via a narrow drive to a graveled area, they can position someone at the beginning of the drive, counting every car and the number of adults inside. Additionally, it also allows the market to collect the license plate state which is extremely important as Cindy says that the attendance for this weekday market usually about 50% Vermonters.

Using their counting sheet, two of us went to the vantage point to gather the count. Cindy has also downloaded a counting app on her smart phone, having set it up previously to capture the same detailed data, but we decided to go paper.

Cindy gives us an overview of the counting method the market uses.

The rest of us would gather surveys from the visitors, and since we had a good crew size, could team folks up and also allow them to take breaks to shop and eat.
They had a tent and tables for our use, and we decided to put it in the location where we could best capture folks on their way out. Deciding if the team will survey folks coming in or out is one of the decisions the collection supervisor needs to make before or on the day of – with input from the team.

Whether you do it on the way in or out has a lot to do with the shopping behavior

-are people frantic about missing items that quickly sell out? they will be less interested in doing the survey on the way in.

-are people loaded down with bags and have a long way to go to their parking? they may be less interested in offering data on the way out, although having tables and a tent to put their items down does help!

-and if you are asking intent on learning about their purchases that day, it may be better to wait until the end of the shopping trip. – However, if you have a small market with a lot of regular weekly shoppers, it may be okay to do it as they come in as the amount spent may not vary as much week to week for those shoppers.

We began the day with a group logistical meeting: introductions, and discussing who would be where and how to get breaks when needed. Depending on the group, a quick round of role plays with the survey sheet may also helpful. Cindy gave us the likely attendance number (which decides how many surveys to collect), and the type of shoppers this market usually experiences. My responsibility as the Data Collection Coordinator was simple for this market (and was a very different job for our Saturday market visit at Capital City – more on that in Part 2) but even when it is simple, the Coordinator should be constantly rotating, collecting completed sheets to make sure things look right, re-assigning folks when necessary, and generally seeing what else can be done (and if possible, doing data collection too.)
The crew was eager and because it was a group of market leaders was great at problem-solving, very willing to engage with shoppers, and able to gracefully steer “I don’t know” answers to a specific amount or answer.

market map

The market had originally had us next to the Land Trust info booth, but after a short discussion, the team decided that moving our tent to a spot closer to where we estimated the path to leaving the market would be was better for us. Dave also suggested that we move the picnic table into our tent for folks to sit or to place their bags, and since the day began rainy,  Julia thought it fine to do just that.
The survey collection went great as everyone was very willing to stop and answer questions. I find that the majority of people (90-95%) are always very open to this, especially if the opening line is something like “Can you spare a minute to help the market?”  It has almost always been true on the farmers market data collection teams that I have worked that surveyors constantly exceed the collection goals set for them because they find it easier and more fun than they originally expected. Sometimes it is harder to get them to slow down, which can be necessary to make sure that a comparable number of surveys are collected in each hour.Making it fun for the surveyor and not taxing to the respondent are other reasons that the survey should be well designed and as short as possible!

I must say for this experience of having every person we asked say yes AND people making a beeline for us to take the survey before we approached them was delightful, and is a credit to the excellent pre-market communication that the market had with this community and also makes it clear that the community understands that this is a data-driven market.
Well done Champlain Island Farmers Markets!

More later on the data that was collected, once it has been cleaned and organized by the market organization and NOFA-VT. We did exceed our goal for the number of surveys that the team and the market agreed it wanted to collect. For most markets, collecting 10-15% of the usual attendees will be a good number, but there are ways to calculate that further.

Anissa uses the tent

Erin does the first survey

Data collection and time for sharing and general conversations too

 

Part 2

Jeff Chiplis, Tremont Placemaker

During my extended visit to NE Ohio this summer, I have visited many markets, some farms and also met some excellent people thinking about their place constantly. Here is one of them.

Parking my truck on Jefferson after turning off Professor, I was lost in thought for a minute about the changes I was seeing in my old neighborhood of Tremont. Not that closed up storefronts or broken sidewalks should remain, but the saturation of shiny and new crowding this tiny corner of Cleveland was troubling. (For those who are unfamiliar with Cleveland or this part of it, Tremont is right next to what was the industrial Flats, and as such, had gone through some tough times in the latter part of the 20th century. Since the late 1990s however, its proximity to downtown and the city’s eagerness to think of the future as largely post-industrial in terms of infrastructure has meant this area has been transformed almost completely into an apartment and entertainment district.)

As I looked up from my musings, I noticed a healthy fig tree peeking over a beautiful, clearly handmade stone wall. I crossed the street to see it more closely and said aloud, ‘oh look at these figs! How lovely!”

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A voice amid the greenery said, “please help yourself.” I looked over and saw a smiling face working on wall repairs just a few feet away. I carefully selected a few ripe figs and walked over to meet my benefactor.

Jeff Chiplis has lived on this corner with his wife Cynthia since 1980, and has seen a parade of people, ideas and development, across the spectrum of good to bad to ridiculous and back again.  As an internationally known artist working with recycled neon signs, he believes in adaptation. So when he mirrors the best and protests the worst of developers’ and municipal whims in his work and yard, it should be noted by the powers that be.

For example, the utter lack of interest in reusing what was already here and the crowding of overly tall and architecturally bland buildings onto each redeveloped lot is clearly a source of frustration with Jeff.  That wall that the fig tree reclines on is an example of how he honors the past while offering his neighbors beautifully framed access to the green space he owns. His dad and he originally built it, using discarded bricks and stones. Regular repair work is necessary because vandals push over the top stones or pull the flat stones to bash against the sidewalk. As we chatted, he finished his small repair job, carefully scraping the rest of the mortar from his bucket, then offering me a tour which I gratefully accepted.

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The figs and grapes line the sidewalk next to the small house “painted Superman blue” he offers (assuming I understand the Cleveland connection; I do) allowing anyone to feast as they go by.  While there, I notice one 20-something ignores the bounty as she passes by twice with her large dog and smart phone at eye level.

Walking up the driveway between the Superman house and the larger brick one, he stops in his ground level studio to drop off the brickwork tools and to offer me a flyer from one of his latest installations around the city. The studio is floor to ceiling full of odds and ends, but somehow one can see that it is set up well for his use and offers comfort for anyone invited to stand among the signs, tools and materials.

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As we walk the garden, I see that is organized the same way. The garden beds are bordered with found and made art, and plants are allowed to define their space as they see fit during growing season.  Still, well-tended space is prominent between the areas of plantings and large trees on this corner lot.

The Harry Lauder’s walking stick tree was marvelous but unfortunately, was ailing while I was there:IMG_1287.JPG

although allowing him to adorn other borders with its cast-offs:

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Greens were doing well alongside flowering plants.

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Raspberries and currants overshot rusty fences and repurposed rebar:

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This berry was replanted from his parent’s garden.

The burr oak was not only resplendent in the middle of the yard, but allowed him to place this frame that another artist had no more use for once the art piece had been completed. So Jeff found another use for it and slipped it over the much smaller oak clearly just in time:

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The horseradish was added for no particular culinary reason but turned out to be a good neighbor to the other plants, anchoring this corner:

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I could have easily stayed longer. I almost did, but felt I needed to let him finish what is likely a long list of tasks in the studio and garden and home and neighborhood.

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Just in time, that fig tree reminded me that resident’s homes like the Chiplis’ place are as necessary and as important as markets and community gardens in serving their communities.

Visit to Hub City

I just returned from a trip across the South, traveling from Louisiana through Mississippi, Alabama,  Georgia to South Carolina. Spartanburg was my destination, allowing me to experience the lovely Hub City Farmers Market community there. I’ll leave most of the detail for those who brung me (my inelegant way of saying I’ll keep it for the report) but a few pics may offer a quick snapshot of its hardworking and dedicated market community supported by the lovely intentions of its stakeholders and everyone’s practical knowledge and patience for how to make it so.

In town after town, I am reminded of how much has actually already been accomplished by the food and farming community and how much more we  hope to accomplish. Kudos Hub City.

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The lovely Harvest Park in the Northside neighborhood of Spartanburg home to the Saturday HCFM, The Urban Farm and the Monarch Cafe and Butterfly Foundation.

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HCFM’s Urban Farm was alive and flourishing with a wide selection of items under HCFM staffer Meg’s care.

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HCFM poster in the Little Coffeeshop next to the non-profit Hub City Bookshop

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The Writers Project at the HCFM is producing an impressive set of titles on the area including an upcoming partnership with the market and Monarch Cafe to benefit all.

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A corner of the Hub City Bookshop, a non-profit space that has accomplished a great deal in just over two decades.

Up next: New Orleans, Vermont, Massachusetts

Over the last ten years, my travel schedule has remained pretty constant in the late winter and spring: a.k.a. farmers market/agricultural conference season. Sometimes it means that I am leaving New Orleans during Carnival season, (or my fav festival event) the Tennessee Williams Literary Festival or just at the loveliest time of year. Still, I am honored to be invited to participate in so many market development workshops and say yes to as many as I can manage.

This year my conference travel has taken me to North Carolina, Atlanta and Illinois and next up are three meetings, two in places I know and love, and one new to me:

New Orleans: AFRI-funded “Indicators for Impact” project team/market pilot sites meeting.

Vermont: NOFA-VT Farmers Market meeting

Massachusetts: Mass Farmers Markets meeting

• In New Orleans, I will serve as the host team member and support the FMC team in presentations, facilitating open discussion among participating markets and in absorbing those markets feedback on their first year of gathering and compiling data. This University of Wisconsin-led research is informing the development of Farmers Market Metrics.

• In Vermont, I return for the 5th or 6th year to support my colleague Erin Buckwalter in her work at NOFA-VT to build capacity for direct marketing outlets and to support VFMA. I’ll be presenting some retail anthropology techniques for markets to consider when refreshing their markets. Sounds like I’ll also be called on to facilitate a open session on EBT issues, which should be helpful to the Center for Agriculture and Food Systems at the Vermont Law School (CAFS). The students are leading the design of a Legal Market Toolkit along with project partners NOFA-VT and FMC. Exciting stuff coming out of this project, I promise.

• Final stop of the season is to one of the most established state associations and to work with one of the longest serving state leaders, Jeff Cole. I remember well that in the formation days of Farmers Market Coalition, our Market Umbrella E.D. always came back from those meetings with great respect for Jeff’s input. Since then, I have called on him to offer analysis in some of my projects (shout out to some of my other informal advisor mainstays: Stacy Miller, Amy Crone, Sarah Blacklin, Ben Burkett, Colleen Donovan, Copper Alvarez, Kelly Verel, Suzanne Briggs, Helena St. Jacques, Richard McCarthy, Beth Knorr, Leslie Schaller, Jean Hamilton, Paul Freedman, Devona Sherwood  along with a whole bunch of others..)   Jeff has asked me to do an overview on market measurement history (RMA, SEED, PPS audits) and recent evolutions like FM Tracks, Demonstrating Value, and of course Farmers Market Metrics.

So, keep yourself busy on other blogs while I sit in meetings, learning and sharing for the next few weeks. And if you are attending any of these meetings, please say hello and share your news or ideas with me. Maybe it’ll be the next best practice that I post on my return to these pages.

 

 

 

Drilling down into what solutions are right for you

One of my “side” jobs (meaning outside of being FMC’s Senior Research Associate some hours per week) is working as an independent consultant with individual markets and with networks or state associations on their projects. Often, this comes through FMPP funding or through another grant meant to increase capacity for that market.

This past weekend I went and worked with one of those projects. The board of the market took 3 hours from their off-season Saturday to discuss the strategies they have for increasing their capacity. This funded project (I’ll let them decide if they want to name themselves in this post) has 3 parts: to create a paid position for a market manager and to increase vendor and customer participation.

So to assist them with that thinking, one of the tasks was to lead them in an exercise that they will continue in the next few weeks on their own to decide what and why and how they want to do.

The exercise called Abstract Laddering is one of the human-centered design exercises that I saw and tested at a training in Pittsburgh a few years back, thanks to Knight Foundation funding given to FMC. The training was designed and led by the folks at Luma Institute and if you can convince a funder to pay for your way, I promise it is worth it. The course is offered in different cities and is an engaging and practical course.  Additionally, they offer their materials for purchase which are easy to use, even for a novice. This is similar to the Ideo firm whose work I have followed for some time and also offers their materials which I have read and employed on my own. They actually offer their courses online for much less than Luma but not having taken them, I cannot vouch for the training.

Human-centered design is an excellent way for markets to strategize and to include more people in the decision making. At Luma, the tools they work with are in 3 stages: “Looking, Understanding and Making” and each of those stages has a set of exercises to choose from which allows for dozens of different combinations. The main point to make about this type of design is that it is meant to be iterative, which in design means to allow constant input to alter the course of design and even to go back to square one if the design is not working for people who will use the solution.

The Abstract Laddering exercise is mean to help “reconsider a problem statement by broadening and/or narrowing its focus.”

Markets write lofty goals that are often quite broad into their grants.  This weekend, we focused on one of those: “to expand product variety and amount” which is a typical market goal. However, there are many things to consider in this goal, including what products, and how to encourage this.

The exercise has you write the problem to the right in the middle of a sheet of paper and draw a ladder on the left extending up and down. The up is Why and the down is How.

It is easy to see that this allows for a communication message to emerge in the How but it also encourages a team to expand their question if necessary. What if the expansion of the product goal requires the market to work on policy changes in their city or state? Or if to encourage their vendors to increase their products means resource development for product development is necessary?

The other way allows a team to narrow the focus of the problem  through open discussion. What kind of products? Immediately a board member asked if everyone thought this meant fruits and vegetables only or should they consider valued added or even producer crafts. That question is exactly why this exercise can be helpful.

Using post it notes, they each wrote and placed their ideas for how and why and once done, had a good start to that goal. I promised to transcribe their sheet and then they may create steps and assignments (WHO does this is also to be considered) for How, and for Why to see the many ways one could see this problem.

This entire exercise took less than 30 minutes and offered the board a simple path to designing a solution to their stated problem. They will continue this for the other stated goals and out of that, find a set of steps for each goal that will work within their current capacity.

And if it turns out that their solutions are not to the scale and pace of their market, why then we have other exercises to do that will help them get there.  After all, my goal is to assist them in creating a system that allows for clear and transparent decision making; human-centered design principles certainly help me in that work.

 

Purpose Defined: Developing a Market Mission

A 2012 webinar that I did for FMC on mission statement development. As we move into deeper design of the Farmers Market Metrics Program, having markets that have their mission written and shared is extremely helpful when embarking on any in-depth evaluation system. Thought it might be helpful to repost.

Mississippi: the last stop of the spring season

The thing about being a market consultant is it has a very specific schedule each year: the spring is packed with calls and invitations to conferences and workshops. Lots of discussion about grant opportunities and best practices.
The summer is spent at at the desk, writing or researching on behalf of those who hire us.
The fall starts to bring more travel, usually more for large-scale (non-market) conferences as well as a scramble for assistance on projects that got sidelined or tangled over the summer.
The winter is when the big ideas are usually discussed, with colleagues asking for an ear or agreeing to read something. Some of those big ideas roll right into spring grant-writing season and the year begins again.
This year my spring travel started in Alabama, then to Oregon and Washington, March in Vermont, two spots in Illinois and this last spring trip was in the Magnolia State, right in my own backyard.
I live part of the time about 40 or so miles from the Mississippi line and of course, as a past manager of a set of markets in the biggest city in the region, I had farmers from Mississippi and from Alabama that came to vend, so I am quite familiar with what is happening there and have some ideas as to what could happen there.
When I was asked to speak again this year by MS Department of Agriculture and Commerce (MDAC), I said yes immediately. Partly because I like the folks at MDAC and partly because in order to have a real food system in my place, it must be regionally organized (which means MS too of course) and we are far from that reality. And of course, because as a national market advocate, I need to see and talk to as many markets as I can. Let me say that MDAC does an amazing job supporting every actor in the food system and any criticism I give about the lack of support should not be construed as being directed at MDAC. They do more with less than most other states I know. And that MDAC is a state agency devoted to the many, not the few; market organizers and community food system initiative leaders need their own champions too.

MDAC asked me to talk about EBT outreach and about measuring markets for whatever number of the 70 or so markets listed in the state showed up. I agreed, even though I knew that the EBT outreach was probably a little too forward of what the group needed, based on the answers to the survey we sent out.
The MS markets are a strange and wonderful hybrid-they have no independent state association of markets, which is typical of most the other Southern states.
The state does have an emerging sustainable ag network, thanks to some local people (Daniel Doyle for one) and the Wallace Center which offered early funding to create the entity.
The state has offered both farmers and markets free SNAP-only machines for the last few years, predating the new FNS marketlink.org farmer terminal system. Many of you know that I am not a fan of these systems being handed off to farmers quite yet, so I do view these hybrid systems with a jaundiced eye.
Some of their markets have a closer relationship to Main Street initiatives than many other states’s markets which means that they are included in larger municipal ideas of revitalization, which can be good and bad for a market. The Main Street movement is more viable in rural communities, using its energy on facade or street improvements and some event planning. So what I find among MS managers are great event planners and city/civic leaders, with a genuine interest in assisting their vendors, but with few ideas how to do just that. The newest trend there is for public health partnerships (of course) with funding increasing there tremendously since MS is usually at the lowest rung of most health stats, with Louisiana constantly battling it for last place. Even so, since many of the markets are quite entrepreneurial and “downtown-focused,” these public health partnerships have not yet found their sweet spot.

And since most of these markets are operating with such low capacity, and no one is advocating for them full-time, they have very little data on what they do well and little experience in analyzing how they did something well. EBT and FMNP for instance-what do they want from these programs? How do markets of 5 to 20 vendors build in capacity to offer a robust benefit program system without any resources or support? Interestingly, a workshop with information about market link and on becoming a SNAP retailer was held in a room at the other end of the center for MS farmers at the exact same time as the managers were in this room. I wish this had not been the case for many reasons, but most of all I have not found that creating silos of information within a system very useful.
As we were in the room, we heard about the successful FINI proposals, one of which is substantial and will involve MS markets. There was excitement, but there was also trepidation among the market organizers. Most of them do not run central EBT systems and so have very little contact with their benefit program shoppers and almost no idea where to find these folks or how to get them to come to their markets.
Adding cash incentives is great, but there has to also be money to build the systems at market and state level to change perceptions of local food and to lift the existing barriers or that money will just act as it was pushed through a sieve.
As I stood inside and outside after my talks, I was peppered with questions, most of which showed the lack of support these markets have:
Where do I find these USDA grants?
How do I get FMNP coupons at my market?
What amount should I raise for an incentive and how should I use it?
Who offers funds for staffing a market?
What is market link?
How do I get funds to advertise?

How do I get more local goods to more people as an organizer?
The agency directors (that serve benefit program shoppers) won’t even talk to me about my market- what should I do?

How can I measure my economic impact?

and this round of questions didn’t even bring up the whole set of issues present everywhere- how do get enough farmers and producers doing well enough to keep this system moving forward? How do we do this with other initiatives breathing down our neck, competing for funding and attention?

The number of new faces at this meeting is similar to many of the other states that I visit regularly and is an indication that we have yet to find a way to offer professional jobs as market managers, instead using the typical revolving door of entry-level work that exhausts producers and means that initiatives never fully engage or sustain; markets are full of pilots but few have moved those pilots to replicable programs with funding streams, experienced staff and policy changes arising from those lessons.
The beautiful thing is that the willingness and enthusiasm among these organizers is always high, even with the many closed doors and the lack of support available to them.
So, I finish my spring conference travel right where I started it: with markets feeling the pressures from partners to offer new programs, with internal communities asking for sustainable growth, with organizers managing this work while they are paid not at all or paid a pittance or doing the equivalent of 2-3 peoples workload. But I also finish it having heard loads of great ideas from organizers and with stories of successful pilots from the last few years that will be expanded or tested again.
So let’s hope that this year that we can move the dial a little bit over the summer and fall with a successful market season and then together can start to build the system we need come winter and spring.

Porch at the auditorium for the mkt meeting at the MS Ag and Forestry Museum

Porch at the auditorium for the mkt meeting at the MS Ag and Forestry Museum

View of MS Sustainable Ag Network's Victory Garden demonstration at the MS Ag Museum

View of MS Sustainable Ag Network’s Victory Garden demonstration at the MS Ag Museum

Still time to register for the Southern Sustainable Agriculture Working Group meeting in Mobile AL, January 14 – 17 2015

unnamedEarly bird registration for the Southern Sustainable Agriculture Working Group is still open for a little bit longer (2 more days) through December 21st. Register online, or download a registration form and get it postmarked no later than Dec 21st for the lowest conference rates. They accept, via mail, checks made payable to Southern SAWG. They accept, via mail and online, VISA, Master Card, American Express and Discover credit cards. Pre-registration continues through midnight on January 7th. After that, registration will be on location in Mobile.

I will be leading two workshops and also moderating an open discussion (information exchange) this year. Find me here:

Information Exchange:
Friday, 10:45 a.m. – Noon

Using EBT, “Double Coupon” and Other Programs at Farmers Markets – Does your market employ the EBT, FMNP, Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentive Program (FINIP) or WIC programs? Do you have a double coupon incentive program for SNAP, WIC or SFNMP? Discuss technology issues and share best practices for implementing these programs at markets.

Workshops:

Saturday, 10:30 a.m. – 12:00 noon
Why Farmers Markets? Learn to Communicate Their Value to Your Community – Making the case for farmers markets to farmers, shoppers and community leaders is crucial for continued community support, yet most markets struggle with this task. Learn how to capture and communicate meaningful measures of your market’s success. Using exercises and worksheets from the Farmers Market Metrics project, this session will give you practical examples of simple and effective data collection techniques that you can use for your market. Darlene Wolnik, Helping Public Markets Grow (LA) and Sarah Blacklin, NC Choices (NC).

Saturday 3:30-5:00 pm
Farmers Markets as Business Incubators: How Market Managers Can Help Improve Their Vendors’ Businesses – Increasingly competitive market outlets for local food means that the top farmers often jump from market to market. This session will offer practical strategies for market managers and board members on identifying and understanding their anchor vendors and their needs, as well as addressing the challenges of retaining new vendors. Darlene Wolnik, Helping Public Markets Grow (LA) and Sarah Blacklin, NC Choices (NC).

2015 Conference Program — Southern Sustainable Agriculture Working Group.

Growing for Market

The link to the excellent Growing For Markets site. In the January 2014 issue, I have an article where I share the latest news on SNAP at farmers markets. GFM is a great magazine for news and tips for market farmers and organizers. You can subscribe at different levels for print or online (which can include their excellent archives) or you can simply purchase a single issue.

Growing For Market

Better Eats for All | Belt Magazine | Dispatches From The Rust Belt

A commentary from yours truly on the food system found in my first hometown of Cleveland Ohio. Whenever I return to it, I am struck by the unusual underpinnings of their food work, being as it is deeply embedded within the community organizing/social justice strategy that is alive and well in many of their neighborhoods, as well as in the larger reality of figuring out what to do with their post-industrial inner core. Combine that with enthusiastic corporate greening, municipal support and the awareness of the need to combat the foreclosure crisis with innovative small business and residential reclamations and you get a dynamic little system coming to maturation there.

Better Eats for All | Belt Magazine | Dispatches From The Rust Belt.

Egads.

This picture is for anyone that believes that we have effectively gotten our message of how farmers markets stand for local and direct across to the other 97% of America. Clearly, we need to keep on defining our message so as not to be co-opted completely. This, by the way, is the Charlotte, NC airport.

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