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.

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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.