Communicating community

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

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

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

 

 

• Income and Poverty in Vermont

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

Social Profit

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This is a good primer on how non-profits can up their game by using qualitative assessment “rubrics” to figure out what they do well in terms that non-profits are better off using, rather than just ROI or other limited economic measures. 

Thanks to Erin Buckwalter of NOFA-VT for recommending it (and lending it)  to me.

I’m a big fan of the Whole Measures system that is covered in here and have used it for many years and so was pleased by it being included. I certainly recommend that all food system measurement systems review Whole Measures to see if it can be used by your organization.

As I have covered in other recent posts, I look forward to the day that more non-profits focus on creating leaders and devising better jobs as one of the main measures of success. This book will be helpful to many for thinking through these questions and I’ve already recommended it to two executive directors.  

 

http://www.socialprofithandbook.com/

 

How Morale Changes as a Startup Grows

However, this startup cultural utopia invariably hits a rough patch for about 70% of startups in years three to four, regardless of how happy the team was before. We call this the “cultural chasm.”
In fact, the faster the startup grew, the deeper the cultural chasm was that they had to overcome.

Founders who rate the importance of culture lower than a 10 on a 10-point scale are 70% more likely to have higher employee turnover rates compared to founders that rank the importance of culture a 10.

Link to story

Texas – HB 1926: The Homemade Foods Bill

HB 1926 allows home preparation of previously disallowed foods such as tamales, canned vegetables, fermented foods, and perishable (potentially hazardous) baked goods. Sales would be allowed anywhere in the state, including through mail order and internet sales, as long as the producer and consumer are both in Texas.

Source: Texas – HB 1926: The Homemade Foods Bill – Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund

The four stages of market management

Spoiler alert: The stages correspond exactly to the  four stages of competence:

  • 1. Unconscious incompetence
    The individual does not understand or know how to do something and does not necessarily recognize the deficit. They may deny the usefulness of the skill. The individual must recognize their own incompetence, and the value of the new skill, before moving on to the next stage. The length of time an individual spends in this stage depends on the strength of the stimulus to learn.
  • 2. Conscious incompetence
    Though the individual does not understand or know how to do something, he or she does recognize the deficit, as well as the value of a new skill in addressing the deficit. The making of mistakes can be integral to the learning process at this stage.
  • 3.Conscious competence
    The individual understands or knows how to do something. However, demonstrating the skill or knowledge requires concentration. It may be broken down into steps, and there is heavy conscious involvement in executing the new skill.
  • 4. Unconscious competence
    The individual has had so much practice with a skill that it has become “second nature” and can be performed easily. As a result, the skill can be performed while executing another task. The individual may be able to teach it to others, depending upon how and when it was learned.

I have been thinking about how we can organize the role of market manager to reduce the learning curve, and the fear some managers have of relying on others. We also need to  lessen the numbers who burnout and leave the job just as they reach unconscious competence phase.

My experience (from my human resources corporate training, my own management of markets, supervising market managers and observing them for the last 15 years) is that the market job takes about 16 months to 30 months to move through these 4 stages. The length of time it takes has something to do with “the strength of the stimulus to learn” but since that is usually strong with new market managers, it usually has more to do with the organization’s structure for training and for providing feedback. Of course the way managers learn is changing as millennials move into those jobs which is a matter I’ll tackle in another post.

Market managers are asked to master the most difficult work right away: to confidently manage dynamic logistics for a group of small businesses who are working side-by-side with their direct competition. In far too many cases, there are no manuals, no detailed history recorded or clear written process when dealing with risks or crisis.  Not all managers are offered a performance review or even clear deliverables or goals so they can correct as they learn. (I feel compelled to point out that I find it startling how few non-profits understand that their success is based almost entirely on the skill and labor of its people and how rare it is to find supervisors spending any time becoming more adept at that part of their job. )

So those 18-30 months can be quite stressful and without a clear training plan a negative feedback loop can be created, especially among watchful vendors who are rightfully expecting high productivity.

Often, the most difficult phase is #2 when the community doesn’t view the manager as new any longer and becomes impatient with every mistake- and yet as you can see from this timeline, mistakes are commonplace in the “conscious incompetence” phase. Mistakes are often caused by someone bravely trying something new or testing a varied way to do a task that needs updating. It is a process for learning but one that does need positive correction from the supervisor to okay the adjustment and acknowledge the validity of it as a learning process.

So markets can do a better job preparing the community for a new manager  by allowing the manager to ease in to some of the more difficult tasks, space to make little mistakes and even better, to formalize a system for dealing with risks so there won’t be guesswork. A copy of every market map should be kept, filed and noted with weather, no-shows or risk issues written so new managers can review past years. These are also helpful in cases of slip and falls or property damage suits,as legal proceedings may come much later and the data from that day may very well help your team defend your market and at least remind you what happened and why. Sets of laminated pictures of the market set up, the storage area, the table layout for new managers to know what is desired during set up can also make it easy to have volunteers to take over those duties so the manager can then move on to new tasks.

On the subject of conflicts, is usually a good idea for markets to have an off-site process for any hot button issue, new manager or not:  Disagreement between vendors or about a rule should not be hashed out on market day. Instead,  a temporary solution for that day is all that should be offered.  Have the manager quietly ask those involved if the discussion can happen that next week by phone, in person or via a video conference call if possible. Not only does this allow everyone to simmer down (including the manager) but it also allows some time for the manager to get some input from senior vendors or board members. Most importantly, it sets a tone for future issues.

Other suggestions:

• The new manager should have an hour of weekly reading from the files and by scanning some of the most important articles and magazines on community food while on the clock.

• They should be introduced in ever widening circles to the members of the community – even if they are local – as the manager by board members, anchor vendors and volunteers.

• If a market hires a new seasonal manager annually, it might be helpful to have a market business card with a line for the manager to write in their name, and also allows board members to do the same.

• Asking new managers to keep a journal of the day also helps get them through these early stages. I used to ask my new managers to write me an email on their smart phone even if I had been onsite with them all day. Some of them drafted it all day when they had a minute, and then sent it to me as they got in their vehicle to go home or from their laptop first thing on the next work day from their scribbled notes. That email was broken down into logistics, vendors, shoppers, other and helped them analyze their day.

If systems are put in place and care is taken to help the new manager move through these stages, one can easily gain a market manager loyal to the organization and ready to move to the stage of unconscious competence soon enough.

 

Another idea for the evolution of the market organization to make it more sustainable is outlined in this post from Sustainable Economies Law Center (SELC):

Worker self-directed nonprofits enable staff to organize their labor and compensation in a way that is sufficient and sustainable for them. At SELC, for example, our collective decision to each work only 30 hours per week and only be required to spend 15 of those hours at the office has opened up tremendous possibilities. By choosing when and where we work, we regain a tremendous amount of autonomy over our lives. This flexibility lets us attend community events or be responsive to the needs of our loved ones in ways that a rigid eight-hour day does not.

The reduced workweek shifts our financial calculus as well. Many of us who could use a bit more money accept consulting jobs or engage in entrepreneurship to supplement our incomes. Some staff can use their time to cut down on other expenditures that they would have been forced to incur otherwise, like childcare. And beyond the numbers of it all, many of us feel like the opportunities our flexibility provides are priceless.

This exact arrangement may not be best for all organizations. The essential point to notice is that we (with board oversight) get together as a staff and make decisions about how organize and compensate ourselves in order to make the best use of our organizational resources and provide ourselves with the lives we crave. Ultimately, this care for ourselves feeds back into the organization in the form of low turnover and high commitment. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Props to a seed carrier

….In the heart of the feminine nature of Seed Carriers lives the instinctual calling to be intentionally aware of the essence and influence of every thought and emotion, of each spoken word and action taken. Our personal and collective future – all that comes to be – grows out of our here and now choice-making.

So what do you want to be seeding…
…in your life?
…on the earth?
…for the generations to come?

Copyright © 2011 JoAnne Dodgson


A friend left us this week. True to her life, the news was quietly passed from friend to friend with everyone wishing they could talk with her just once more and could smile at her, thereby passing joy back to her. We were all flabbergasted that she was the one who was taken, as she was a healer with a very strong life force.  But as sherecently said  in her gentle way:

We’re all going to get something.

I don’t have to be the impervious, always healthy Tai Chi teacher.

I am simply a human being.

That illness should not define her – even her passing –  so I won’t focus on it except to say she handled it with courage and grace and love and used it to share her very personal but teachable moment to us all.

Marilyn Yank. That is her name. I always liked her name. It suited her: a bit formal yet graceful with a strong old-world finish.

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Photo by Cheryl Gerber for Gambit

I met Marilyn when she moved to New Orleans with her partner, Anna Maria Signorelli. Anna Maria was a New Orleanian and they moved here partly because all New Orleanians are unhappy when away from here, and partly because Marilyn had taken over the care of her ailing father and the Signorelli family was here to depend on. And the weather was warm and sunny and moist most of the time and the two of them were deeply dedicated to farming the land. Maybe there were other reasons too that I am unaware of that mattered. They had come from Austin where Anna Maria had taken the helm of the Sustainable Food Center after its dynamic founder had moved to policy work. Marilyn was working on the La Cochina Alegre project there and a team was born. I remember Marilyn told me they lived in a tent together while learning sustainable farming in Santa Cruz and once they made it through that, she knew they were partners.

Once back here, Anna Maria was immediately in her element.  I assume that she was like that when they were in Austin too cuz she is a powerhouse especially (as Marilyn always observed) when she has a team around her. Marilyn took it slow, marveling aloud as only she could about the intricacies of life here and her partner’s large Sicilian family’s wonderful togetherness. We met because a mutual friend, the thoughtful Max Elliot for those of you in urban agriculture here, in Austin, or in Shreveport, helped them put together a small group of activists to talk about building a network for food and farming in New Orleans.

We had a few meetings in Marilyn and Anna Maria’s meditation center, AMMA, so named for their combined names and the word for nurse or spiritual mother. We sat cross-legged in a circle and talked about our visions and beliefs and then after a few meetings, a few of us got a little antsy and asked if we could meet in a more active space. I remember Marilyn being fascinated and bemused by the request as her activism was rooted in her quietness and centeredness. Her movement work was also illustrated by a story she told me of the people in an Asian country who had firmly and publicly set the goal that they would become a society totally absent of violence – in 1000 years. The point was that every tiny and personal step they made towards that goal now  was meaningful, and to expect total success in one’s lifetime laughable.

I also remember  when Marilyn asked me to coffee at the fair trade coffeehouse after those first few meetings and said to me with what I came to know was her very direct but gentle way of asking a question: ” I have been wondering about you since we met. Do you mind?”

I did not mind and we bonded. Turns out she was originally from Detroit. I thought I recognized the steel backbone of a fellow rust belter under her beloved Southeastern desert style. Unlike many here, it didn’t really matter where she was from as her presence came from her embrace of the small shared whatever right in front of her – the moment, garden, food item, gesture, idea, linking it easily to the gigantic: her quiet assessment and acceptance of humanity’s and the natural world’s pace.

Her Little Sparrow urban farm was a turning point in the city, both in its description of the vision she had for it right there on the board on front and its urban market box program, the first of its kind around town.  There was an open invitation for people to carefully pluck food from its constant profusion of well-tended food and beauty although she encouraged some wildness to flourish on its edges too. The tropical climate got the best of her at times as a farmer and she was justly impressed by her dear friend Macon’s skill in growing food in this brutal climate, constantly championing  his patience and knowledge as a grower to anyone who would listen. Many growers directly owe their experience to her willingness to share hers as she would always credit her teachers like Macon’s willingness to share theirs.

With a group of around a dozen others (the aforementioned Max as the nucleus), she and Anna Maria built a lasting network of food and farming leaders, myself and Macon included. The work to grow this network of activists took years and could take pages here to recount my personal observations of her and Anna Maria’s resolve to see it happen. Sooner or later, just about everyone else involved in the founding either gave up or moved on to other work, except for Marilyn. She stayed in it as long as she was needed and as long as she thought she had something to offer.  In some form, that entire group owes most of its interconnectedness to Marilyn directly. Most of those founders are still honored colleagues of mine and some are also close friends, but all of us certainly remain fellow travelers who gladly remember those days  when we meet up again. I’d like to thank her again for her dedication to the group and the idea.

Even after I moved away from assisting directly with the work of the New Orleans Food and Farming Network that our little group had realized, she and I reconnected regularly and when we did, her stories were always of a lesson learned or a description of the path of a karmic connection that had been experienced since I had seen her last. Some were very personal and painful. I found that I easily shared more of my deepest thoughts and fears than I did with most others, maybe because of her reciprocity or because of her abilities to see without judgement, or at least to recognize the judgement and to self-correct. Or maybe because she expected kernels of truth and revelation as the unspoken agreement of friendship.

One of the best times I had with her and Anna Maria was recent: during the Louisiana floods of 2016, I wrote them because I knew they had moved to that farming area affected away from the city. She immediately wrote me back, telling me their house and property were indeed in the path of the rising water, so they were in the city until they heard. Would I have dinner with them? I did and we laughed and shared updates and drank glasses of wine and laughed some more. As we parted, the text came from their neighbors that the water had stopped rising only a few inches from the top step of their raised home so they were going to be okay. After sharing their relief, I thought about how they had been totally present and joyful all evening, never seeming to worry about their looming crisis.

As soon as I heard the news this week, I had a strong impulse to go out to a quiet green space and find a dandelion clock to blow its blossoms to the wind.  It struck me as I explored that thought that the dandelion is a flower, but a tough little one, with healing properties carried by the wind to the most unlikely places. Marilyn, you went far and wide and added much nourishment; carry on. I certainly will, using as much empathy and humor as I can muster, in honor of Marilyn.

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Give em a nudge…

I love when artisanal producers find a way to urge shoppers to become more than shoppers. One of the possible metrics that may  be added someday to the Farmers Market Metrics program at Farmers Market Coalition is measuring how market shoppers influence their friends shopping and also how they share ideas and tips about local items with other retail outlets. How many times do market shoppers ask their produce manager to stop carrying out of state items and instead stock locally available items during the seasonal high point? How many shoppers are the carriers of information about market items availability for their neighbors and friends?

My guess is plenty…

The Matzo Project uses that same energy to expand their reach across the US of their wonderful crackers.

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How great would it be if markets offered blank cards to their shoppers so they could leave a note and share news of a market offering with their friends and even a few select retail outlets?