Farmers Markets Need Support to Collect and Use Data

For the past year and a half, I have been attempting to wrangle the last seven years of FMC’s technical assistance around market evaluation (and the last 18 for me) into some sort of timeline and “lessons learned” to present to researchers and partners interested in farmers markets and data.

The process of writing a peer-reviewed paper was new to me and my fellow authors and the entire FMC team soldiered on with me as best they could, cheering me on and adding much needed perspective and edits at different points of the process. After a year and a half of drafting and reviewing, we released the article linked below through the skill of the JAFSCD team, but also because of the support of the USDA/AMS team. I think it should be said as often as possible that the AMS team is firmly dedicated to assisting farmers markets with whatever trends that arise, and in developing programs at USDA that reflect the current conditions of markets in order to increase their ability to support family farmers and harvesters. The evaluation work is just one example of how they have watched developments and offered support where they thought applicable.
The reason for FMC to put effort into this type of academic article is to make sure that researchers see the opportunity to have market operators be part of the process around what data is collected via markets and market vendors, and how it is used. It certainly doesn’t mean that we think that all of the work to collect and clean the data should be shouldered by the markets only or that using the data is their work alone. I hope that is clear in this paper. But we DO think that market work is increasingly focused around managers and vendors making data-driven decisions, and so the way the market team spends its time and how well it analyzes and shares data also has to evolve. That isn’t our choice; that is the result of the world taking a larger interest in regional food and farming, as well as the constant pressure from the retail food sector. Many in that latter group want to cash in on the trust and authenticity we value without holding the same accountability to producers that we have. We have to fight that, and doing it with data is the best way.

Finally, we think there is still much to know about the barriers to embedding data systems for grassroots markets; this paper only covers what we have learned since 2011 and up to the beginning of 2018. Much more is constantly being learned and will be reflected in the TA we offer markets and their partners.

Please email me with comments and questions about the paper and its findings.



FMC press release: December 18, 2018 – Collecting data at farmers markets is not a new endeavor. But until recently, the data was largely collected and used by researchers, often to understand the role farmers markets play in the broader food system. Over the last seven years, the Farmers Market Coalition (FMC) – a national nonprofit dedicated to strengthening farmers markets – has partnered with research institutions and market organizations to better understand how market organizations have begun to collect and use data.

While until recently it was rare for market organizations to participate in the collection of their own market-level data, more and more markets have reached out to FMC over the last decade for data collection technical assistance. In 2011, the organization began to identify common characteristics and impacts of market programs, and realized more research into evaluation resources and tools that could be used easily by understaffed market operators was needed.

In a new article published in the Journal of Agriculture, Food Systems, and Community Development (JAFSCD), FMC outlines the industry need behind creating the Farmers Market Metrics (Metrics) program, and a timeline of the steps and partnerships that led to the creation of the tool, as well as best practices uncovered during its development.

Key recommendations include:

Create assigned roles for the market’s data collection team, and choose training materials that set expectations for seasonal staff, volunteers, and interns to maximize time and efficiency.
Prioritize staff support to allow market leaders more time to oversee data collection.
Gain vendors’ trust in the program for sharing and storing sensitive data.
Patience and support from funders and network leaders for each market’s level of capacity and comfort with data collection.
More assistance from funders and network leaders in helping markets select metrics to collect, as well as advancing data collection training for market staff.
The use of tools such as the USDA’s Local Foods Economic Toolkit, coupled with consistent support from academic partners, will encourage market leaders to delve more deeply into economic data and to feel more confident sharing results.

“FMC’s efforts to craft a suitable set of resources and a data management system for high-functioning but low-capacity market organizations has helped many stakeholders understand and share the many positive impacts their partner markets are making,” said FMC Senior Advisor and article author Darlene Wolnik. “But our analysis concludes that there is still foundational work to be done by those stakeholders to aid these organizations in collecting and using data.”

Wolnik continued, “The good news is that market-level data collection yields important information that markets can use to improve operations, share with researchers, communicate impacts to stakeholders, advocate for and promote vendors, and more.”


Can the lexicon of local make a global impact? Book review by Stacy Miller


You may want to check out the Journal of Agriculture, Food Systems, and Community Development’s (JAFSCD) “Book Nook”, which contains in-depth reviews of current books on food systems. The link at the end of this post directs you to a review of a new book on the language of sustainability: Local: The New Face of Food and Farming in America, by Douglas Gayeton. The review is by Stacy Miller, who many readers will know as the Farmers Market Coalition’s founding Executive Director. Stacy is now working as an independent consultant and as a FMC Program Advisor and also spends some of her time valiantly untangling my words by serving as an editor or by offering some spot analysis for many of the reports that I am doing for markets and their advocates.

Finding the appropriate bright and brave words to describe the energetic nature of a farmers market as well as the larger food system work happening is something we both think about in this work that we do and she probably had to think about daily as the FMC director. I can remember a day in her kitchen when we wrote down and discussed lots of words to describe what became the skeleton of the Farmers Market Metrics project at FMC and how we had to leave it unfinished when I left town a day later, promising to return to it. We did, and still do good-naturedly debate (alongside our colleagues at FMC and University of Wisconsin) for and against the use of different words and definitions within that metrics work.
So, to expand her thinking to this lovely book on the entire realm of sustainability language in our farming and food world seems mighty appropriate. Here are a few of my favorite passages from her review, linked below:

“The idea that language is fundamental to social movements is nothing new. The power to bestow names on objects, people, places, and philosophies is undervalued, so we hardly notice when it gets abused. Noam Chomsky famously observed that
destructive paradigms thrive because they impose on people “the feeling that they really are incompetent to deal with complex and important issues: they’d better leave it to the captain” (Chomsky,1987, p. 42).”

“I give a lot of credit to a former film director who can find a compelling poster child for, and condense the complexities of, expansive terms like economies of community (see Figure 1), soil food web, GMO, or traceability.”

“The hypothesis behind the Lexicon of​ ​ Sustainability is compelling… We tune​ ​out vocabulary we don’t understand, avoid dialogue ​ ​or questions that make us feel ill-informed or​ ​hopeless, and thereby enable a cycle of peripheral ​ ​awareness that looks dangerously like apathy. And​ ​the corporate food monopolies take advantage of ​ ​this whenever they can — on packaging, in advertising,​ ​and in lobbying efforts designed to “protect ​ ​us” from too much information.”

I will pass this review to many of my colleagues and will also get this book based on her review and pass that around too. What better can be said?

Agripedians Wanted for Food System Wiki

(For subscribers of the Journal of Agriculture, Food Systems, and Community Development and/or as a member of AgDevONLINE):

The local food movement is growing dramatically, and with it is emerging new lingo and jargon. The Food System Wiki — a collaboration of the Department of Urban and Regional Planning at the University of Wisconsin Madison and the Journal of Agriculture, Food Systems, and Community Development — is designed as a user-friendly and evolving repository of food system lexicon. This is a place where you can contribute new words and definitions, show how the terms are used, and fine-tune those of existing words.

There are several dozen agripedians contributing currently to the Food System Wiki. We would like to see greater participation from nutritionists, community development professionals, Extension agents, faculty, students, public officials, agency representatives, and, of course, farmers and food entrepreneurs.

Please join in the project! SIGNING UP to use the Food System Wiki is easy. After approval, follow the simple instructions to get started. Start by being a member of JAFSCD:

call for 2 papers- JAFSCD

(1) Higher Education and Food Systems (deadline: Dec. 1, 2011)

A growing number of colleges and universities are making serious efforts to increase their ecological sustainability through conscious change in very specific aspects of teaching, research, operations, and public engagement. In addition to adopting practices such as LEED certified construction, green cleaning supplies, and sustainability education programming, many are focusing specifically on food- and agriculture-related sustainability issues, including developing local food procurement for their student food services, adopting composting and other food waste management practices, establishing demonstration farms, gardens and CSAs, supporting student food and agriculture groups, and programming in support of public engagement in food and agricultural policy. Many institutions of higher learning now offer food-related courses and academic programs.

Furthermore, the topic of food systems is increasingly found across a broad range of social sciences course curricula and is no longer solely in the arena of agricultural colleges. Progressive colleges and universities are not only in a position to graduate students as who are well informed about the issues and prepared to be food citizens, but also to model reasoned investigation and informed public discussion of issues — and therefore to influence public policy in other aspects of society and the economy.

In this special topic call we invite researchers, administrators, graduate students, NGO staff members, and others to submit manuscripts featuring results of surveys, case studies, policy analyses, review articles, reflective essays, commentaries, and the like in which they examine the ways colleges and universities are pursuing their food system sustainability goals and the extent to which they are finding success.

Examples of topics include:

Survey of campus sustainability coordinators related to best practices in food system–related activities
Focus group of food service directors
Census of student farms and gardens
Survey of student organizations to inventory and assess student-led programs and activities
Comparative analysis of food system curriculum within and across disciplines or institutions
Innovations in programming by institutions of higher education, including private and community colleges in addition to land grant colleges
Comparison of institutional use of local food
Employment prospects for graduates of food system sustainability programs
Analysis of trends in tenure-track positions and funded research
Analysis of food systems education and the liberal arts
The role of higher education social networks related to food and agriculture
Case studies of university-based local food system projects or community-university partnerships
Analysis of food system education curricula and course syllabi

See more details and printable flyers at JAFSCD’s calls for papers.

(2) Sustainable Livelihoods in Food Systems (deadline: February 15, 2012)

Members of the Ojibwe indigenous community harvesting wild rice.While industrialization and globalization of the food system continue to lead to declining numbers of midsized farms and more low-wage employment, emerging regional food systems appear to be creating some new occupational opportunities, including the emergence of green-collar sustainable occupations such as farmer trainers, farm managers, agriculture teaching positions certifiers, and consultants. At the core of regional food system growth, family farms are engaging in producing new crops and cultivating techniques that are entrepreneurial and high risk. Indeed, economics continue to challenge the viability of even the most progressive operation. From a public policy perspective, the growth of sustainable livelihoods in the food system will require fair prices and competitive markets for farmers, fair wages for workers, safe working conditions, and a well-trained workforce.

(Photo: Members of the Ojibwe indigenous community in northern Minnesota harvest wild rice (manoomin) in the traditional manner; learn more at Photo copyright 2007 by Duncan Hilchey.)

JAFSCD welcomes submissions on a wide range of food system livelihood topics that will inform thinking and practice related to regional food system trends, issues, and public policy. We seek reports of qualitative and quantitative studies, review articles, reflective essays, and commentaries. We encourage submission which focus on Sustainable Livelihoods Approaches (SLA), drawing on diverse disciplinary perspectives and bridging divides, particularly between the natural and social sciences.

Topics of interest might include:

Application of SLA in smallholder farming and local food systems in the Global North and South
Local food livelihood development as a strategy for improved food security
SLA for exploring livelihood options and strategies of different actors within food systems
Emerging or declining farm- and food-related occupations
New skills required in emerging food systems (e.g., line workers in farm-to-school programs)
Occupational data trends and issues in emerging food systems
Small-scale food processing livelihoods
Farmer self-exploitation
Farm worker trends and issues (e.g., regarding migrant labor, guest workers, apprentices, etc.)
Barriers and effective paths for farm workers to become farm owners
Trends and issues for independent grocers and other food retailers
Studies of innovations in microenterprise, entrepreneurship, and occupational education programming
Food, health, and new products and enterprises
Changes to subsistence practices due to globalization
Analysis of foundation, public, and private-sector investment in food systems businesses
Analysis of policies promoting and/or discouraging emerging systems and their implications and effects on local occupations, economics, and health
Emerging livelihoods in sustainable livestock production

See more details and printable flyers at JAFSCD’s calls for papers.