Mythbusting farmers markets

Myth 1: Markets (and by relationship all of community food) is only concerned with cozying up to the converted.

Myth 2: Markets encourage high prices for their items.

Myth 3: Markets are all the same.

But the largest myth about the farmers market movement spread by its detractors is that it is just about selling trendy food. Yet if selling food when trending had been the only aim then availability would artificially be kept limited, possibly even sold only by special invitation only or through bidding.

Instead, the farmers market movement has remained devoted to multi-faceted goals of building community involvement through remaining casually inviting, locally relevant, expanding the offerings and those accessing them each and every decade. The history of our movement makes that clear. And debunks all of those myths.

(•The history of the eras I am referring to has been written up by me many times before, and so not to annoy my long-time readers, I have put it to the bottom of this post.)

 

In the most recent era unfolding now, networks and cities interest in their markets has grown and deepened. Leaders are more comfortable with engaging with their farmers markets in terms of collecting and using data around wealth creation and creative output. Cities such as Pittsburgh PA, Austin TX, Minneapolis MN and Hernando MS, among others, are leading the way in partnering with their markets as both a platform for establishing grassroots metrics and for expanding awareness of the ecological perils of relying only on imports.

The last 45+ years show the intentionality and versatility of the market field and skewers the myths of any single origin. It also shows the effort to reach beyond food to include other assets and assorted civic leaders interested in building a new town square. And that market leaders are firm in the choice that design of the market should remain nimble by keeping most open-air or with easily-managed and low-cost infrastructure. That last point often frustrates city leaders or funders. That begets another myth, one where the market is not a serious mechanism for economic activity because of many markets’ use of secondary space, temporary structures and a refusal to go into storefront mode. The truth we need to share is that for grassroots initiatives expending time and money on infrastructure can solve some problems, but can also create others. So it is up to markets to find ways to show their serious intention to stick around without always resorting to brick and mortar. And when they do, to plan carefully and to allow for changes and other users of the same space.

Of course, there are other myths that need to be addressed in food system work. Scaling up, uniformity, efficiency are some others.

I’ll leave it to our dean of place, Wendell Berry, to take on some of those through a passage from his recent essay, “The Thoughts of Limits in a Prodigal Age” where he talks about capacity, scale, and form in agrarianism. He says: “It is a formidable paradox that in order to achieve the sort of limitless we have begun to call ‘sustainability’… strict limits must be observed. Enduring structures of household and family life, or the life of a community or the life of a country, cannot be formed except within limits. We must not outdistance local knowledge and affection, or the capacities of local persons to pay attention to the details only by which we can do good to one another. Within limits, we can think of rightness of scale. When the scale is right, we can imagine completeness of form.”

That triptych of capacity, scale and form has appeared on this blog before and will again because it so perfectly describes both the problem and the solution. It also encapsulates why the dominant paradigm cannot “see” us or work in tandem with us. It also beautifully describes the localness of organizing that markets know well. Those limits are exactly how our market founders staked a necessary place in their community and now can manage the outcomes of their projects or mission with respect to that place. So remember: Don’t hide the hard work your organization has done that is embedded in the decisions of location, products, procedures, and the goals of your market.  It’ll help bust some of those myths.

 

 

 

(history of market eras)

  • 1970s-1980s: Back-to-land farmers and ecological advocates begin markets. Their organizing principle is “Grow it to sell it” -a provocative statement at the time by the way- asking for a steady commitment up front from both the growers and the buyers to act honorably and collectively. These markets opened in places (interestingly, in a lot of university towns ) such as Madison WI, Carrboro NC, Athens OH, Berkeley CA, Montpelier VT.

    1990s: Community leaders, aware of those first growers-only markets, begin to open markets as holders of civic space adding a “learn together”/social cohesion motif to the grow it to sell it mandate. Places including San Francisco, Seattle, New Orleans, Portland, Cleveland, District of Columbia were the recipient of this round of foundings. Interestingly, many of these leaders also became the founders of larger networks, including Farmers Market Coalition.

    1990s-2000s: Main Street markets in smaller towns and in rural communities add markets to their revival initiatives in towns like Ocean Springs MS, Natchitoches LA, and Durham NC. These markets encouraged value-added items and new non-farm vendors, focusing on incubating new businesses and supporting nearby Main Street initiatives.

    2000s: As technology advanced to allow at-risk populations to access markets with their EBT card, public health strategies became useful and the field of practioners and agencies in that field began to partner with and sponsor new markets to expand good food by getting markets in new places and adding public health incentives. One network that must be commended is Kaiser-Permanente’s markets on their own hospital campuses and markets such as Crossroads Farmers Market in Takoma Park MD.

    2000s: Deeply embedded, longtime organizers add food initiatives to their portfolio of activities, utilizing the community assets of residents and responding to their requests for markets. Markets in and around central Brooklyn NY like Brooklyn Rescue Mission, East New York Farm and the ReFresh and Sankofa Markets in New Orleans learn from earlier markets using the market mechanism to offer residents the opportunity to be both the buyers and the vendors.

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Why Not Chef Markets Next?

My post is after the italicized market announcement.

—————————————————————-

The Minneapolis’ Linden Hills Farmers Market season begins on June 1st and continues every Sunday through October. We are piloting a brand new chef-driven farmers’ market model, offering both retail and wholesale sales on the same day and in the same location. We are the only market that offers these opportunities.
Our thinking. Our regional model of farmers markets primarily serve as entertainment venues. While wonderful in their own right, these types of markets create audiences and not customers. We believe we can change that!
To explain. As a point of helping local farmers and local food entrepreneurs find real profitability – we will skip the standard offering of non-food related arts, crafts and live music. AND return to why farmers’ markets started in the first place – as a location for both local food growers and food entrepreneurs to sell direct to retail customers and wholesale buyers.
Who we are looking for. Our market is seeking local farmers growing unique varieties AND local food entrepreneurs cooking up artisanal foods. We are especially interested in those vendors able to price their products for both the wholesale and retail markets, and produce enough to sell at both markets.
When: From June to October. Every Sunday, Rain or Shine. From 7AM to 1PM.
Where: At the Settegren Ace Hardware Parking Lot, in the heart of lovely Linden Hills in Minneapolis, MN.
What we offer.
  • A combined wholesale (7AM to 9AM) and retail (9AM – 1PM) market in one.
  • Currently, there is no other farmers’ market opportunity for vendors selling directly to both retail and wholesale buyers on the same day and in the same location.
  • A mission and focus on the transfer of local produce and local food products for purposes of sales, with virtually no arts, crafts and musical diversions throughout the day.
  • Fair pricing for farmers and food producers. There is no requirement to commit to an entire season. Rent a stall for a day, meet a few chefs and our neighbors and diversify your customer base — simple as that.
Who we communicate our vendors’ line up of products and produce with:  Our remarkable community of neighborhood buyers. Along with, chefs; such as those affiliated with restaurants, catering companies and food trucks. Restaurant and institutional food procurement specialists; such as those responsible for buying for three or more restaurants or institutions. Grocery departmen > t buyers; from Whole Foods to mom+pop neighborhood stores. Distribution center buyers; including CPW, J & J and Bix. And more!
What we need. 
  • Help us get the word out. Refer this post to folks you think might be interested.
  • Vend with us, for a day, a month or for the entire season.
  • Connect with us on Facebook and Twitter and follow our progress!
  • Come as a visitor, come as a buyer — or both.
Contact us to receive an application and to learn more about this new type of  market. I am available at libertywyrum at gmail.com. <

How wonderful to see an idea that I have been advocating for come to life. As regular readers of this blog know, as well as those who have sat through my presentations, I do believe that we can do a great deal more with the types of open air farmers markets than we have accomplished so far. Markets for chefs and other intermediate buyers could be one of the next iterations for some market organizations, using the same transparent values and strong criteria to serve the public good, just as this group is clearly doing.

Here is what I advocated for a few years ago: a market on a Tuesday morning, selling to family table shoppers first, then closing and reopening an hour later to intermediate buyers. (I do not believe the former will be thrilled to be left with the leftovers after procurers leave or to look at food for their table that has already been out for a few hours.) The later chef market would be by case/box only and only for those farmers that wanted to stay and sell that way..I might also allow one or two distributors of regional foods to set up (clearly defined and not allowed to sell some premium goods that are offered by the local growers) to ensure a true more complete procurement experience. Direct sales between buyers and sellers would still be the purpose. I might also set up a a centralized billing system to help small growers and charge a percentage if they wanted to utilize that service for a short time. (The market organizer didn’t seem to like this idea and viewed this as micro-management, which I had not meant it to be. I saw it as a chance for smaller growers that have not built their interior invoicing systems to benefit from assistance where needed. I have worked with a great many small family farms at farmers markets that have not yet begun to look at back office systems yet, but clearly this organizer has had a different experience-acknowledged.)

I will say that their dismissal of “entertainment” at markets seems a little off, as at times the social bonding at markets is as important as economic transactions. In some types of markets, collecting the largest number of economic transactions is key for the majority of members, and for others it is not the chief reason for attendance.* I might believe the issue of entertainment as a contributing factor of less produce sales if I saw examples of surveys of current markets lower sales corresponding with entertainment activity levels, with variables accounted for. I wonder if what this group has actually noticed is that the percentage of goods that are brought by growers is lower at these markets and suspect that means less sales of healthy food; it might, or it might not!
If that is the case, a correction could be made by creating a new market with less frenetic social activity and restricting non-food or festival goods, yet serving the same community. After all, some of their targeted shoppers no doubt enjoy some level of conviviality in markets. In other words, I might not throw the baby out with the bath water. ( The market organizer sent comments of their intention on doing well-defined events that drive interest and awareness of food, which is absolutely right. Glad to get more information!)
I am also a little surprised at this: “Rent a stall for a day, meet a few chefs and our neighbors and diversify your customer base — simple as that.” I do think regular activity is key to an open air market; regular buyers will spend more money once relationships are established, and I suspect that they will have a hard time keeping out resellers if they allow the coming and going of vendors without any restrictions. (The market organizer seemed to feel strongly that I have this wrong, and I may; My experience tells me it will be tricky but I am all for seeing a pilot that can prove me wrong!)

In any case, the idea of understanding and expanding market types is a good one. I certainly wish this group good luck.

*Economic activity IS a chief reason for all markets-don’t get me wrong- but there are examples of market vendors choosing less busy markets where the total is still below what they might make in a larger market; some small businesses do not thrive under copious amounts of competition. Or, of people who walk to their neighborhood market to see their friends and to buy lunch  or garden plants, but not to shop every time for the week’s produce- you might see this in a market that operates 3-4 times a week especially. In all cases, behavior change is the common goal.