Defining ‘Farmers Market’ – The Devil is in the Details

Posted by Stacy on July 14, 2010

By Brigitte Moran

In May 2010, the Farmers Market Coalition Board of Directors approved a definition of “farmers market” in an effort to clarify what is an authentic farmers market. I don’t aspire to be a contrarian, and so it is only with the permission and encouragement of Sharon Yeago, FMC’s Board President, and Stacy Miller, Executive Director, that I share my thoughts on “What Makes a Farmers Market? Farmers Market Coalition Takes Stance.”

One too many produce markets and grocery store chains have jumped on the marketing band wagon, capitalizing on growing consumer enthusiasm for local food, direct from farmers. Safeway’s ears must have been burning in Kirkland, Washington as farmers market advocates from across the country convened by conference call to discuss why Safeway was opening up tents in their parking lots, moving their produce department out into these tents and calling it a “Farmer Market”. The term “farmers market” has become so ubiquitous that its integrity has been compromised, especially in the eyes of the farmer and the discerning customer.

After vibrant discussion, the FMC Board homed in on the following definition:

A farmers market operates multiple times per year and is organized for the purpose of facilitating personal connections that create mutual benefits for local farmers, shoppers and communities. To fulfill that objective farmers markets define the term local, regularly communicate that definition to the public, and implement rules/guidelines of operation that ensure that the farmers market consists principally of farms selling directly to the public products that the farms have produced.

At last, something we could all agree on. That is, except one pivotal/slippery word: principally.

I find myself campaigning for strength and clarity on behalf of farmers who should not have to compete with resellers at a “Farmers Market”.

I believe that FMC has a unique opportunity, as the national voice for farmers markets, to define a farmers market as what the general public believes it is – a place where produce is only sold by genuine farmers directly to the customer.

One may argue that as a nation we’re not there yet. I hear the rebuttal –  you’re so privileged to live in California with its abundance of farmers and year-round growing seasons. Yes, absolutely, Californians are extremely fortunate and I have the utmost respect for a locavore in the middle of a New England winter. But I can assure you, 20 years ago our farmers markets did not boast the diverse abundance that we celebrate today. It took time and an even playing field, created by state law– one that ensured that farmers were competing against farmers, not brokers or resellers.

If we aspire to have only farmers at farmers markets, the impressive count of nearly 6,000 farmers markets in the United States will surely drop. That doesn’t mean markets close; it just means that they’re honest, and willing to call a spade a spade. A produce market verses a farmers market.  We owe this to the eaters of America, as our perceived authenticity has been one of our industry’s virtues that they have found most refreshing. As far as whether a farmers market sells locally prepared foods and/or locally made art, that discussion is for another day. For today, let’s save the farmers.

Farmers markets were not intended to support produce markets, or grocery stores, nor were they designed to support produce resellers.  If we expect to maintain the trust of our values-driven customers, if we aspire to educate the general public about the value of supporting local farms and eating fresh seasonal food, if we hope to affect change as an industry, we must be transparent about who we are.

Brigitte Moran is a Farmers Market Coalition Board Member and Executive Director of Agricultural Institute of Marin, formerly Marin Farmers Markets, a 501(c)3 non-profit which runs nine farmers markets in the Bay Area (five in Marin County, three in Alameda County, and one in San Francisco), including the 27 year old Marin Farmers Markets at the Marin Civic Center. AIM’s mission is to educate the public about the nutritional and economic benefits of buying locally grown food directly from farmers, and to connect and support communities and agriculture.