FMC Collaborates with the University of Virginia to Host First Ever Course on Farmers Market Research

Posted by Jen O'Brien on June 11, 2012
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Since the beginning of this year, the Farmers Market Coalition has been working with instructors at the University of Virginia to plan the syllabus, reading, and assignments, of a ten day course devoted to teaching students about farmers market research. Between May 29th and June 8th, this work came to fruition, with speakers coming in to town from all over the country, students turning in practical assignments, and inspiring conversations about the complexity of applied data gathering and analysis in farmers markets and local food systems.  The course, PLAC 5500: Farmers Markets and Applied Food Systems Research, was held at UVA’s Morven Farm in Charlottesville, Virginia.

On May 30th, Stacy Miller was the first guest lecturer of the course, providing an important background on farmers markets from a historical and policy perspective. FMC members Elizabeth Borst, (Spotsylvania Farmers Market), Leanne DuBois (Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services), and Libbey Oliver (Williamsburg Farmers Market) spoke on May 31st about their experiences with SNAP EBT and the newly developing Virginia Farmers Market Association.

Cecile Gorham and Kathy Kildea, leaders of FMC member Market Central, discuss their educational services as a Friends of the Market organization to University of Virginia Students during a field day devoted to observational research at the Charlottesville City Market on June 2nd.

“Our students were able to hear from market managers, farmers, government researchers, and national leaders in the farmers market movement,” says Paul Freedman, a professor in the Politics Department at UVA and one of two professors of the Morven course. “These speakers helped bring the readings to life and helped us to examine markets from local, state, and national perspectives.”

The course focused on giving students practical experience in gathering data in hopes of being able to apply these skills to further study of farmers markets inside and out of Virginia. The students attended Charlottesville’s City Market on Saturday June 2ndto gain first-hand experience collecting observational data on vendors, products, management, and visitors.

Course instructors Paul Freedman and Tanya Denkla Cobb worked with marketumbrella.org and FMC to create a worksheet of observation questions that would give students opportunities to witness important characteristics of farmers markets. This involved observation of early morning set up, all the way to break down, when bartering, gleaning, and reconciling of vendor fees takes place. “This gave students the opportunity to experience first hand that markets don’t just happen,” says Carla Jones, the Teaching Assistant for the course. “A lot of preparation and planning takes place to make these incredible public spaces happen and the students’ observations were the first step to understanding how markets function and how evaluation is needed to help them flourish.”  collecting some data on their own, students then debriefed the following Monday with Richard McCarthy from marketumbrella.org, who  presented on the importance of measuring the economic, human, and social impacts of markets and techniques that his organization has developed over the last ten years, including the Sticky Economy Evaluation Device (SEED). “The tantalizing mixture of Morven’s tactile and theoretical research meant that for the students the farmers markets’  triple bottom-line became three-dimensional,” says McCarthy, “Among the lessons I learned is that until we point it out to newcomers the very structure of farmers markets is lost on the casual observer. The multiple check-out lines at farmers markets triggers different types of consumer behavior and requires different types of measurement.”

Richard McCarthy of marketumbrella.org conducts a role-playing exercise for students to explain and defend the impacts of market activity to a skeptical mayoral office advisor.

On June 5th, the Farmers Market Coalition then had another direct role as Darlene Wolnik, Market Programs Advisor, presented the evolving set of a la carte indicators one might use at a local level to  measure various impacts depending on the community context. Bernie Prince, FMC’s President, wowed students with an hour presentation on the role of data collection as a data management and marketing tool for FRESHFARM Markets in Washington, DC.  Students were then led into a case study exercise in which groups were assigned a fictional market scenario for which they were to identify stakeholders, indicators in need of measurement, and strategies for communicating their analysis.

June 6th featured presentations by researchers Adam Diamond and Ed Ragland of the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service, who discussed national local food and farmers market research, and some of the challenges of collecting data from such a dynamic and rapidly-evolving sector.

 

As a final project, students were asked to identify a farmers market with a research challenge, develop a data collection and communication strategy, and present it orally to the class.

As a community collaborator in this innovative and interdisciplinary course, FMC and Virginia farmers markets in particular will benefit from the projects they undertake with their new knowledge and skills.

Darlene Wolnik presented on the evolving set of farmers market measurement indicators and students chose specific indicators to present for their case study markets on June 5th.

“The Morven Summer Institute was especially fortunate to be able to collaborate with the Farmers Market Coalition in designing and teaching the course, and is thankful to the UVA Office of University Community Partnerships for helping to support the collaboration,” says Paul Freedman.

Students having completed the Morven Summer Institute course are eligible to apply for an internship with the Virginia Farmers Market Association, where they will have the opportunity to put these farmers market research techniques they’ve learned and discussed into action.  “It’s been a joy to work with the team at University of Virginia,” says Stacy Miller. “I know FMC looks forward to opportunities to take this pilot coursework to the next level, and bringing in other collaborators to help lead the national discussion on farmers market evaluation.”

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