Taking Stock and Finding Purpose

Posted by Liz on January 18, 2012

Stacy Miller, Executive Director

Ask anyone who has ever worked at a fitness center and they will probably tell you that the weeks following January 1st are the busiest, most crowded of the entire year.  At this time, more than any other, men and women alike scramble onto treadmills and the like as if to run to catch up with the vision of their better selves that hovers in the air ahead.

Here at the dawn of 2012, farmers markets have their work cut out for them in the year ahead. We’ve seen exponential growth in a) the number of markets (a 50% increase since 2008, according to the USDA), b) the degree to which they’re open in winter months, and c) the proportion of SNAP benefits that participants are choosing to redeem at farmers markets.  All this throughout what is often called the Great Recession. No doubt, being part of one of the fastest growing parts of food economy (one which, I might add, also builds social and natural wealth) is worth celebrating!

Can the growth in numbers like these be rubber-stamped as a ‘Mission Accomplished,’ allowing us to proudly declare that we’ve achieved success?

Lately, I hear and see reports of farmers markets threatened by relocation as developers and city officials are tempted to seek a “higher value” function (e.g. residential or traditional retail space).   What could be more valuable TO those residents or retailers than a colorful outdoor marketplace that represents, better than anything else, the unique local flavor of a community, and offers a connection to the farmland that makes all other human activities possible?  Well, that all sounds well and good, but when push comes to shove, we need more than lofty rhetoric.

The number of farmers markets cannot be our only indicator of success, especially if we’re not continually trying to expand the customer base to keep pace with such growth.

In Mapping Competition Zones for Vendors and Customers in U.S. Farmers Markets, USDA researchers concluded that densely populated urban areas experience the highest competition both for shoppers and for producers. To me, this is not a sign that farmers markets have “saturated the marketplace,” in those high competition areas, but perhaps a warning.  That warning is this: Even if our markets seem busy, we cannot be complacent with an existing customer base or we fail in our end of the bargain. If we ask our producers to bring an increasingly diverse array of products, we owe it to them to bring an increasingly diverse array of families, individuals, friends and neighbors who are willing to try something for the first time– and come back for more.

This, too, requires creativity, and strategies beyond the somewhat insulated world of social and electronic media. It means having a clear sense of purpose, and goals that our communities can identify and relate to. Do your customers know the name of the organization that operates the market (if it’s not obvious)?  Do they know what the market’s mission is, or do they take its existence for granted like a neighborhood playground, public library, or post office?  Do they know how many volunteers and donated services it takes to make the market possible?

Managing a farmers market is not easy, and it requires a surprisingly diverse skill set, including the willingness to wake up early, rain or shine, and be a smiling face amid periodic chaos. This is meaningful work, but we can’t forget that meaning, or let it fade into an ambiguous halo of goodness that distracts us from the tangible indicators that we’re making progress.

A singular attention to one ratio, in this case the increase in the number of farmers markets per year, is misleading.  It is this growth statistic to which Senator Coburn (R-OK) recently pointed as evidence that the sector must be fully evolved, and self-sustaining, making government spending on them wasteful and unnecessary.

While I find this assessment unfortunate and misinformed, I’m grateful for the inspiration to reflect on my own vision for the future of farmers markets.  All the grant funding in the world does not help an organization that doesn’t have a clear sense of purpose for its activities.

In FMC’s effort to build a spreadsheet database of FMPP projects, we hope to accelerate the flow of information about what benchmarks farmers markets can hold themselves to, regardless of whether they’re ever funded by a federal grant program or not.

In this new year, I think it will be more important than ever for farmers markets to define their visions, and set benchmarks for what it means to be successful.  What vision of your community is hovering in the months and years ahead?

I don’t know about you, but I prefer walking from point A to point B over a treadmill any day.  Here’s  is a brief glimpse into just a few of the visions I reach for on the distant horizon:

  • An agricultural system that’s attractive and viable for the next generation of innovative young farmers,  food innovators, and land stewards, in particular women and people of color
  • A growing, diverse multitude of thriving, tax-paying independent businesses that “have a face,”  are responsive to consumer demand, and help one another succeed in the spirit of coopetition
  • Easy and equal access to a wide variety of fresh, nutritious foods that’s traceable to its source
  • Food environments which are not distorted by multi-million (or billion) dollar corporate marketing campaigns, and which allow farmers the right to choose their marketing outlets, and eaters the right to know exactly where and how their food is produced
  • Respect and recognition for good land and water stewardship practices and continued reduction in the use of artificial chemicals and fertilizers

Inching closer to visions like these means setting benchmarks, and FMC is presently developing a menu of such indicators.  As we continue in this effort to help provide farmers markets with a variety of ways to measure and communicate their impacts across a spectrum of benefits, you can be assured that we will reach out to our members for input.  In the meantime, feel free to contact me for more information on this project.

I hope you enjoy this edition of the market beet, and wish you a happy, healthy, and hopeful 2012!