Communities of Practice: Fostering Communication and Collaboration
Posted On: January 13, 2021
Nurturing communities and the connections they foster is central to strengthening local and regional food systems. These communities may be formal or informal, large or small. We may not realize how many of these communities we participate in each day and how these opportunities to share with and learn from one another influence our personal and professional experiences.
When we think about the term “Community of Practice” (CoP) different ideas may come to mind. In the context of farmers markets and farm direct work, FMC uses communities of practice as a peer-to-peer platform for bringing together small groups of market operators, organizational leaders, network partners, and/or other farm direct site operators to address specific topics or areas of interest impacting their work.
For FMC, the key to a successful CoP is an engaged, active group of leaders who are willing to learn from one another and share that collective knowledge in a resource or lesson for FMC and participants to disseminate through technical assistance. Participation in a CoP with FMC means the individual has made a commitment to the group and to the focus of the practice. At FMC, our goal is to listen and learn, connect to more market leaders, and conclude with a resource or new information that we can share with others in the field.
Formalizing Communities of Practice
In an effort to nurture greater partnership and collaboration both within the farmers market sector and between FMC, markets operators, and other farm direct outlets, the Farmers Market Coalition is taking a more proactive approach to organizing these communities as forums for teaching and learning among participants. As FMC’s Training and Technical Assistance Network Coordinator, I am working to develop these communities more formally within the context of our work, to help identify areas where these needs exist, and to work with other FMC staff to help organize and manage new communities of practice. The need for a particular community may naturally reveal itself as part of a broader issue or concern or may develop organically in response to a crisis or challenge which creates urgency within the farm direct world, such as the COVID-19 pandemic. FMC is currently convening several communities of practice for farmers markets and market organizations and is also a CoP coordinating organization in the Local Food Systems Response to COVID project, a research initiative led by the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) and the University of Kentucky. The CoPs currently being hosted by FMC include an ongoing partnership with state and network farmers market leaders, a bi-monthly convening of flagship farmers market organizations, and a short-term practice for indoor/winter market operators.
Our state and network leader community includes a larger group of representatives from state farmers market associations and organizations supporting food access, sustainable agriculture, small-scale producers, and nutrition incentive programs within a statewide network of markets. This group has been meeting with FMC’s assistance since 2009 under the founding director Stacy Miller. These leaders come together twice each month to talk about issues impacting farmers markets nationwide, including COVID mitigation, state and federal policy, fundraising, data collection and evaluation, anti-racism and social justice work, and nutrition incentive programming. FMC partners with these leaders in many aspects of our work, including advocacy, training and technical assistance, and communications. State and network leaders collaborate with FMC and one another on various initiatives, including research and resource development, statewide market surveying, and virtual conferencing in the COVID era.
Our flagship market community of practice brings together leaders from farmers market organizations managing a single large market or multiple markets within a specific city or region who typically operate at a broader scale with a greater civic presence, have access to a different set of networks and resources than smaller markets, and who are facing similar budgetary challenges in regard to expenses associated with COVID mitigation and adaptation efforts. This group includes a variety of flagship organizations of varying size and administrative structures. Similar to our state and network leaders, this community is somewhat less limited in scope than FMC’s standard approach to communities of practice but it follows the same principles.
Indoor/Winter Market Community of Practice
The indoor/winter market community of practice includes a small group of market operators who are facing unique challenges in navigating the impacts of COVID within the indoor (or partial indoor) markets they are operating this winter season. This group convened over a two-month period, sharing their experience, expertise, and ideas with one another in an effort to determine what operational changes are most needed and will be most effective this season. Our work with this group has a defined scope where FMC is collaborating with participants on a specific outcome, in this case a collection of “best practices” for operating farmers markets indoors in the COVID era. Our conversations with these market leaders have revealed growing concerns over issues such as market layout and design for indoor spaces, ADA compliance and mask enforcement, preparing for a quick pivot away from indoor operations to outdoor or fully online markets, and market protocols for vendors who test positive for COVID-19.
Continuing Work with the Local Food Systems Response to COVID Project
Under the Local Food Systems Response to COVID project, AMS and the University of Kentucky are bringing together seventeen different organizations supporting various channels within local and regional food systems (LRFS), including direct-to-consumer outlets such as farmers markets. Researchers and AMS are seeking to learn more about the specific impacts of COVID on LRFS and apply what is learned to developing resources which both document the adaptations and innovations at play and serve as tools for mitigating future crises. As a partner in this research, FMC’s work includes contributing materials to the project’s Resource Hub, authoring impact assessments outlining how the farmers market sector continues to be affected by COVID, developing a case study focused on the impact of COVID-19 on flagship farmers market budgets, highlighting pivots within the sector including alternative market models, identifying other local and regional DTC operational shifts and mitigation efforts, collaborating on survey data analysis related to COVID, and working to build new partnerships with other LRFS leaders. The larger goal of this project focuses on long-term adaptability and supporting local and regional food systems leaders in strengthening the sector by growing networks, promoting greater inter-sector collaboration, and determining which pivots inspired by COVID may continue to benefit these channels beyond the pandemic.
For more information about FMC’s work supporting markets through the pandemic, check out our COVID-19 Resources Page.
As FMC develops these new practices, we are working to refine the process and broaden the platform from which we draw participants. We plan to explore this as a tool for bringing together stakeholders from various aspects of our work, including technical assistance around nutrition incentive programming, farm direct technology, communications and marketing, and data collection and evaluation. This will likely include CoPs focused on emerging farmers market networks and new GusNIP grantees, among others. I look forward to working with more of you as we expand these efforts and continue to build on our current CoP work! Together we hope this proactive, holistic approach to technical assistance and resource collaboration will help foster new relationships and facilitate learning and networking opportunities which will carry on beyond the scope of each community of practice.
Diana Broadaway began working with FMC in October 2019, first as a volunteer and then as a consultant assisting with resource development, FINI/GusNIP grantee research, and State and Network Leader support. Diana is now the Training and Technical Assistance Network Coordinator for FMC.