What’s In A Name? Protecting Farmers Market Integrity through a Common Definition

      Posted On: January 13, 2010

by Jeff Cole, chair of the Farmers Market Coalition ad hoc Definition Task Force and Executive Director of the Federation of Massachusetts Farmers Markets

One of the first issues that Farmers Market Coalition (FMC) members asked the organization to look at after FMC’s incorporation in 2006 was the definition of the term ‘farmers market.’ Then, as now, the use of the term (with or without an apostrophe) is coveted from marketing and public image perspectives and is not always used with sufficient integrity or in the best interest of family farms.

With this in mind, the FMC Board of Directors (BOD) engaged in extensive discussion at our October meeting in Washington DC. There, as during FMC’s first attempt to define a farmers market, the process was infused with a great deal of opinion about how inclusive or exclusive a definition should be, given the variety of market management models. No consensus was reached in 2006/2007 or in DC. But, because FMC believes it is imperative to create a definition, the BOD has established a taskforce to bring forward a recommended definition.

The taskforce is nearing the conclusion of its work. I’d like to share with you just a small portion of pointed background information and the taskforce’s justification for concluding that the definition of a Farmers Market must be simple and clear: that it must include the words “farmers selling directly to the public products they have produced;” and that a farmers market must define, and make public, what it means by’ local.’

Recently, the grocery chain Sunflower Farmers Market has generated media coverage. Its founder and CEO Mike Gilliland started Wild Oats and brought it to a $2.2 billion business before stepping down as CEO in 2001. Marketing Daily reports that Sunflower Farmers Market has emerged as a pioneer in the value segment of the natural and organic foods business. The chain store’s motto is: “Serious food … silly prices.”

In an interview with Marketing Daily, Mr. Gilliland addresses the question of why the chain bought a farm. It will, he says, serve as an educational tool, though it will probably only supply at most 5% of the chain’s fresh produce. In talking about the chain’s customer segments, Mr. Gilliland states that they call the store a farmers market because a lot of customers aren’t very well informed, and therefore there is a real opportunity to educate them in stores.

Sunflower is not the only retailer to use ‘Farmers Market’ in its name. Sprouts Farmers Markets, an Austin, Texas, based grocery retailer, now has 27 stores and about 2,300 employees chain-wide. According to a recent article in the American-Statesman, the company expects to have more than 50 stores by the end of 2013.

FMC also recently learned that Marion Street Farmers’ Market in Florida will change to Marion Street Market as the result of an issue raised by a citizen concerning the products sold at the market. The market manager acknowledged confusion as to “what we’re about,” leading them to remove the word ‘farmers’ from the name.

These reports underscore an issue in the farmers market community, one that I am increasingly facing in Massachusetts as I’m sure many of you are: that of increasing shopper confusion about what a farmers market is and use of the term by non-farm businesses for competitive advantage. The result of this I have found is that unbounded use of the words “farmers market” now compromises my ability to compete for public attention and support.

As Mr. Gilliland implies, a name itself is part of consumer education and I’m convinced that farmers markets must take the lead (and control) of this part of consumer education. But my years of involvement in farmers markets has proven to me time and time again that effective education requires mutual understanding of principles as well as common definitions.

The task force, having the advantage of hindsight, has concluded that there are now specific reasons for clearly defining a farmers market and that each reason has potential beneficiaries. These are:

1) Policymakers’ confusion around what a farmers market is weakens support (both political and financial). Markets, farmers, and communities benefit

2) Consumers in fact are confused. This leads to a lessening of their support of farmers markets and perhaps local farmers. It also inhibits robust development of social networks. Consumer confusion also allows “big retailers” to subvert local food concepts to their benefit without supporting local family farms and the communities in which they live and work. Farmers and communities benefit.

3) Maintaining or increasing support for farmers and farmland protection is a core value in farmers markets. Farmers and the public benefit.

4) To support farmers’ entrance into a local food system. Farmers need to know what the ground rules are when they enter a farmers market and that market and farmer sustainability is significantly bolstered when behavior and norms are clear and adhered to. Markets and famers benefit.

5) Measurements around the effectiveness of farmers markets are significantly clouded when inconsistent or overly-expansive definitions are used in data collection. Communities and governments benefit.

It became clear to the task force that a (if not the) universal underlying factor or core value of the farmers market system is to support farmers, their participation in local food systems and their participation in the communities in which farmers markets are located. As a result, we state that a farmers market must have farmers participating in the market by selling directly to the public and activity beyond simple sales transactions must take place in the market.

The committee believes that: a) one key activity beyond sales is the community involvement/education entailed in defining the “local foodshed,” b) providing a privilege for a market to call itself what it is not (a farmers market when there are no farmers present) has deeper negative consequences than positive ones and should not be endorsed, c) too many or too complex descriptions/definitions of farmers markets lead to consumer and policymaker confusion, and d) internal concerns in the industry, such as producer-only integrity, how to foster markets into farmers markets, etc., are best addressed outside the process of defining a farmers market and outside of the definition. All of these things are what lead us to conclude the definition of a Farmers Market must be simple and clear, must include the words “farmers selling directly to the public products they have produced”, and that a farmers market must define (and make public) what it means by local.

It seems we are close to creating a definition at this time and we welcome feedback from our members before we bring forth our recommendation. Send an email to membership@farmersmarketcoalition.org.