Farmers Market Metrics and Market Vendors
By Dar Wolnik, FMC Senior Researcher | email@example.com
(A version of this article was published in Growing For Markets August 2017 issue by Dar Wolnik. To subscribe, go to GFM online)
Since the 1970s, farmers markets have been started by various groups in order to serve many purposes. The timeline below is arranged by the major eras of farmers markets, derived from interviews with market founders and by combing through the history pages of different websites:
(1970-90) Founders: Back-to-land farmers and their advocates. Organizing Principle: Have to grow it to sell it; direct sales lead to real, transformative relationships between producers and eaters. Goals: Growers as stewards of their local place while the market builds direct connections between rural and urban neighbors.
(1990-2000) Founders: Neighborhood organizers and city leaders. Organizing Principle: Educational events deepen and lengthen the interaction; the “new” town square is found here. Goals: By offering more than just economic transactions, the level of civic engagement among users is increased. Good policy can result for regional farms and for eaters.
(1995-2005) Founders: Main Street organizers and regional development initiatives. Organizing Principle: Small businesses incubation; regional impact. Goals: More good food available, replacing imported items with local products, development of a value chain for local food.
(2005-) Founders: Public health collaboratives. Organizing Principle: Attention paid to the social determinants of health and incentivizing participation for at-risk populations. Goals: Good food for all, adding new users, policy changes in public health.
It was easy for each era to measure what was meant to be accomplished. The markets could collect data on the acres in (sustainable) production, the number of products offered on market day, the number of attendees at market events, how many visitors were new to the market. Tools such as the Rapid Market Assessment and SEED offered resources to assist markets to collect that data.
Yet, a cursory search of market websites indicates that few either collect or share data on these impacts regularly. Why don’t they?
- Market organizations report they do not have the staff time or the skills for data collection, especially in using disciplined collection methods. Trying to decide something as simple as how many visitors attend on a regular basis requires some research and time for planning that markets do not currently build into their to-do lists.
- Often, there IS data collection happening; often led by a market partner that is willing to do some research on site. However, the purpose of many of these reports is only to analyze the goals of a single project, which does not aid the market in their end of year review or help vendors with business planning.
- Using the data requires some skill in designing reports and graphics and in knowing how to share dynamic messages with the right audiences. Market organizations and their vendors need help crafting real-time, engaging visuals that help shoppers link the simple act of supporting ones farmers market with the issues that the producers face daily in terms of over-regulation, weather instability or any of a dozen other external pressures.
- One more reason may be that the users of the market have yet to ask for this data. If vendors ask for market-level analysis regularly to help the market community prepare for the next season, the process will become part of the regular end of day/end of season routine. Shoppers (often in the form of a “friends of” program) can also ask for data on how it is performing and use the data to help influence the direction new programs or expansions take in future years.
The need to help markets get the right data and use it well is the goal of Farmers Market Metrics (FMM), a program being developed at Farmers Market Coalition. It offers tools and downloadable templates to its subscribers on good methods for data collection and management, automated report design, and resources to assist with promotion. In FMM, the markets own the data so they can use it again and again to analyze the impacts of their work and to share them in different ways.
The more data is added, the more meaningful it becomes, moving information from little-used spreadsheets to online reports and visual dashboards that show trends over time so that real-time decisions about operations become more factual. The data shows more than just dollars changing hands too. FMM uses ideas developed and used by market organizations over the last two decades to share that a market’s audience -its vendors, visitors, and partners- benefit across many types of impacts, including economic, ecological, social and intellectual (human). Those can be defined in simple terms, such as:
How do farmers learn from their shoppers?
How do market shoppers influence other outlets with what was learned at their market?
Has the number of items available grown by local farmers expanded in the last few years? What about the number of SNAP-eligible items offered?
How much acreage is in production by small family farms at markets?
How are farms innovating better small acreage production practices?
How many women-owned businesses are represented in the market?
FMM data is designed to be used at the market level, but can also alert individual vendors to market trends, because it includes what are known as “retail” metrics, such as the number of visitors and the amount that shoppers spend on an average visit, what zip codes they came from and more. Vendors can use the compiled market-level data to plan for product expansion or to refine their direct marketing strategy across markets. Technical assistance agencies and consultants will be better able to assist small farms and cottage industry vendors if data on farmers markets is available for them to analyze
For most of the FMM metrics, the type of vendor data needed is already available and easy to collect. One such example is calculating the average distance traveled from production site to market: by using vendors’ addresses the market already will have on file, an average distance metric can be designed. This message can offer a startling difference from the story of industrial food in one simple graphic:
The Jackson MS Mississippi Farmers Market used the 62-mile distance metric data effectively in print ads and on t-shirts of market staff to alert their shoppers to the short distance that market items traveled, which can be juxtaposed with the 1,500 – 2,500 journey that most food requires to reach shoppers.This particular type of mileage data can help a market attract new shoppers and also be used in messages about the importance of respecting the seasonality of items on a market table. If a shopper knows the efforts of the market resulted in fresher food grown expressly for them by their neighboring farms, their level of participation and engagement may increase. It can also help policymakers understand the short path of local food and may result in incentives or laws to encourage more local products to be developed.
Sales are, of course, one key piece of data that almost all analysis of market activity relies upon and yet at the beginning of any data collection process, markets and vendors often have different opinions on how much of this information should be shared and how to share it. The conversation in each market about collecting this data needs to be conducted with sensitivity and transparency, with agreements as to its use decided from the outset. It should be noted that FMM takes the management of individual sales data very seriously, offering templates for the market and its vendors to use to ensure sensitive data is shared only in aggregate, with no individual vendor data used without explicit permission. The site also offers collection method templates to allow for anonymous reporting of that data. In all cases, the site offers checks and balances to ensure the markets and networks of markets use the data only when it does not unfairly identify individual data.
The resulting aggregated daily sales average will help a market organization understand how events or other project activities either positively or negatively affect (or in some cases, have no effect) on vendor sales. That information can help the market team calibrate their events and to know if the time is right to add more vendors or more products. It can also reduce the learning curve for a new market manager by offering feedback on the type of outreach being conducted and its immediate impact on the market’s vendors. At the policy level, it helps to refine the data already being collected by the USDA through the Agricultural Census, which is conducted every five years and is used by government agencies and elected officials to decide the funding levels of different programs. When good comparable data is available, advocating for local producers becomes easier and has a better chance of success.
Some states like Illinois and Vermont are already thinking about how this type of data being collected by markets can be used to offer technical assistance or increase the amount of necessary information to their vendors in making decisions about adding outlets or expanding their businesses.In Illinois, the state farmers market association ILFMA is using a USDA grant to create the ConnectFresh Illinois brand for markets and farmers so that a farmer searching for new outlets to sell from can properly evaluate markets nearby. Which of them operate year round? What kind of events do they regularly hold? How long has the manager been on the job? This site will also help younger shoppers find their way to their nearest farmers market and offer much more detail on the activities there via a connected app. In Vermont, a collaboration of state leaders led by NOFA-VT, are using USDA support to decide which metrics will help them advocate for community food in the legislature and also to gather data from farmers markets and from individual DTC farmers who operate at CSAs, markets, and farm stands. That data will help support agencies in the state increase the success rate of their work with individual farms and be able to direct support to those direct marketing enterprises.
So for many reasons, markets need data from their vendors but vendors need to have that data returned to them to be users of that data. The hope of programs like FMM and state-level data sharing is that markets will take advantage of better measurement tools in the coming years and their market vendors see the value of becoming a full partner in the collection and use of the data. That way, everyone will benefit.