Hitching Your Market’s Wagon to a Star

By: Darlene Wolnik       Posted On: September 30, 2020

This post was originally published on Darlene Wolnik’s Helping Public Markets Grow Blog. This blog was originally created during the period that our Training & Technical Assistance Director was working as an independent consultant to markets and to FMC. The focus of the blog continues to be opening discussions around systemic change and a theory of markets as agents of that change.

“Now that is the wisdom of a man, in every instance of his labour, to hitch his wagon to a star, and see his chore done by the gods themselves. That is the way we are strong, by borrowing the might of the elements. The forces of steam, gravity, galvanism, light, magnets, wind, fire, serve us day by day and cost us nothing.”

Emerson wrote those words in his American Civilization anti-slavery essay in 1856 for The Atlantic, exhorting his fellow citizens to see how they could link their own beliefs to the forces around them, thereby maximizing their own impact and also reducing their own load. By often stressing the idea that one is not free until all are free (“where the position of the white woman is injuriously affected by the outlawry of the black woman”, “Let every man say then to himself—the cause of the Indian, it is mine; the cause of the slave, it is mine.”) he was illuminating how we can travel together through “the vehicle of ideas,” “borrowing their omnipotence.”

This has been on my mind a great deal lately. Partly because the exhaustion and stress in market managers’ voices is even more palpable this year than previous ones, and also because big issues are lighting up the sky all around our markets. On the first, know that many of us worry about you and your vendors, and hope you find ways to de-stress after market day, and still find momentary joy in the work. Farmers Market Coalition is working daily to find ways to add support for operators and to amplify your work. Please do root around on the site and join us for our webinars and check out our new emerging Communities of Practice.

This post is attempting to respond to the second, meaning those big issues we are seeing around us. But keep that first in mind: people are pulling for you, do see you, do know the tension and self-doubt that come along with that market map and bell…

If you have read this blog, you know that I believe the best way to make the market operator position work over the long term is (a) by making the “invisible” work more visible to the market’s stakeholders and (b) by reducing as many of the operational silos that exist and that keep the one or two-person market operation in a constant state of crisis and burnout. I think the one thing we cannot do – assuming this pandemic has a complete endpoint – is to count on “fully normal” returning. It is what so many of us who managed markets through a disaster learned at some point: that some of the changes that seem temporary are in fact permanent, that more change is still coming and not all of it will be good.

“Work rather for those interests which the divinities honor and promote,—justice, love, freedom, knowledge, utility.” – Emerson

In terms of the activities happening in North America in the last few years on our public streets and squares, market operators can happily accomplish so much more by following Emerson’s advice. Because by adding those outcomes to the market’s long term goals, we can hitch up with other fellow organizers and even lean on their skills and energy and leadership.

Black Lives Matter. Climate Change. Immigration Reform are some of the issues that can be easily brought into market work. And even though those issues can inflame some of your community members who have yet to consider how they can be an agent of positive change on them, those issues also inspire countless others. When markets embrace these ideas as their goals, it tells your community that this market is interested in the overall quality of life for its entire community, and plans to be around for a while, striving to do more and do it better. There is no better way to increase your stakeholders than by sending that type of message.

That has been the promise around the mechanism of markets from 1970 on: to be an engine for system change for our producers, for our visitors, and for our neighbors. The histories of the earliest back-to-land markets make it clear it was never about adding back the old-style public markets. Those had often stopped being useful to their local farmers long before, and the limitation of the daily sales metric as its only measure meant those outlets were easily replaced by newer forms of the same type of extractive capitalism that championed the middleman and centralized distribution in order to “reduce inefficiencies” even more successfully than public markets. 

In contrast, the lofty goals of the more recent farmers market movement indicate that big outcomes are our promise, presented via different structures and values. If we agree that is so, then justice and equity for all have surely always been part of it. It just needs a wider set of stakeholders and the right set of specific system goals to make it happen.

We have moved the dial for some short-term outcomes, such as expanding the narrative around local, building the lexicon around sustainable farming, encouraging sophisticated placemaking strategies, and even slightly increasing food access through our work. We are allowed to be proud of what we have done so far, especially if we also acknowledge that we have not yet met our systemic goals. That’s okay—no one expected us to do it all in one generation, or two, or even three.

I am reminded of the story an organizer told me about a small Asian country that had committed to becoming completely free of violence – but wait for it – in 1000 years. That deadline frees the activist from their ego, and also reminds them that each step to that goal is worthy. Or you can use the oft-repeated Chinese proverb: the best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago; the second best? today.

Same idea: we do not have to DO EVERYTHING today; we just need to start.

When we become better allies by naming and challenging the racism built into every part of the dominant industrial food system, it is easier to explain why we feel the need to offer an alternative system that rests on new power structures and why it will take a lot of concerted strategies and iterations to create it. Organizers today can start with piloting equitable market and land access, introducing educational materials that work for a diverse set of leaders, (made by a diverse set of leaders and centering those BIPOC voices still unheard in most food system work) about the potential in expanding civic engagement via direct relationships, and maybe also find some time to measure success, i.e. wealth in new ways. And by listening.

Recently a colleague suggested to me that reparations could begin with some market organizers using their application system to allow in new BIPOC – led farms without fees, or through offering in-kind marketing support, (or through free or reduced costs for training as many NGOs like NOFA-VT are offering BIPOC farmers). I was stunned at the elegance of that one idea, of how contextual and agile it is. It shows how a small group entity can engage with a huge issue and still get positive impacts that matter today.

Another example is that markets can easily begin to shift the power dynamic that exists in the market rules around land ownership to more strongly encourage cooperative farming.

In both cases not only does the market become better allies to the BIPOC movement that has embraced innovative farming practices and alternative collaborative ownership models, but they add vendors who have new skills, experience and resiliency.

Climate change is pretty easy to see as an issue for markets, but yet few embrace it at the system level (Got give a shout out to aptly-named Post-Oil Solutions in Brattleboro, VT which manages the winter market). Our market communities are right ON IT when the fires come and farmers are forced to move their livestock hundreds of miles overnight, or entire bee colonies are burned out, or markets need to get the disaster SNAP dollars flowing, but where are we when our cities and regions are negotiating climate agreements? What about energy policy? And clearly this is one arena where young activists have taken center stage, so it might be time to invite that local teenaged climate change activist into the advisory group.

And immigration reform is a shockingly absent topic in the food sector even though newly arrived residents are overwhelmingly the people who hold the dominant food system together. And let’s be clear: our alternative food system often utilizes that same farmworker structure, sometimes with very little transparency or equity in terms of profit-sharing or benefits. 

And markets are the outlet that every resident arriving from other places recognizes and yet few have found their way into them as vendors, much less as shoppers or as organizers. We have to challenge ourselves to understand why that is so to then change it. 

In any case, I expect a bunch of you are shouting at me from your nook, “yeah those are great ideas, but HOW CAN I DO THAT AND ALSO GET THE DOZEN YARD SIGNS UP AND CALL ALL OF MY VENDORS AND COUNT TOKENS…”

Well the answer is you can’t.

Another story: a pal was telling me once about her partner who had no desire for children but, being from a large Italian family, seemed to miss the large group dynamic when they sat to make family decisions. My pal said to me humorously, “I feel like I need to get her a baseball team to come and sit in our household chats. She needs the give and take that I just cannot offer on my own!”

That is also what a market manager needs: a team. And I don’t want to hear how hard it is to manage that team either: if you want to manage a market well, get better at handing work off to others. It’s a non-negotiable of a successful market. Adding informal advisory groups so that your circle of leaders is wider and more inclusive is one way to do just that. As a market leader, I devised a handout postcard that invited people to join us at the next 2 monthly meetings for whatever project I was thinking that person in front of me could be helpful on. I had them in my market bag to scribble the name of the project and the time and date of the meeting on to hand over, and also had a few with stamps affixed to address and send out. Those informal advisory groups met as needed, offered unvarnished advice as they saw fit, and were not tied to any long term commitment. I was also under no formal mandate to take all of the advice I was given, but I got a lot of help that I did take. And for those of you in small places without a lot of people around, the modern world of connectivity being more available allows this to be done through online platforms or through email.

Not only will the work that you do be more fun and less taxing if you find the right star to hitch to, but it will reduce the sidelining of markets and alternative food systems as precious or as elitist. During COVID-19, the difficulty in getting markets deemed as essential or allowing all types of market vendors to vend in many states (even though other outlets were not held to the same constraints) shows how directly markets would be aided by having these system-level support systems.

I’ll leave you with Emerson’s conclusion that speaks directly to the excellent work each of your communities is engaged in: “…when I see how much each virtuous and gifted person, whom all men consider, lives affectionately with scores of excellent people who are not known far from home, and perhaps with great reason reckons these people his superiors in virtue and in the symmetry and force of their qualities,—I see what cubic values America has, and in these a better certificate of civilization than great cities or enormous wealth.”


Darlene Wolnik is FMC’s Training & Technical Assistance Director. This post was originally published on her blog, Helping Public Markets Grow.