Celebrating Success, Staying Focused

      Posted On: July 29, 2009

by Chris Curtis, FMC Board Member

Farmers Market Week is just around the corner. There is good reason to celebrate, step back, and give ourselves credit for the role we all play in the success of farmers markets across the country. According to the USDA, the number of farmers markets operating in the US has grown more than 7% in the last two years. Since I started out in the business 18 years ago, the number of farmers markets in Seattle neighborhoods has grown from two to 14, and in Washington State from 34 to 110. Our office fields questions every week from communities here in Seattle and across the state who want their own farmers market and they want it right now! The demand seems insatiable.

While it is encouraging to see the interest in farmers markets flourish, it’s also necessary to examine what we are and what we were meant to be. Farmers markets can do a lot of things, but they are meant to support local farmers, local farms, and our local farm economies. It’s a simple mission, but not generally endorsed or easily sustained.

In the early days of organizing markets here in Seattle, I was lucky to be mentored by some of the best in the business; that first generation of California pioneers who wisely imparted that farm vendors are the “gold” of your market and they should be prioritized and treated like royalty. At the first organizational meetings for the University District market in 1993, we invited as many local direct market farmers as possible. The turnout was large and enthusiastic, so our first challenge of finding local farmers seemed in the bag. The farmers’ primary concerns at that meeting set our organizational path and informed our growth ever since: they advised that we keep our markets focused on farmers and local food. They urged us to keep out crafts, brokers, and flea market items if we could…and success would follow. Success has followed. We are now the largest FM organization in the state and support 110 local farmers with the majority of their annual farm income. Farm sales in 2008 through our seven markets was just over $7,000,000.

We take our primary mission of supporting local farms seriously. Our vendor roster is 75% farmers and 25% other foods such as baked goods, local juices, wine, and pasta. Our mission informs all our programming decisions. Shoppers know that when they come to one of our seven markets, they will see a large majority of farm vendors with a good variety of high quality produce and farm goods. Our series of cooking demonstrations and produce tastings feature everyone’s favorite local crops: berries, tomatoes, and apples in season. Our newsletter profiles farmers, keeps readers aware of what’s fresh, and hammers home the point again and again why buying local and direct from farmers is a good thing to do. We don’t create any events that aren’t related to our local farms and the food on the farm tables.

I realize that Farmer/Producer/Food markets aren’t easy to sustain. Farmers markets that are as mission-driven as ours often need to find other revenue sources via grants, donated sites, and volunteer hours. But I think markets that slowly lose grip on this primary mission do a big disservice to the farmers market movement over time. I’ve seen too many markets lose their farmer base because they feel pressure to chase after “subsidy” vendors such as crafts, resellers, collectibles, prepared foods, massage therapists, and kettle corn. While I support the small businesses these vendors represent (and I love kettle corn), the “farmer” has to be the primary presence at a successful farmers market. There’s really no other reason under the sun, in my perspective, to do the hard, time-consuming, and often stressful work of creating and managing a farmers market.

The NFMA plans on celebrating Farmers Market Week with special events related to our farmers and what they produce. As I said, there is much to celebrate. I wish you all a good week of harvest, and that you get the recognition you deserve for all the good work you do on behalf of farmers and your community.

Chris Curtis is the Director of the Neighborhood Farmers Market Alliance, which manages the University District, West Seattle, Columbia City, Lake City, Magnolia, Broadway Sunday and Phinney Farmers Markets. Learn more at www.seattlefarmersmarkets.org. You can hear Chris, along with Bernie Prince of FreshFarm Markets and Darlene Wolnik of marketumbrella.org, in a July 23rd webinar called “Measuring Success: Market Recordkeeping and Evaluation.” Access the recorded session here.