Defining and Defending a Producer-Only Market

      Posted On: January 13, 2010

By Sarah Johnson

One of the most challenging aspects of running a market can be defining and enforcing a producer-only market policy. This winter, FMC dove into the often murky and controversial waters of producer-only market enforcement on behalf of its market managing readers in search of the answers to a few frequently asked questions: What does it mean to be a producer-only market? Should producer-only markets be advertised as such? What problems can a producer-only market expect to encounter? And lastly——are there any good solutions to these problems?

pro·duc·er prə-ˈdü-sər, prō-, –ˈdyü- n., one that produces; especially: one that grows agricultural products or manufactures crude materials into articles of use.

If a market decides that a producer-only policy is the best way to stay true to its mission, the next step is defining what producer-only will actually mean. While a simple definition, such as “a market at which vendors are only permitted to sell items which they have themselves produced” has the benefit of brevity, the realities of market operation often necessitate a more nuanced description. What does it mean to produce an item? Will you permit vendors to sell value-added items, like bread or jams, if they make the final product but did not produce the ingredients? If so, does it matter if the ingredients were grown locally? Should exceptions be made if there is an in-demand locally-grown item, like peaches, but there presently no peach growers selling at the market?

After contemplating these questions, one may end up with a considerably longer market policy than originally anticipated. The goal is not to craft a short policy, but one that works. In her first season as Market Manager for the Fondy Farmers Market, run by the nonprofit Fondy Food Center in Milwaukee, WI, Jenni Reinke found that there were several factors she needed to take into account in order to shape the market’s producer-only policy: FMNP voucher regulations stipulating that vendors sell only Wisconsin-grown food, a commitment to incubate and support local food producers, and the market’s mission to provide fresh, nutritious food to an area of Milwaukee without many healthy food options.

With these concerns in mind, the Fondy Farmers Market crafted a policy that gives vendors the option of reselling some Wisconsin-grown foods: vendors can sell Wisconsin-grown orchard fruits or berries, as well as honey, breads, eggs, and other non-produce food items. However, vendors must provide a receipt indicating the local origin of these products before the start of the market day, and they are not permitted to sell these items at the same time that an actual producer of them is selling at the market. For example, Reinke says, “The market has an apple grower on Saturdays, so farmers who don’t produce their own apples cannot sell them on Saturdays until the producer sells out, even though these apples are locally sourced.”

Reinke has quickly learned that producer-only policies must be flexible and responsive to changes in local supply and demand. Since there are almost always vendors selling their own honey, eggs, and baked items, she plans to eliminate the resale exception for these products next market season, while considering adding an exception for the resale of Wisconsin-grown corn when a corn producer is not at the market. Corn, though a high-demand crop, takes more room to grow than most of the small farmers who sell at the Fondy market have in their small, 3-8 acre plots.

Reinke acknowledges that “from the perspective of explaining and enforcing policy, it would certainly be easier to have a clear-cut ‘producers-only’ rule, no exceptions—but we want to be able to meet customer demand with the products we have, so long as it is done without hurting the sales of producer-vendors or conflicting with FMNP.” But if all this nuance leads to only to headache, a simpler, ‘no exceptions’ approach may be in order.

One example of a market using just such an approach is the Urbana Market at the Square in Urbana, Illinois. The market’s 2009 guidelines clearly state, “all items must be homegrown, handmade, and/or vendor-created from locally-owned operations within the state of Illinois.” While market manager Lisa Bralts says that the market “allows no exceptions,” she admits, “we do not have guidelines in place regarding the origin of ingredients for value-added products. We’re most concerned with the end product being created by the person/people selling it.”

ad·ver·tise ˈad-vər-tiz v., to make publicly and readily known

Once the perfect producer-only policy is approved and communicated to all existing and potential vendors, one’s first instinct might be to tell consumers so they know what to expect when they shop. Before screaming about policy from the mountaintops, however, there are a couple of concerns to keep in mind.

First, it may be better to say nothing at all than to be misleading—if a policy isn’t quite at the ‘no exceptions’ level, advertising only the phrase “producer-only” could just cause confusion among shoppers. And even if a market is producer-only in the strictest possible sense, it will be worthwhile providing accurate description of what it means.  Mark Wall of Thriving Community Marketplaces in Oceanside, California notes that some consumers he has encountered “think producer-only means organic,” while other, more skeptical shoppers, think “that it simply means a place to get produce, on the assumption that the vendors can’t all be farmers.”

A second concern, expressed by Reinke in Milwaukee, is that celebrating a market’s producer-only status will falsely give the impression that other markets in the area are not. Or as Wall said, “Every market I’ve worked with identifies itself as producer-only. That’s both the tragedy and the strength of the term.”

Still, this doesn’t mean it’s advisable for a market to keep its lips locked about it’s its policies—it just means when it is advertised, whether on a website, in media releases, or at the market itself, care should be taken to explain the term thoroughly, avoiding any promises that the market may not be able to keep.

en·force ˈěn-fôrs’, -fōrs’ tr.v., To compel observance of or obedience to

Unfortunately, simply publicizing one’s producer-only market policy is often not enough to compel its observance by market vendors. In high season, Reinke spends about one day a week doing farm visits, but even this is often inadequate for complete verification because “with farmers dispersed across several counties, it is difficult to determine exactly when produce goes in and out of season—farmers might try to sneak in resale produce to the market that they produced at one time, but not all season long.”

And so, problems—literally—crop up. Reinke states that her most challenging crop has been corn, since many farmers do have small crops of corn on their farms, but not nearly enough to match the amount of corn they try to sell at the market. She tries to err on the side of trust, like when she was skeptical of a vendor’s watermelons and did a farm visit. She recalls, “all of the melons were laying in a pile under a tree!” It was impossible to tell whether they had bought them and stored them there, or whether they had grown and harvested them.

Another time, she visited a farm that had begun to sell red tomatoes before any of the other farms. Although the field was almost entirely still green, they told her that they “harvested the green tomatoes, and stored them in their garage wrapped in paper, and they ripen and then they sell.” Again, she gave them the benefit of the doubt.

Lisa Bralts of the Urbana market describes the “thin line” walked by market management:

We need to be supportive of our producers and what they’re trying to do, and we need them to be supportive of the market and its activities; trust is huge and goes both ways. However, the nature of market management demands that we also look out for the well-being of our shoppers and the health of the market itself. If you have a producer who’s not following established guidelines, it’s disruptive to the flow of the market and can engender some negativity among vendors who are following the guidelines. It’s something we struggle with, especially when the verification process has not done its job in years past.

In other words, without the budget or the heart for strict verification regimes, trust and a mutual commitment to the market is key– for the sake of vendors, the local agricultural community, and shoppers alike. But how does a market engender this environment of trust and honesty?

trust ˈtrəst n., assured reliance on the character, ability, strength, or truth of someone or something

Reinke’s organization has tried to build up the integrity of the Fondy Farmers Market from scratch. Seven years ago, she says, it was a “free-for-all with no policies of any sort,” with some vendors supplementing their wares with things like pineapples and bananas—in Wisconsin. However, vendors have adjusted to the new policies over time, and these days, her first step upon suspecting a farmer of reselling produce is simply to approach them and inquire about growing and harvesting methods for the questionable item. While she has the authority to give them citations if they admit to violating market rules, she instead tries to encourage honesty by asking the farmers to take the produce off of the table. She has been pleasantly surprised that many of her farmers have been forthcoming about the origins of their produce, whether legal or illicit.

Reinke offered a few words of encouragement to market managers struggling with the idea of acting like policemen: “It is more a matter of staying strong and enforcing policies over and over again than anything else. The battle is with the farmers, but it is also with yourself. The more you stand firm, the more fair the marketplace, and the less farmers will feel they need to cheat to compete with one another.”

Another promising tactic is to coordinate with other local businesses interested in producer verification. Lisa Bralts says that she has met with the produce buyer at her local food co-op, and is in the process of creating an information-sharing system to provide customers and vendors with as much information as possible about the origin of a vendor’s products, including the farm’s growing practices. Bralts finds such coordination to be particularly promising since, on her own, she has neither the time nor the technical agricultural knowledge to inspect vendor stalls and farms with ease, and establishing a team of market inspectors with specialized knowledge in various agricultural products can require more capacity and funding than many markets have.

com·mu·ni·ty kə-ˈmyü-nə-tē n., a unified body of individuals with common interests

By visiting vendors, sharing information where possible, and opening up an honest and respectful dialogue within the market, producer-only policy violations can, over time, be minimized. And when violations that do occur are dealt with firmly but kindly, their harm to the market is lessened.

But when the burden of enforcing a producer-only market seems to be too much, remember that it is a community effort—it is everyone’s responsibility to align their interests as producers and sellers with the joint interest of selling safe, healthy, and local food with the aim of strengthening, not deteriorating, the community fabric. As Mark Wall notes, farmers markets cannot thrive without products sold by the farmers who made them. Is it difficult to keep this component of the healthy market in place? “Of course. But it is essential.”

Browse and submit sample farmers market policies in FMC’s Resource Library at