Notes from the Wisconsin Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Conference

      Posted On: January 25, 2018

by Dar Wolnik, FMC Senior Researcher |

In truth, my favorite farmers market conferences are those that also include solid tracks for farmers. Having both groups in one place, able to peek into various sessions and use the social time to hear from their peers usually on the other side of the table is invaluable.

This conference does this well, offering these tracks:

– Apple
– Berry
– Farmers Markets
– Grape
– Vegetable
– Success Strategies
– Ag Tourism
– Winery

The conference was held at the Kalahari Resort and Convention Center in Wisconsin Dells, which even in cold and slightly dreary Wisconsin winter months is lively and energetic due to its mammoth indoor water park, bowling alley, go-karts, arcade room, and a score of other physical exertion activities available. The combination of the 112,000 square foot conference center embedded into the hotel means one sees families in bathing suits going by the meeting rooms, and the possibilities of after-conference activities are more than the usual dinner out. In addition, the African artwork and tropical lighting everywhere makes everyone feel warmer and soothed.

The session list is too long to list here, but it seemed to have something for everyone at every level of proficiency. I popped into a session on online sales for wineries which seemed like a master class on customer service.

The cider tasting during breaks at the trade show area was a standout among the many conference activities. Offering six or so varieties with some pasteurized and some raw, the ballot ranking the different characteristics was beyond my cider knowledge, but the level of serious consideration that the local participants gave it was impressive.


The facilitator of the farmers market track at this annual meeting is Kristin Krokowski, who wears many hats just like most of her state organizer peers around the U.S. During the “day,” she works at her full-time position of Waukesha County UW-Extension Commercial Horticulture Educator and somehow shoehorns in the farmers market association work, working alongside her dedicated board of market leaders. She has created some excellent resources for markets and like many of our food system leaders, she also finds the time to manage a farm and a family with her husband. Kristin had invited me to talk about data, both the collection and the use of it by markets. The room was full of managers and vendors, some serving both roles at their market and as always, ready to learn and share.

Dusty Krikau, Director of Special Events and Communication for Downtown Fond du Lac kicked off the day with an excellent “Tools for Social Media Posts” workshop. Taking stock of the room, she asked which sites people were managing for their market or their vendor business; Facebook was the clear winner with Twitter and Instagram right behind. YouTube, LinkedIn, and blogs were also being used. Snapchat was the last in the polling.

Offering rules of thumb for what the optimum number of updates for each site might be, the most administrators for a FB page (no more than 3), the number of fonts a market should be using in all materials and sites (no more than 7), levels of engagement for posts that included just text, or those that have a graphic, or a photo, or even a video and solid advice on online image and video editing apps and sites to use, she set a great pace for those of us following her.

I think I see a national webinar in this woman’s future.

The balance of skills for market attendees is usually most evident during workshops on food safety. As the licensing for vendors workshop was easily the most dynamic with extremely detailed questions and possible scenarios being asked by the market managers of the state’s licensing staff, I’d say the markets are in good hands

Data Collection

The presentation of evaluation to markets has changed over the last 12+ years. What used to be a wild idea reserved for the wonkiest or ambitious markets has clearly now become de facto market work. When markets find the sweet spot for their community’s need for data and take the time to work through potential problems and likely strategies ahead of time, a culture of data collection and use becomes the norm. Getting markets to that point relies on the right tools, the right support and most importantly, the right attitude about the need for data among those leaders.

In the past, that type of added work had rarely been supported with sustained funding or with tools expressly designed for markets (with a shout out to the SEED and RMA tools that markets have had available for decades) and as a result, it is presenting any available templates that are the true “lean forward” moments in these presentations. Another buzzy moment in any room filled with market leaders talking about evaluation is when they share tips on best practices and on possible channels for finding volunteers to assemble a data collection team. This one was no different.

Following Dusty’s example, I asked for a show of hands as to how many markets and vendors had collected data in 2017 (most) and how many expected to collect data in 2018 (just about all).

Fewer hands on the question if the data was used widely with vendors, or with shoppers or beyond the market’s program partners, a similar response to other states I have presented in recently. Skillful and strategic use of data in market systems is definitely the next beachhead to tackle. (Read my recent post on how market data can benefit market vendors here.)

Finally, the best indicator of how well this stuff reaches those in the room, and how ready they are for it, is how many stick around to ask questions and to discuss the ideas with each other after the speakers are done. This one was as chatty as any I have been in lately, leaving me confident that many more leadership moments from Wisconsin markets can be expected.