What’s Your Return on Investment?: A Letter from the Executive Director

      Posted On: July 13, 2011

by Stacy Miller, Executive Director

This marks an important time of year for farmers markets, and not only because of the obvious reason that it’s smack dab in mid-season for many.  Fifty Discover You Can markets are getting innovative with canning education across the country, and in every market e-newsletter that comes across my desk, I see something creative designed to get people excited about local produce.

Many of you, too, might remember with great clarity what you were doing on Friday July 1st, leading up the the long holiday weekend; some of you, in fact, might remember what you were doing at precisely 11:50 p.m. that night, finally hitting “submit” on a Farmers Market Promotion Program (FMPP). Though FMC does not directly submit proposals for the program, I am still fortunate enough to be on the periphery of this process, from which I can take part in a flurry of proposal revisions, letters of support, and number crunching along with some of our members. The morning after the deadline, while talking with volunteers at the City Market (Charlottesville, VA), I learned of still more late night wrestling matches with Grants.gov (and have learned of still more even since).  It is a gift to work alongside the many dedicated people in this movement who are so passionate about their communities, so committed to continually improving their operations, and so skilled at leveraging small amounts of funding to catalyze cross-cutting social change at the local level.

This year, the FMPP was funded higher than ever before ($10 million), representing a victory that few could have foreseen five years ago. Unfortunately, the 2011 grant cycle was also unique in other ways: it offered a tight 30 day application window which fell not in the early spring, but precisely when market organizations are at their busiest. Under normal circumstances, eligible entities would have 45 days to apply, enabling the organizations powered by volunteers to familiarize themselves with the process, identify partners, and fit grant-writing into their free time.  It will be interesting to see what, if any, influence these timing factors had on the number, quality, and type of applications being submitted.

Though you wouldn’t know it because it’s cloaked behind broader debate on the debt ceiling, Congress, too, is smack-dab in the middle of important conversations about the nation’s budget for agriculture. The House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee hosted several hearings, or “audits” of various departments within USDA, including one on July 7th that dealt with Specialty Crop Programs in the Agriculture Marketing Service.  Though the focus of these “audits” is the reduction of waste, fraud, and abuse, it portends some serious questions up ahead.  What difference are these programs having, really? Are they good use of taxpayer funds?

As I anticipate these questions, I’m reminded of my tenure as a market manager, when, in 2007, a $5,380 West Virginia Specialty Crop Block Grant (which I also wrote late at night), seemed like a wheelbarrow full of gold.  What didn’t we do with that money is actually a more relevant question than what we did do, though I’ll attempt the latter anyway: We designed recipe coupons- one for spring and one for fall, the far ends of the bell curve when our farmers needed a sales boost. We tracked where they were disseminated and monitored redemption rates. We got a logo designed by university students and printed on organic cotton tote bags as well as on hats and buttons for all our farmers, banners hung throughout the downtown area, and a pop-up tent under which we could provide information to customers. We built relationships with local businesses and nonprofits, opened the market’s first real checking account, and began planning with the city for a permanent downtown structure (which, by the way, is finally in its design phase; all good change is slow, after all). We paid our local food co-op to conduct vegetarian cooking demonstrations AND even paid for some of my time to coordinate all this. In 2007, sales for our farmers grew more than 60% from the previous year, and the average sales per farmer nearly 50%. Looking back, I’m baffled at how such a small infusion of resources could have enabled so much, without much difficulty.  I had an entirely different full-time job, and never felt like I was sacrificing personal time.

What I’m saying here is that farmers markets are startlingly efficient mechanisms for positive social and economic change. Though their dependence on unpaid labor is not necessarily a good thing, their power to energize volunteers and inspire broad community support makes the return on investment unparalleled.  And the potential for job creation equally huge.

But I think it’s time we tested this hypothesis. Starting today, the Farmers Market Coalition is taking a small step in this direction by building a database of farmers market projects funded by federal grant programs.  If your organization has ever been funded by an FMPP Grant, Specialty Crop Block Grant (through your state department of agriculture), SARE Grant, or any other kind of USDA grant program, we want to hear from you.  Depending on what kind of funding we can leverage, we will begin reaching out to the people on this list to assess the impacts these program have had in your community and help tell your stories.  Please click here to add your name to this database.  Your information will be kept confidential; and we pledge to be respectful of your limited time in any follow up inquiries.

As we ramp up for National Farmers Market Week, FMC extends a hearty cheers to the thousands of hard-working farmers market staff and volunteers busy organizing community programs and weaving a more sustainable future for your regions farms. We’re with you.