Why It’s Essential to Educate Every Day

      Posted On: July 14, 2010

A Letter from the Board, by Cheryl DeBerry

Most farmers market producers and coordinators are knee-deep (scratch that…we’re “neck-deep”) in market season at the moment. With all the planting, tending, harvesting, washing, packing, and hauling needed to get items to the market, then the setting up, selling, and tearing down at the end of the market, plus the advertising, coordinating market activities, etc., who has time to educate people?  But with today’s environmental and political climate, it’s now or never.

Small-scale producers and farmers markets in general have been attacked in recent months by some major national leaders (most pointedly, in a letter to USDA Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, taking issue with the Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food Initiative). Why? We can all come to our own conclusions. In one sense, we know that the farmers market sector has reached a new point in its evolution when we’re picked on by the commodity groups which have traditionally held more sway with USDA. However, it does no market any good to sit around and rant about the notion, as espoused in the letter, that those who sell at farmers markets are little more than “small, hobbyist and organic producers whose customers generally consist of affluent patrons.”

Nope, we need Action.  That’s Action, with a capital “A”.

First, it’s no longer enough to say “farmers markets are good for everyone.”  We need to back that up with some hard data. Recently, we asked our members to pitch their data our way. Too busy to collect data? Don’t know how?  Work with a local community college business class or get a volunteer to help you. We need to know how many farmers are making a living through direct marketing and how communities are benefitting from farmers markets. For example, sales at the Emporia Farmers Market in Kansas have contributed $30,000 in state sales tax between 2003 and 2009. These are the kind of numbers FMC is compiling from its members and communicating to decision-makers at USDA and in Congress. At a time when both ‘jobs, jobs, jobs’ and ‘green economy’ are chanted like mantras, how can anyone scoff at the economic opportunities farmers markets offer to willing entrepreneurs?  Farmers markets are more than fun, they are meaningful and have real impact. But without hard data, this alone is not much of an argument. With the 2012 federal budget to receive myriad cuts, programs that help support farmers markets, like the FMPP, may not be immune to some sacrifice.

Our congressional representatives, and our communities, need to be educated about the true value of the local food movement, about how many people do, in fact, make a living with small and/or organic farming, and that consumers are interested in alternatives to the industrial agriculture model. We hope that you’ll use National Farmers Market Week (August 1-7) to take advantage of the recently updated Farmers Market Talking Points, and sample Press Release on the Markets Are Up! page.

In the big picture, our numbers of markets and producers may not seem significant at first glance.  But what if we got our customers on board?  If we educate our customers and they, in turn, call their congressmen, we could make a huge impact. Many of our customers are already well versed in local foods issues, but multitudes more are not. I think this even goes beyond our customers.

You may know that recently, the Farmers Market Coalition Board of Directors came to the conclusion that, more than anything, what distinguishes farmers markets is their role in educating their communities about what local means.

Imagine this: you’re sitting at a restaurant chatting with someone at the next table and you mention that you are involved with the local foods movement at farmers markets. Next they ask, “So, what’s the big deal about farmers markets anyway? The selection at the grocery store is much better.” Do you know what you’d say?  I sure do. In fact, I have an “elevator speech” – a quick run-down of why markets are important – prepared that I hit them with (gently, of course.)  I mention that local foods reduce greenhouse gases from transportation, that local foods taste better because they are fresher & picked at the peak of ripeness, that dollars spent locally circulate repeatedly through the local economy, that supporting farmers at farmers markets helps keep farms as open space in our community, having small, decentralized farms helps keep our food system safe, etc.  A quick dive into the FMC listserv archives will yield a chorus of elevator speeches from your peers about pricing and value. Data in the newly released ‘Real Food, Real Choice: Connecting SNAP Recipients with Farmers Markets,’ also has state-by-state statistics about the value of SNAP redeemed at farmers markets in 2009. In some states, these numbers are impressive.

Does it take a huge effort to educate people about farmers market issues?  No!  Can anyone do it?  Yes!  With the help of the Farmers Market Coalition, our role as educators is made much easier. In my day-to-day as both a farmer and educator, the FMC has helped tremendously with my “elevator speech”. Have you looked at the FMC Resource Library lately?  There are so many resources I’ve used there, including this one: A Health Sector Guide to Agriculture and Food Policy (see page 2 for some great talking points).  FMC, in partnership with the Wallace Center for Sustainable Agriculture, is presently developing some “Market Manager Frequently Asked Questions” (and answers) that will help us, as market vendors and managers, prepare even better elevator speeches. It will also be a starting place for state and regional organizations trying to respond to a flood of questions about how to start a market. The FMC Listserv is a tremendous venue, where we can all share our successes and challenges and help each other thrive.

What this all boils down to, is no one else is going to do this for us. Not only are we all teachers, but we have ready advocates in just about every farmer and every shopper at our individual markets. Together, we can create a paradigm shift at the federal level.  Your support as a member helps FMC better communicate hard numbers to the people in power. We have a great opportunity here to our stories.  Please do your part in educating the public about your markets, the impacts of those markets, and the need for participation in the political process.

If you’re not a member, won’t you join us and support our efforts to help you educate every day?

Cheryl DeBerry is chair of FMC’s Education Committee. She lives in Oakland, Maryland, where she serves as the Natural Resources Business Specialist for the Garrett County Department of Economic Development, and Co-owner (with her husband Charles) of DeBerry Farm Fresh Produce.