Is it time to reboot farmers markets? Absolutely!
Remember watching FOOD, INC, and reading Michael Pollen’s book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma. There became an outpouring of shocking concern for the large industrial foods we were eating. This surge in awareness of where your food was coming from was met with a clamoring of more farmers markets across American.
Take a look at the USDA graph below to see 177% increase of farmers markets in the past 15 years. A closer look reveals the last five years increase has been only 10% with only 0.21% growth this last year.
In discussions with a number of farmers, ranchers and food artisans, this graph also matches a leveling of sales at north Texas farmers markets. Conversations mostly focus on external changes, such as, more farmers markets and grocery store adulterating the farmer’s label, customers’ cooking habits and food and meal prep delivery (convenience).
I went to the Texas Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association conference in central Texas last week in search for; “What can we do?”
“Rethink everything we do everyday,” said Michael Ableman of Soul Food Street Farm
For a whole afternoon, Michael energetically spilled out assessments of his farmers market booth and changes he makes to keep current and engage his customers.
Michael Abelman said, “We have a role to play for others”
- Farming is a process and it takes time
- Slow down and be present in the moment
- Show field to market chain all the way through
- Educate the customers of seasons and products
- Sharing together and building relationships
- Build continuity and loyalty
Taking these precious values of farmers markets, Alex Canepa (see bio below) and I lead a session, Farmers Markets TODAY on Saturday at the conference. The room was packed with farmers, producers, farmers market managers and consumers. What followed was an interactive dialogue of the strengths, improvements, opportunities and challenges for farmers markets.
Time to reboot farmers markets and rethink everything we do everyday!
Farmers Market TODAY Session Notes:
- WIC or similar programs (SNAP)
- Community/family destination
- Personal interaction and relationships *
- Unique products and learning opportunities
- Access to motivated customers
- Diversity of offerings
- Boosting local economy and food movement
- Creating experiences for the customer
- Connecting urban >> rural
- Entry to sales for new farmers and artisans
- Fresh food
- Brand development
- Small business incubator
- Partnerships with local business and initiatives (economic development)
- Nutrition education for the next generation
- Small footprint / low overhead
- Passion and energy
- Immediate feedback, quick to make changes in temporal settings – resilient
- Risk mitigation (sell overflow from wholesale contract failures)
- Ratio of farmers to artisan/craft offerings
- Infrastructure (tents, electric, parking, restrooms)
- Non-producer competition (dilutes value)
- Enforced (or lack of) standards
- Location and vendor placement in the market
- Leverage certified farmers’ market (TX ag)
- Market communication/education for customers (set expectations)
- Coordinated market and producer social media and marketing
- Technology: data collection and analysis, record keeping, sales validation
- Training for vendors (how to engage customers, build your brand)
- Business infrastructure: taxes and insurance
- Flexibility in market/vendor relationship and expectations
- Recruit diverse offerings: how to fill market gaps
- Partnerships with schools and youth organizations
- Reward system for children, via teacher engagement
- Demonstrations (chefs, wellness programs)
- Blended wholesale/market/CSA
- Chef-only event or time
- Family-oriented events
- Diversity and cultural understanding
- Year-round markets
- Local chamber and business partnerships
- Theme and holiday-related activities
- Leverage other festivals and fairs
- Statewide farmers’ market coalition/association
- Competition with meal packaging companies (Blue Apron, etc.)
- Too many farmers markets
- Faux farmers markets – Using the name- not farmers but resellers
- Funding, and staff availability and turnover
- Loss of facility/support
- Competition with events
- Consumer trends and expectations
- Connecting market managers and sharing best practices
- No state farmers’ market coalition
Michael Ableman, the cofounder and director of Sole Food Street Farms, is one of the early visionaries of the urban agriculture movement. He has created high-profile urban farms in Watts, California; Goleta, California; and Vancouver, British Columbia. Ableman has also worked on and advised dozens of similar projects throughout North America and the Caribbean, and he is the founder of the nonprofit Center for Urban Agriculture. He is the subject of the award-winning PBS film Beyond Organic narrated by Meryl Streep. His previous books include From the Good Earth, On Good Land, and Fields of Plenty. Ableman lives and farms at the 120-acre Foxglove Farm on Salt Spring Island in British Columbia
Alex Canepa directs the Sustainable Food Center’s farmers markets in Austin and advocates on behalf of direct-marketing farmers and ranchers at the state and federal levels. Before arriving at SFC, Alex served as the Research and Education Director of the National Farmers Market Coalition and led research on agriculture and food policy for the non-partisan Texas Senate Research Center. He holds a Master’s Degree from the University of Oxford and a Bachelor’s Degree from Trinity College Dublin. Alex lives in Austin, Texas.
Amanda Vanhoozier most recently served as director of market operations at the Dallas Farmers Market. She led the market’s transition to return it to the original 1941 intent – to be a producer-only venue for farmers to sell directly to customers. Amanda also founded other local food markets and gardens with the belief that following nature’s systems that sustain life would also cultivate healthy communities: the Coppell Farmers Market located between Dallas and Ft. Worth; Coppell Community Gardens, where a community of gardeners grows and donates just-picked produce to food pantries year-round; and Stringfellow School Outdoor Learning Environment, where children are introduced to growing food at a young age.