A farmers market in your town?

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Should there be a farmers’ market in your town? Of what value is a farmers’ market in a town?

What is a Farmers’ Market?

A farmers’ market is not a random collection of tailgate vendors. It is a self-policing non-profit organization that consists of farmers, gardeners, bakers, specialty food producers and/or crafters. The market members decide on their days and hours of operation and length of season, then attempt to create a viable presence of vendors at those times.

It is helpful to understand that the market is an organized collection of independent growers each with their own standards of friendliness, quality, display, selection and price. They have joined together in a Farmers’ Market Association to assure the shopping public of regular hours, high quality, and wide selection, and to thereby attract more customers than any one of them could do alone.

Market members have agreed to follow the rules of the market and pay dues to the association as a prerequisite to sell at the market. The farmers’ market assures that each market member has obtained all proper state licenses for items being offered for sale.

What does a market need from the town?

Not much. Some markets set up on private property within the town, while others may request permission to set up on town property. An appropriate amount of space for four to twelve cars or pickup trucks to set up tables as well as adequate parking for the expected number of customers. Whether on private or public space, the market would appreciate the possibility of a long-term commitment for the availability of their location.

Any town codes restricting transient roadside sales should not disallow the existence of a market, nor should they be applied to individual market members. In essence, the town will only have to deal with one entity, even if the market is made up of a dozen or more members.

Similarly, any town signage regulations should allow for temporary sandwich board-style or similar signs set up when the market is in session as well as signage along the routes leading to the markets location.

Often a market will appreciate a place in the town to hold off-season organizational meetings, and offering such places for the market’s use might be appreciated.

Some towns have newsletters mailed to town residents one or more times a year. Mentioning the new farmers’ market and it’s season, opening dates, schedule of days and hours would be helpful. Some towns offer to insert the market’s brochure in their mailing, or have market brochures available at the town office, etc.

If nothing else, when the role of the town is seen as friendly and helpful, the likelihood of the success of the market will be increased. The most successful markets manage themselves, and attempts to micro-manage a market from the town office or otherwise outside of the market has resulted in poor market performance. The advantage to allowing for a market’s internal “one-member, one vote” governance structure to emerge is that each market member’s own economic self interest will drive the impulse for the best market possible and the pooling of their collective expertise in this area will drive the growth of the market. Why expend your resources doing for others when they are perfectly capable of doing for themselves?

What does the town need from a market?

A town needs to assure its traffic patterns are not prohibitively disrupted by the presence of a farmers’ market. This is where the town being involved at an early stage will make the market organizers aware of town needs. In general, in-town businesses will welcome the augmented traffic created by shoppers visiting the market.

The town should also work with the market to assess each upcoming season and make sure that the market does not interfere with other scheduled events and vice-verse, that scheduled events won’t interfere with the regularly scheduled time and place of the market. It is very difficult to “move the market” for a day—patterns are disrupted, set-up is chaotic and there is no way to insure that all the customers will know where their market will be if it is displaced in favor of another event, such as a rally, parade or festival. For any events that might disrupt the market, working with the market manager as early as possible would be appreciated, since market members are very busy from May through October.

Farmers’ markets generally have a set of rules for the market members to follow. The town could review these rules at an early stage to look for possible conflicts with existing town codes or other difficulties that might arise. This works toward preventing misunderstandings later on. Any changes in the market rules usually has to be agreed upon by the market membership, so making such changes “official” may take time, but markets are usually very sensitive to their landlord’s requests and requirements.

How does the town benefit?

Towns benefit from a farmers’ market in several ways. Many towns have used a farmers’ market as a way to keep shoppers buying downtown. All across the nation  studies have shown that once shoppers have driven to the market, they are more likely to buy from nearby small businesses.

Many residents greatly enjoy the possibility of purchasing fresh farm produce, dairy, meats and baked goods at a central location in their own town. The old-time open-air aspect generates a fair-like atmosphere, and many residents new and old will enjoy this alternative way of shopping. Gardeners talk to professional local small farmers about their favorite topics. Cooks and chefs see what is in season and exchange recipes. People who grew up on a farm feel a little closer to their roots.

Some towns, when attempting to attract business to the town, will mention the town’s farmers’ market as an enhancement to the town’s quality of life. A farmers’ market is one way of building community identity in a town, and is a wonderful service to the people who live or work in a town. And as a bonus, it is accomplished with little or no town funds.

The attending farmers not only sell in your town, they often will make their purchases there, too, as it becomes the “trip to town” in their busy summer schedules. In any case, the shoppers’ food dollars go directly into the local economy instead of being siphoned off to far away growers and distributors.

Food security has become an issue of concern of late. Farmers’ markets are an ideal way to avoid the long and increasingly perilous journey food from distant lands takes to our tables. The very nature of the production of food by dozens of small and micro farms surrounding our towns produces supply lines almost impossible to disrupt by any who would terrorize our food system or even a simple breakdown in transit supply lines as seen by the gasoline shortages of the 80s and the price spikes in our own decade. Having one or more farmers’ markets in town assures there will be many independent local production units bringing food into town once or more each week. At present, this amounts to but a tiny portion of the food requirements of any community, but as the popularity of farmers’ markets grows more local farmers and more markets will arise and supply an ever greater percentage of the food the townspeople use.

What will it cost the town?

Properly done, a farmers’ market should cost a town virtually nothing.

Some towns have played a role in acquiring and administering grants for promotion of a market during the market’s initial start-up period. Often these grants dovetail with a town’s downtown revitalization efforts.

Markets generally do their own promotion via brochures, local newspaper advertising, and other means that direct shoppers to your town. This activity is usually funded by market dues paid by the vendors into the market’s treasury.

How to get started

Maybe you have already been approached by a group wanting to start a market. In that case, a supportive attitude toward the market, as described above, will be much appreciated.

If, on the other hand, you are looking to get a market started in your town, then approaching local farmers or farmers who have set up at nearby farmers’ markets would be a good place to start. Let them know that your are hoping that a market will start in your town and have a few potential locations to offer. Finding a location is frequently one of the most difficult aspects of getting a market off the ground.

Getting the community involved in organizing a market provides volunteer labor rather than using busy town officials. This is also a way of gauging the interest of the townspeople in a farmers’ market.

Contact your local Cooperative Extension Service or the Maine Department of Agriculture for a list of farmers and market gardeners in the vicinity. Set a meeting date.

For more information

More information on what towns have markets or how to start a market can be seen at the website of the Maine Federation of Farmers’ Markets www.MFFM.org

Farmers’ Markets are ancient and simple. Most parts of the world have a tradition of farmers’ markets going back for centuries. In today’s rush for one-stop convenience shopping and year-round availability of foods from the global marketplace, our communities all too often have lost touch with the productivity of our small local farms. And the small scale grower has lost the connection with markets of appropriate scale. A Farmers’ Market offers a solution where 100% of the shoppers dollar goes directly to the local farmer and stays in the local economy.

But farmers’ markets are much more than just a place to sell food. They have become important community institutions, a type of “New England community reunion”. They are a venue for socializing, where town residents meet farmers and talk to their neighbors. They have figured in the revitalization of downtown districts, bringing people into areas that have become under-utilized by town residents. In many cities, farmers’ markets are situated in low-income neighborhoods where there are no supermarkets, so they provide an important source of food security to the people who live in those neighborhoods. Farmers’ Markets serve an educational function, too, helping people learn how to eat better, how to grow gardens, and that much of their food really can come from Maine.

About Tom Roberts

When I started attending the Brewer Farmers’ Market back in August of 1983, my sole concern was being able to sell the produce my farm was growing at a good price. After attending market for a year or two, I began to realize that how the market was organized had a great impact on my sales. And how the market was organized also influenced how it made decisions about dues, new members, what could be sold at market, and how it promoted itself—and this, too, had an impact on my sales. So I got involved in the market’s steering committee and began to understand how various market members thought the market should operate. Some wanted a market czar, some wanted everyone to be allowed to do their own thing. But everyone seemed to agree that if the market as a whole did well, then so did they.