Common questions market managers encounter

Many farmers’ markets set up in public parks, municipal parking lots, and other public spaces. There are a range of creative partnerships around the region, but sometimes misunderstandings arise, often due to misperceptions about the structure and operation of farmers’ markets. These are some common questions that come up in meetings between municipal officers and FMs, along with the answers we provide when contacted on these issues. Given the great diversity of farmers’ markets and of community structures, local questions and answers may vary, but those listed below seem to arise regularly.

Q: What IS a farmers’ market? How are they usually structured?

A: Maine law defines a “farmers’ market” (FM) as a site where 2 or more farmers come together to sell their farm products directly to consumers. That last phrase is key, with the focus of the law being on ensuring that shoppers at farmers’ markets are buying food that was produced locally by the farmers. Up to 25% of a farmer’s display at a FM may be products he/she brings from another farm, but those items should be clearly labeled as to origin.

Q: The state law defines “farmers’ market.” Doesn’t the law say that only farmers can sell at a farmers’ market?

A: No. The law says that farmers selling food and farm products at a farmers’ market must have produced those products themselves. Most markets establish rules about what types of other vendors may participate in the market, keeping in mind what products are in demand in their communities. (For example, some farmers’ markets allocate 1-2 spaces per week to guest vendors who bring specialty products such as crafts or art. Some allocate a space for nonprofits to set up a display each week. Some welcome prepared foods, other don’t.)

Q: What is the process for joining a farmers’ market?

A: Most markets have an open application period during the winter. Those who wish to join the market must fill out a detailed application, including descriptions of their growing practices and capacity, listing products they intend to sell, and providing copies of all relevant licenses and insurances. If the applicant completes that step of the process by the deadline, usually they will be invited to present at a winter market meeting. There they will have the opportunity to tell the market members about their products, describe how they set up their booth, provide samples of their foods, and talk about what they will contribute to the market as a whole. Later the current market members will vote on the applicants. Those who are accepted will be offered a space at the market, usually as provisional members for the first year.

Q: How do farmers’ markets decide which new vendors to accept in any given year?

A: The first constraint is often space. Many Maine farmers’ markets simply have no room to expand, and therefore may have just one or two, or zero, openings, each year. Given available space, markets will try to fill voids in their offerings, since shoppers expect to find a range of products when they shop at a market. The market must consider the potential capacity of any applicant – can that farmer bring sufficient product, consistently, every week of the market, through the entire season? (A vegetable farmer with a greenhouse who can bring early and late produce may be a better option for the market than a farmer who can only produce vegetables for a few months, for example.) The market will also consider the potential contribution of a new vendor: What skills will they bring to market?

Q: Why can’t anyone just arrive and set up at the market if they want to do so?

A: Maine farmers’ markets are cooperatively run by the market members, most of whom have roles within the market, and all of whom know and abide by the rules and bylaws of the market. Typically each member has an exact set-up location assigned at the market (measured right down to the foot). The market manager has ensured that every member has the appropriate licenses from the state. The market members pay fees to join and weekly fees, most of which go to pay for the market’s insurance and promotional needs.

Q: Why should we let the farmers’ market set up on public property? Isn’t that offering an unfair advantage to those farmers over other businesses?

A: The tradition of farmers bringing their products from the countryside into the town center is a custom dating back to the Middle Ages. (Maine’s oldest farmers’ market, in Portland, began in 1768.) While many consumers place a premium on fresh, locally-produced foods, few have the time or ability to travel from farm to farm to purchase their foods. Likewise, farmers are occupied putting in long hours in production, and need a way to access many customers in a relatively brief period of time. Many farmers’ market also offer a unique gathering time and space for community members, attracting consumers to town who then do other in-town shopping that benefits area businesses.

Q: Should the town charge a market rent or lease fees to use public space?

A: Many town governments consider farmers’ markets a benefit they offer to their community, versus a benefit they offer to farmers, and for that reason do not charge the farmers’ market for the use of public space. Other factors include the size of the market (larger markets may have more funding to pay rent) and the duration and stability of the market (a new market might not be able to bear the burden of additional fees). Many established markets do pay to use public spaces, which generally guarantees them the exclusive use of that space during particular days/times/seasons.

Q: Our local market has farmers that drive in from 30 or more miles away. Shouldn’t it be restricted to farmers who live in our community?

A: Farm stands offer an opportunity for people to pick up local food from their immediate neighborhood. Farmers’ markets are opportunities for residents to pick up a range of local foods from the surrounding countryside. (The likelihood of having the full range of farm products residents want being grown/produced within one community by market farmers is virtually nil.)

Q: We’re concerned that there will be too much traffic downtown on market day. Won’t it hurt other businesses to have so many parking spaces taken up by market shoppers?

A: Most business owners like to see a bustling environment outside. Having more customers/new customers in the area is rarely a bad thing. Something as simple as asking employees to park a bit further away can ease parking pressure.

(A traffic study in Houlton’s Market Square, for example, found that most of the prime parking spaces in the area were occupied by employees of the bricks and mortar businesses. In Waterville, the farmers’ market has found that there are never fewer than 8 parking spaces available in the adjacent parking lot during market hours. The lot may look full at first glance, but there are ample spaces available.)

Q: How do we make sure the market has insurance, and that the participating vendors have the proper certifications for the foods they are selling?

A: Anyone who has concerns should check in with the market manager. (Individual vendors will probably have copies of their documentation with them at market, but to understand the process, check with the manager.)

Q: Why does the market have a deadline for vendors to apply?

A: The market needs time to review the application and supporting materials prior to the winter meeting. The applicant needs time to prepare for the winter meeting, where they will make the case for why they should be voted into the market. Like students applying to multiple colleges, many vendors apply to multiple markets, then decide which to join after the markets have made decisions about which vendors to accept. There needs to be time for those final decisions to be made before the markets prepare their publicity materials for the upcoming season (including posters, fliers, and website updates), which usually happens by April. Some markets are more loosely organized, but deadlines are essential for most.

Q: Does the City/Town need to be involved in running the market or on the board?

A: No. In fact, such an arrangement would be very unusual. Most municipalities have a range of regular community events, including church suppers, senior citizen groups, bingo nights, scouting events, bake sales, fairs, fishing competitions, etc… It is virtually impossible for town officials to acquire the expertise nor find the time to become involved in operations of these organizations and events.

Q: Are farmers’ markets nonprofit? How does it work if the farmers’ actual businesses are FOR profit but the market itself (and its association) is a nonprofit?

A: There are a few farmers’ markets in Maine that are operated by a nonprofit or civic group (such as a Grange), but most are operated cooperatively by the market members. They are run as nonprofit organizations (many are even incorporated as such with the state), which means that the market, as an entity made up of multiple farmers, does not make money above and beyond what is needed to sustain market operations. The market as an organization manages logistics such as insurance, promotion, outreach, etc…  and also coordinates programming such as music, childrens’ events, and SNAP/WIC access.

Q: We would like to limit participation at our town’s farmers’ market to vendors who live in the town. That would be a good way to support the local economy, right?

A: Money spent at local businesses has a powerful impact because it circulates locally multiple times, whereas money spent at big box stores tends to vanish from the local economy. Supporting a farmers’ market means supporting many small businesses. Unduly restricting a farmers’ market to the few market farmers within a town’s limits will limit the products available there, resulting in a market less useful for residents, few sales for farmers, and a market unlikely to survive.

Q: How can we support our local farmers’ market?

A: There are many things a municipal government can do to support its local market, including posting market info on the town’s website, working with the market to establish permanent signage, helping the market promote special events, and mentioning the market in promotional materials about the community. But the most important way to support the local farmers’ market is to visit the market! Farmers and town leaders across Maine work together is a variety of ways; all it usually takes is conversation to get the partnerships going.