Do farmers’ markets need managers?

Starting a farmers’ market is a form of community organizing. It happens on two levels, organizing the market members and organizing the shoppers. Working with these two audiences takes very different forms, and I will concentrate here primarily on how the market members are organized.

Community organizing can take many forms depending on where the impetus for it originates. Some markets are self-organized communities, others are brought into existence by a parent organization of some type. This later type of market either eventually asserts its independence or it indefinitely remains dependent on the parent organization for its organization.

In my past 35 years of experience with farmers’ markets, the members in sponsored markets do not feel the market is their own, but rather that they are “renting space” at the market. Few decisions can be made by the market membership and the authority of the sponsor is looked to for almost all solutions.

In self-organized markets, the members feel they own the market, and decisions about how it is to be run are up to the membership. Naturally, when you consider many various group of five to thirty individuals who make up the markets, there is great variation in how universal member participation is, in how decision making works, how the work load is distributed, how well the market is actually run, and so forth. Some may have better meeting facilitators, a greater percentage of active members, or clearer rules than others.

A key to understanding the difference between the two types of organizing is whether the people who make up the market are referred to as “Members” or as “Vendors.” When you hear talk of market “vendors,” you hear people being referred to by what the speakers considers to be their primary function, that of selling at market. This is an example of the reduction of the market and its people to their economic function. When you hear of someone talking about market ”members,” you hear reference to someone who is an integral part of a greater whole, someone who has a say in things. You hear reference to a multidimensional person who also happens to be selling at market. Whenever I hear a market’s members referred to as “vendors,” I feel that either the speaker is being sloppy, or that they are thinking of the market membership as mere vending units.

One might ask the question: Is a farmers’ market a business itself or is it an association of businesses? My feeling, mostly derived from observation, has always been that a farmers’ market is an association of independent businesses. Each business has its own worries and concerns, its own product lines and ways of addressing market shoppers, and it’s own level of ability to work with others in a common endeavor such as the farmers’ market. All of this goes toward making up the wonderful diversity that is a farmers’ market.

So, does a farmers’ market need a manager? Only if that manager is hired by and accountable solely to the market members themselves and not to any other authority. The market members know best what the market needs, and their mutual interests must come first. The success of each market member rises and falls with the success of the market in serving the needs of all the market members. Managers hired by non-market authorities may have other agendas beyond the needs of the market members.

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.