Getting out from under

Transitioning from a sponsored market to an independent market

A guide for sponsors of farmers’ markets and members of sponsored farmers’ markets who want to move their market toward greater independence. We recognize that not all farmers’ markets are ready to welcome their market’s independence, nor are all sponsors ready to loosen the reins. But for those who are, we submit this article.

The Sponsor’s View

A sponsor of a farmers’ market might be a:Getting free of your burden.

  • Municipality

  • Grange

  • Hospital

  • Downtown Revitalization Group

  • Non-Profit

  • Private business or individual

Do you “own” and manage a farmers’ market, one that perhaps you helped to start?

Are you providing the market with a range of services?

Is providing these services something than you can keep doing indefinitely?

Has the market grown to the point where it is time for it to become more self-sufficient?

Here are some thoughts about how to determine whether it is time to—like the parents of a young adult—set the market free and get yourself out from under the responsibility of running the market.

And—like loving parents—you want the market to succeed on its own, but are willing to help wherever it may need help, and, importantly, not to help when it doesn’t really need it.

Many organizations find that it is worthwhile to start a farmers’ market for one or more of these reasons:

  • It provides healthy food for the local community

  • It helps bring the shopping public into an area

  • It creates a community open space

  • It connects shoppers with their food producers

  • It is a good use of available space

  • It is good for my organization’s employees or residents

  • It helps fulfill my organization’s mission

  • It keeps dollars in the local economy

  • It supports local agriculture

It should be noted that when a market becomes more independent of a sponsor, these benefits to the community as well as to the sponsor are enhanced, rather than lost or diminished.

A good way to get a market up and running is to have a sponsor willing to do much of the initial organizational legwork and cover most if not all of the initial promotion and other market operating costs. Most of the boots-on-the-ground work of actually making the market happen is done by the market members themselves, whereas much of the organizational coordination, promotion, and rule-making continues to be done by your organization.

There are costs involved for your organization, both in terms of the productivity of employees who are working with the market, the amount of energy your organization invests in the farmers’ market project, and the ongoing operating costs of running a successful farmers’ market. It is a good idea to occasionally ask yourself whether the energy and resources dedicated to operating the farmers’ market might be sapping potential energy and resources from other worthwhile projects, either existing or potential. If so, it might be time to help your duckling learn how to swim on its own.

Some of the duties involved in running a market include:

  • Collecting dues for joining the market, and perhaps daily dues for attendance

  • Keeping track of the market treasury

  • Printing market applications and making them available to the public

  • Recruiting new market members and deciding which of them are appropriate for the market

  • Holding meetings of the market membership where decisions can be made

  • Creating and maintaining market promotions via advertising, signage, brochures, website, Facebook page, etc.

  • Deciding how members will set up their displays, and resolving conflicts at market

  • Deciding opening and closing days, and days and hours of operation that meet member needs

  • Creating and maintaining an ever-developing set of market rules

  • Starting and sustaining an EBT program at the market

Once a market has been up and running for a year or so, the market enters a stage of increasing maturity. The market members have come to know and work with one another at some level, members who were new to attending a farmers’ market have gotten their “sea legs”, and many members have begun to develop their own visions of what the market could be. As a result, some members may begin to desire more control over those market decisions that previously have been made for them. Maintaining continued total control over the market beyond this point may impact negatively on market members’ sense of group ownership of the market and their feeling of involvement in it. Any move toward independence should not be perceived as rejection of or dissatisfaction with the sponsor. Rather, it should be viewed in terms of the market’s growing maturity, the success of your project, a desire for more flexibility in the relationship between market and sponsor, and progress toward less overall bother for the sponsor.

At various times in the recent past a farmers’ market’s independence from its sponsor has happened rather suddenly, and the process was generally traumatic for all involved. Much better is a planned transition in which steps can be taken to assure that both the sponsor’s interests and the market’s interests will be fully respected and well served.

Steps Toward Market Independence can include:

  1. A general meeting of the market membership can be called to announce the sponsor’s willingness to encourage the market to transition to a state of greater independence, and to gauge the members’ feelings and ideas regarding these steps.
  2. A farmers’ market association can be set up by market members with a preliminary set of simple by-laws defining the offices and member roles within the organization.
  3. A general meeting of market members could review, revise and update the market’s existing rules of operation.
  4. Under the control of a committee of market members the market could have its own website, Facebook page, and maybe an email newsletter.
  5. The annual and/or daily dues paid by members could be deposited into a separate bank account under control of the market members (probably the market’s new treasurer).
  6. The market could define and contract with the sponsor for some or any part of the services previously provided by the sponsor. The sponsor could continue using grants or other allocations to pay for these services, plus perhaps request a fee from the market for providing them. But the sponsor would no longer have to handle the day-to-day, year-in and year-out details of running and organizing the market.
  7. Not all of these steps need to be done the first year; it all depends upon how much the market members are willing to take on. Take these steps as appropriate.

Some of the services a sponsor might continue to provide to an independent market are:

  1. Being the market’s “landlord”, allowing or arranging for the use of a parking lot or other area for the market to take place. This would likely continue to come with the same or similar restrictions as now apply.
  2. Keeping the market’s insurance under the sponsor’s policy.
  3. Maintaining a liaison with the town officials.
  4. Occasional low volume printing and photocopying.
  5. Providing meeting space for market members.

Any of these services could be associated with a contractual annual fee paid by the market to the sponsor, although it is up to the sponsor whether these fees would fully cover the sponsor’s actual costs.

The Sponsored Farmers’ Market’s View.Even a gentle thumb can weigh you down.

Just like all farmers’ markets are different, market sponsors can also display a wide variation when it comes to the willingness to listen to market members. Some sponsors may be easy going and quite attentive to the concerns of the market members, while others may have neither the time nor inclination to be bothered listening to the farmers. Poor sponsor responsiveness may be due to time constraints or other pressures put on the market organizer, their lack of awareness of the needs of small entrepreneurs, a feeling of being the “wise professional” who is helping the helpless, or some other factor.

This section attempts to identify some of the problems members of sponsored markets may experience. If some of them sound familiar to you, we hope you will find these suggestions helpful.

Life in a sponsored farmers’ market is often much easier for market members than it is in an independent market. All you have to do is show up with your products and sell to the public. All of the details of organizing and promoting the market are taken care of for you. From the point of view of your own operation, you are an entrepreneur—but from the point of view of your marketing, you are on welfare. You are being given a handout instead of taking responsibility for your own marketing. You are taking little responsibility for making sure the market happens instead of working with the other market members to make it happens well.

In some cases you might even feel like you are expected to just sit down, shut up and sell your stuff. And to be grateful that someone is making the market happen for you.

Nevertheless, it is sometimes difficult to demonstrate to some market members that a sponsored market is not an ideal situation for them. Until, that is, a decision is made from “on high”, that doesn’t sit right, or is obviously the wrong decision for the good of the market members. Or until the sponsor’s cash spigot is turned way down or completely off. Or until the sponsor’s market champion leaves the sponsor or is re-assigned. Or until the sponsor decides to rearrange its priorities. Then the market is in trouble because the market members have not previously taken on the collective responsibility for their common marketing efforts.

 These are not blue-sky “what if” scenarios, but are real examples of what has actually happened in various sponsored markets in Maine, such as in Waterville in the late 1980’s or in Unity in 2006. Taking an increased responsibility for making your own market happen is the best way to prepare for a sponsor who may someday become either tyrannical, broke, or no longer interested. In any case, taking more responsibility for some at least parts of the whole package of activities required to make the market happen means lightening the load on the sponsor, while keeping the sponsor involved in some of those activities that the sponsor is uniquely able to perform.

Moving your market toward independence can be scary and is best done slowly and thoughtfully, perhaps occurring over a transition period of a year or two. During this time, the needs of the individual market members, the overall good of the farmers’ market, and the interests and sensitivities of the sponsor all need to be looked at by all parties with great care and respect. The “Steps Toward Market Independence” listed above is a good place to begin.

Fortunately there are many existing examples of very successful independent Maine farmers’ markets, and copies of their by-laws, member applications, and operating rules are available online to review. In addition, there may already be several of your market’s members who belong to an independent market, so they may have a pretty good idea of the best directions to take. The Maine Federation of Farmers’ Markets can suggest people who will talk with a market and/or its sponsor concerning the subject of transitioning, gauging how ready a market may be for it, and at what pace to proceed.

For more information about how independent markets are organized, how markets and their members can be promoted, and for a wide range of other resources, consult the website of the Maine Federation of Farmers’ Markets or contact the author directly at [email protected].

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.