Missing the point about “Why Farmers’ Markets Fail:” A lesson in radical green economics of yesterday and tomorrow

The recent feature article “Why Do Some Farmers Markets Fail?” excerpted from an extension bulletin by Larry Lev, Garry Stevenson and Linda Brewer in the March/April 2008 issue of Farmers’ Markets Today seems to have left out some very important factors leading to the demise of certain farmers markets.

The article does mention several factors that genuinely retard market success, such as balancing farmers’ expectations and need for income versus the inability of a new and/or small market to attract sufficient shoppers to make the venture worthwhile. And, just like any other small business, the first few years are indeed the most risky.

However, one of the critical factors overlooked seems to be “Who’s in charge of the market?” While the authors appropriately give much attention to the need for proper market management (and excessive attention to creating and maintaining a managerial class within the market), their solutions seem to widely miss the mark. In fact, their advice to establish a board and managerial class wholly apart from the farmer and artisan foot soldiers of the market is, in my experience, exactly one hundred and eighty degrees off course. They seem to ignore the value and power of democratic management of a market.

There is an underlying and unspoken assumption in this and many other “advice to farmers’ markets” articles I have read, that farmers are incapable or unwilling to manage the market themselves, yet nothing could be further from the truth. Far from being just “dumb farmers”, most of today’s farmers and artisans have re-invented farming and small scale food production while having to buck the advice from the “experts” who told us our scale of operation and attempts to make a living from direct marketing was naiive and doomed to failure.

Over the past decade or two we have become so successful at following our own rules to accomplish the impossible that we are appearing on the radar of non-profits and government agencies across the land, we are given the standard business school rhetoric of how we need a professional management class in order to succeed.

Whenever a market has an non-member manager, indeed even when it has a sponsor, great care needs to be given that the aims and goals of the market aren’t diluted or subverted by those non-producing “helpers”, who inevitably have goals and aims of their own, with the market being a means to their own ends. Only in farmer-driven and farmer-managed markets can farmers be assured their needs are being addressed and met.

What about when a market has fifty or even a hundred members, isn’t a separate manager necessary then? We first should consider why a market would grow so large. Shouldn’t we learn from biology that organisms only grow to a certain size before dividing or going extinct from the inability to maintain their size? Are we willing to ignore 4 billion years of accumulated evolutionary intelligence just because we’re stuck in a mid 20th century “bigger is better” rut? There is such a thing as optimal size, and I submit that the optimal size for any farmers’ market is being exceeded once the membership grows beyond approximately fifty members. Beyond that, additional markets should be organized by the farmers and artisans who can’t get into the existing market. In other words, follow the example from biology, grow by addition up to a certain point, then grow by multiplying.

Apparently unbeknownst to many well-meaning ivory-tower advice-givers is that there are other models of economic activity that work especially well for small and semi-experienced business people. Models that aren’t profit- and growth-driven, but rather have multiple bottom lines such as democratic member control and management, member-member bonding, member-shopper bonding, member education in marketing and in market management, community building, partaking in the reduction of food miles, reinforcing the public awareness of local food sheds, keeping food dollars circulating locally, and, yes, also balancing the market’s books. Each of these interdependent bottom lines is critical to the success of a market, and deserve more than a passing mention.

Why should farmers and artisans be bothered trying to manage their own market? Because their livelihoods depend on it. Because they are familiar with how the market works from being in the trenches, where shoppers hand you their money in exchange for the goods you have created. I often remind fellow market members that by direct marketing they are not eliminating the middle-man, they are becoming the middle-man, assuming the onus of marketing onto themselves instead of paying someone else to do it. Yet direct marketing at a farmers’ market doesn’t end with loading your vehicle and setting up, but rather includes seeing to it that what the market as a whole represents to the shopping public is in line with what we each need to make a go of it at market. It’s not automatic, and requires a little sweat and investment of time in the off-season to be sure that the market runs smoothly during the busy season. But a successful market is worth it.

Grant and sponsorship funding is like coffee; it may be a good way to get yourself started, but a poor way to keep yourself fed. Depending on outside money is inherently unsustainable; when the money goes away, then so does the market. No business with hopes of being sustainable should ever be on the dole, on the constant outlook for free money. Free money is a drug that keeps us from facing the realities of the very economic environment we’ve learned to navigate when operating our own farming and artisan businesses. Free money is always spent wastefully, because folks can’t help but value it for what it costs. When market members spend earned money, they are frugal and careful how it it spent. This is how we live our own lives, so why should the way we operate the market be any different?

Why should we ignore the lessons of the skills hard-won from running our own businesses when we are attempting to establish a cooperative marketing outlet with other farmers and artisans? It just doesn’t make sense to think that the knowledge and understanding we have gained from operating our own businesses wouldn’t be just as useful in managing our farmers’ markets. Indeed, the combined marketing savvy of a collection of farmers and artisans opting to work together to market their products is often far greater than any one farmer alone.

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.