The Farmers’ Market: An opportunity for self management

What is a Farmers’ Market anyway?

At its core, a farmers’ market is a group of farmers (and often other producers) who gather together regularly to offer their wares for sale to the public. In this sense a farmers’ market is itself a business, one whose make up consists of a part of the business of each of its members.

In the view of  many people, this seems to be a primarily economic activity; however, there are many other parts to a farmers’ market aside from its members’ core activity of trading goods for cash. Focusing solely on a market’s sales parts ignores other aspects of a farmers market, many of which are quite critical both to a market’s short term and long term success.

Aside from the obvious benefits of providing fresh locally produced items to the public, some of  these other aspects of a farmers’ market include:

  • Providing a low entrance-threshold method for start-up producers to market their wares.

  • Creating a community shopping space for shoppers to informally congregate and meet neighbors.

  • Generating opportunities for information trading about production and marketing practices among producers.

  • Allowing shoppers to know who is providing their food, and to learn from these producers..

  • Bringing shoppers into the area of the market enhances shopping at nearby local businesses and overall generates community pride..

  • Allowing producers to develop the skills that better enable them to market together.

It is this last benefit of a market that I wish to focus on here.

A market is the sum of its members

Regardless of what mix of sole proprietorships or incorporated entities that makes up a market’s membership, the decisions made about how each market member will participate in the market are made by one or more people representing that market member. The sum of at what level each of the market members decide to participate in the market is a defining characteristic of that market.

Although each market member may produce a different type of item to bring to market and have a different “home organization”, once at market they become part of a collective whole that presents itself to the public in a way that benefits each member of the market.

Cog in a Machine, or Active Participant?

Some markets are simply places to sell your wares. You pay your dues, show up at market, sell your stuff, and go home. These markets are often organized by a sponsoring person or entity who makes all the rules and determines how the market is run. You are a cog in their market machine. An interchangeable part in a small but mass-market oriented scheme. As a producer, you yourself have become a commodity. You are little more than a “vendor machine” where shoppers put their money in and take out their food.

Other markets, usually those started by the producers themselves, are run by the members. In these markets, it is the market membership that has the role of deciding on the rules, who can join the market, and how the market operates. Many members of such markets have defined roles in making the market happen, and these roles are often rotated among the membership. This active fraction of market participants shows all the market members that it is the members who are in charge of the market.

Who actually is the market?

Looking again at a farmers’ market as a business, we must ask “Who are the workers in this business?” The answer is clearly that the principal workers in any farmers’ market are the people who produce the goods offered for sale, who pack them up and bring them to market, who create the displays and interact with shoppers. True, the market may have others, either in paid or volunteer positions, who do other managerial or promotional work for the market, but clearly the most critical “boots on the ground” and “workers on the line” are the market members themselves.

In other words, those farmers’ markets where the market members are running the market are involved in a form of workers’ self-management. Wikipedia describes “workers’ self-management” this way:

“Workers’ self-management is a form of workplace decision-making in which the workers themselves agree on choices (for issues such as customer care, general production methods, scheduling, division of labour) instead of an owner or traditional supervisor telling workers what to do, how to do it and where to do it.

“Workers’ self-management is often the decision-making model used in co-operative economic arrangements such as worker cooperatives, workers’ councils, Inclusive Democracy, participatory economics, and similar arrangements where the workplace operates without a boss. This model of decision making does not involve consulting all employees for every tiny issue in a time-consuming, inefficient and ineffective manner. Real-world examples show that only large-scale decisions are made by all employees during council meetings and small decisions are made by those implementing them while coordinating with the rest and following more general agreements.”

This quite accurately describes the way many self-managed farmers’ markets have organized themselves, or at least have as their operational goal. It is a step toward working together to build an alternative, more democratic economic system, as well as a way to effectively distribute food. Thus, when we consider the economic aspects of a farmers’ market, we should also think about those aspects of the farmers’ market that may well extend beyond the traditional business models that most of us are familiar with.

How is member-management done?

The ultimate decision making body of a self-managed farmers’ market is the general meeting of the market membership. This meeting is held at least once a year usually during the winter months, and everyone who has sold at the market the previous season (and who is in good standing) is invited to attend. The primary job of the general meeting is to elect the steering committee and decide on overall market policy for the coming year.

Most self-managed farmers’ markets use the familiar system of officers and steering committee, with other market members helping out in various ways. The officers (president, treasurer, secretary, market master, etc) are elected on an annual basis from among the market’s membership. The steering committee is made up of the officers (who have defined roles and jobs) plus several other market members who broaden the decision base but who may not have defined roles. The steering committee has the responsibility to run the market for the year implementing the decisions made by the general meeting(s) of market members. Market members who are not on the steering committee often have other jobs that help the market’s operation in some way, such as putting away traffic cones or setting out signs.

It’s Not Always Easy

In practice, one of the greatest difficulties comes from trying to recruit a sufficient number of market members to fill the steering committee positions that will get the work done. In some markets this is a major and recurring problem, while in others there are plenty of members who offer to step into these volunteer positions. Existing members who are aware of the desirability to operate as a democratic workplace require skill in showing and explaining this desirability to any non-active market members.

Certainly “showing by example” is an important method, but there often needs to be less silent, more enhanced ways employed to convince passive market members to become active members of the market.

  • Cajoling low participation members to join the steering committee may work, especially if you can identify in them a skill that the market could use.

  • Mentioning often that “Many hands make light work” or “The market works because of those who make it work” can convince some to feel they should join in.

  • Discussions and eliciting of opinions during non-meeting times gets members to think about market issues.

  • Having an actual market job list that everyone must choose something from is a way to make specific the market’s job needs, and help pair up a market member with a job.

  • Have more than one or two market members urge passive members to become participatory members, so that participating seems to be part of the market’s culture.

  • Associate being a passive market member with being a “freeloader” upon the work of the active members.

  • Realize that not every market member has the skills/time/wellness to help the market every year, so allow some slack for some members; but not indefinitely.

  • If a well-functioning market is good for everyone’s business, then it’s everyone’s duty to help the market function well.

If the old refrain “But I don’t have the time to help out” is heard, then inquire when the person does have free time, then see if there is a market job for them to do during that time. All the whle remind them how important it is for everyone to help out because of all the benefit they get from the market.

There are “assistant” functions that market members can perform, such as vice-president or assistant treasurer, which don’t require the time, effort, or commitment of the main job, but the assistant is familiar with the job in case the primary person in unavailable or needs occasional help.

There is in-season work to do and off-season work to do. This choice of work season can better fit the needs of some folks.

Market Meetings are Important

Not only is having meetings important, but how they are run is, too. One critical method of encouraging participation is to be sure that everyone feels that the procedures followed at meetings are fair to all involved. If a portion of the membership feels meetings are “run by a closed clique”, then there is little faith among those members that they have any say in the operation of the market. Meetings need to have a balance between eliciting responses from shy people and keeping those with more aggressive voices reigned in. It needs to be plainly demonstrated that everyone has an equal say, regardless of how timidly or how loud they make their views known. There are many good suggestions for how to have better meetings at and at

It is also important when decisions are made at a meeting, to follow up on those decisions. If someone is to enforce a group decision, then they should always make it clear that “This is what the group decided.” Rule enforcers aren’t doing it for themselves, but in compliance with the will of the market.

If someone said they would do something, others should inquire how it went, not to pester them but as a reminder or by simply showing interest. It is corrosive to the group when a decision is made but that decision is never carried out.

Marketing Together Better

Aside from the pride and mutual respect that is generated when market members work together to operate their own market, there are further advantages to running a market this way.

  • The people who directly benefit financially from the market are at the helm.

  • If decisions are made that negatively affect members, decisions can be changed expeditiously.

  • When the people doing the work are in charge of the work environment, more appropriate decisions are made regarding how things get done.

  • Rules, location, and market schedules best meet the needs of the members who develop and agree to them beforehand.

  • The culture of the market reflects the market members themselves, and feedback happens quickly.

  • There is no outside agenda determining market functioning or of getting the market to fit into a sponsor’s project goals. Nearly everything comes from within the market.

  • When a market has members who attend several other markets, cross-fertilization of ideas (and their implementation) happens more readily.

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.