Farmers market politics

We might think that the world of farmers markets is a happy one, full of lovely people trying to improve the way we eat. Devra Gartenstein explains how, whilst the food is good, behind the scenes it is not always sweetness and roses.

In 2007, when a community group in Seattle’s Queen Anne neighborhood decided that they wanted a farmers’ market in their area, they figured they’d better partner with one of the two groups that organized virtually all of the weekly neighborhood markets in the city. In choosing between the two farmers’ market organizations, the neighborhood group faced a choice between working with one set of personalities rather than another, as well as a choice between management styles and big picture philosophies about what a farmers’ market should be.

Two years later, when the market was forced to move from the school parking lot where it had begun, the members of the community group regretted their choice of partners. Members of the neighborhood organization wanted to move the market to a highly visible location off the main street, while the market managers balked at the logistics of closing a narrow street to through traffic and orchestrating vendor load-in logistics with no space to spare.

The two groups parted ways. The split was acrimonious. Vendors were notified that there would be no Queen Anne Market that year. But the neighborhood organization decided to take on the project independently, managing and funding it on its own. The farmers’ market organization that had run the market for its first two years responded by scoping out a location down the hill, where they started a market of their own, on the very same weekday afternoon.

You’d think that farmers’ market organizers would all get along. After all, they share a common goal of bringing fresh local food to city neighborhoods, and helping regional farms to thrive. But, in fact, they often butt heads. Like sibling rivals, they come from similar places, but make different choices about who to be and how to manifest their choices and values. They push each other’s buttons.

One ongoing source of tension among market organizers is the question of whether or not a farmers’ market should sell only food. Some market managers believe that their events should have a strict mission of supporting local food producers, so adding craft vendors to the mix distracts customers from that primary purpose, and also gives shoppers more options for spending their limited funds. Other market managers believe that craft vendors really don’t compromise the bigger picture ideal of fostering local commerce. After all, farmers’ markets are as old as time, and nobody tried to kick crafts vendors out of the ancient city square.

Another charged issue is the question of whether or not the market for farmers’ markets is growing saturated. If there are multiple markets on multiple days in multiple neighborhoods, will established markets lose business to upstart rivals? Will farmers end up spending more resources vending at additional venues, with declining sales at each venue? Will the farmers’ market brand grow diluted if some of the newcomer markets provide a less-than-satisfying customer experience?

Ironically, the market organizers who believe that new markets don’t hurt the overall business model go ahead and start new markets, while organizers who want to limit the number of weekly events hold back on opening new venues. As a result, the more inclusive markets proliferate, while the markets with a stricter mission limit their own numbers.

I own a business that seels prepared food at over a dozen markets in the Seattle area. I deal with a wide range of market managers and organizations, and I try to maintain successful working relationships with all of them. But I know vendors who refuse to work with one group or another, because of bad feeling over a particular market’s admissions policies, or because an organization requires farmers to pay added fees on CSA pickups that take place at the market.

Personally, my favorite market managers are the ones who have been vendors themselves. They get it. But in the end, this is all really just about selling lettuce. Better lettuce. If we can’t agree on that, how can we ever hope to make the world a better place by selling better food?

2 thoughts on “Farmers market politics

  • August 18, 2012 at 3:02 pm

    And of course, there is always the reality that when farmers sell direct, they believe they should charge more than the stores because their veg still had mud on it. I imagine the wholesale price they get is a fraction of that we pay in the store, yet the customer seems to miss out on any financial benefit in the ‘farmers’ market’ phenomenon.

  • November 13, 2014 at 7:14 am

    It’s a bit sad really?


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