Are there enough farmers’ markets in California? What makes a farmers’ market a farmers market and when does it become a swap meet? Do farmers understand what market management does for them and do market managers really know what farmers need to be successful at a market? Are non-profit Boards of Directors able to adequately serve all the various constituencies of community farmers’ markets? Do lawyers and bankers need farmers’ markets? Are farmers’ markets the best way to deliver farm fresh produce to low-income communities? These and a bushel and a peck of other related topics of interest to farmers’ market managers and organizers were recently hashed out in a two-day mini conference and retreat near the Ferry Plaza Market in San Francisco that I attended. The conference ended with a tour of the famed landmark Embarcadero site with its great indoor market hall and clusters of outside farmer vendors. Our “anti-conference” was organized by leaders of the Seattle Neighborhood Market Alliance, a non-profit group not affiliated with the world -famous Pike Place Market, which decided it was time to have a market conference that consisted only of topics of interest to us market managers. Markets from Tacoma, Portland, Washington, DC and the Bay area were included. We were a hard-driving task force of nine souls. Our agenda was comprehensive, and delirious digressions were embraced. We did not stick to a time frame, as in most conferences, but thoroughly thrashed out matters until we had reached a conclusion, a resolution, or had descended deeper into confusion. Oh, look – another topic for discussion. How can we convince our State legislators to increase matching funding for the WIC program? Anyone?Throughout history, farmers’ markets were established in urban centers as one of the earliest forms of commerce. In modern times, farmers’ markets are born or made into commercial enterprises with varying degrees of oversight. Some markets are farmer-run and organized, some are created by socially conscious non-profits, some seek to serve community or business needs. Most farmers’ markets offer customers a reason to shop other than simple food purchases. Farmers’ markets are a rallying point for the community, where greater numbers of individuals gather than at any other time or place. As opposed to other shopping experiences, at the farmers’ market customers are often on a first-name basis with the farmer vendors. Back in the day, two simple constituencies benefited from the town farmers’ market – the farmer and the customer. Today markets are carefully planned, permitted and promoted, farmers have to travel further to get to market, and organizers have costs and bottom lines to consider. There is no simple formula for a successful farmers’ market, nor is there one simple definition of “success.” For many farmers, farmers’ markets have become the last line of defense for them between selling or staying on their land. They are willing to drive long distances and sell in bad weather to bring home what they feel is a fair return on their labors. Having contact with appreciative customers has a vitalizing effect on them, and the long, lonely hours out in the fields are made less so by their market friends. Farmers worry about competition from new markets starting up near their established markets, yet many farmers also will stay at markets with low sales because of the security of the customary routine. Out of 60,000 “small farms” in California – farms of fewer than 100 acres – only 3,000 participate in farmers’ markets. Does this mean that there are thousands of farmers out there who would willingly participate in a farmers’ market if they had the chance? Can Los Angeles’ west side absorb a dozen or more new farmers’ markets without upsetting the consumer-farmer mix that already exists? Where will the next markets be, and what will they look like?In the San Francisco area, one farmers’ market association is setting up markets along the BART line, so that customers will be able to get to market without worrying about parking. They have also set up markets at two retirement homes and a market in a Sutter Street atrium that caters almost exclusively to lawyers and business professionals. The Ferry Plaza Market is closely associated with the Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture (CUESA) that provides information to customers about farming, farmland and farmers and hopefully ensures that a new generation of shoppers will support locally grown food. In Seattle, farmers are invited into neighborhoods that organize to support farmers’ markets. In Santa Monica, the school district serves a market fresh salad bar to students at all its campuses, and chefs who shop at the markets have raised consumer awareness about California’s most unique produce. So much to talk about – but let’s get shopping!
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