Keepin' it Real at Farmers Markets

Excellent article in Mother Jones last issue about how some farmers markets are turning into something never intended by the farmers who started them.

…if you shop at the farmers market in part to vote with your food dollars—for a stronger local economy, say, and for better stewardship of the land, and for a food network that lets you know exactly what you’re putting in your mouth—and if you’d prefer not to feel like a dupe, it turns out that going to the farmers market isn’t enough anymore. Now you actually have to find out exactly who’s behind every folding table, how their business is really doing, and accept the disappointment the answers are bound to bring. [Dwayne, Daniel. “Foodie, Beware.” Mother Jones. March/April 2009.]

The article delves into how many of the large markets in cities across the country have turned into value-added tourist traps and re-sale outlets for the same kind of produce you’d find in the grocery store–not local, not sustainably grown, and not even in season anywhere close to where the market is taking place.

My take on this problem (which is also mentioned in the article) is that many of these markets, made incredibly large and successful through the help of the local Chamber of Commerce, city government, or economic revitalization group, have realized this success based on values that, in the end, diverge from those of the core producers.

At the Vermillion market, it has been a mixed blessing for us not to have had much support from the chamber, city, or other established groups.  While we’ve struggled for years finding the perfect location and funding the advertising and other costs associated with running a market, one thing that hasn’t been difficult is keeping it real, keeping it local.

Early last season, when we were once again on the move due to a misunderstanding with our previous landlords, we were approached by a downtown revitalization group about locating the market downtown.  We considered the offer and the space provided, but in the end, we couldn’t reach an agreement.

While the downtown revitalization group was very interested in us, they weren’t as happy with our needs for more vendor space than the small lot could accommodate, reserved parking for our truck farmers, and our insistence that the market remain a farmers market–not a flea market or craft fair.

You can’t really blame them, though–what they were interested in was, and is, revitalizing downtown Vermillion and providing more traffic and a festive atmosphere to the downtown district.  While we may have been able to help with that, I have my doubts that our locating in the spot they selected would have been as good for our vendors as it would have been for the downtown atmosphere.

In the end, we partnered with the Clay County Fair Board and County Extension, an obvious and natural partnership based on what we do and what they do–and that the space provided was on a busy and visible corner uptown certainly didn’t hurt our record turnout and larger number of vendors.

As a proponent of the downtown and buying locally in general, the choice to say no to the downtown spot was somewhat of a dilemma for me personally.  I want to see our downtown thrive, and I want more locally-owned businesses within walking distance of my house in town.

However, in my role on the farmers market board, my job is to help the vendors make money, not help revitalize the downtown.  I would not be opposed to selling some of my own produce downtown should the group start a weekend market, but it didn’t make sense for us to relocate our established market into a space that allowed for little to none of the growth we wanted.

Too, in my view, farmers are the heart of the market.  While we do not ban arts, crafts, or value-added products at our market, we operate under the principle of “Home-grown & Homemade.”  Probably because we are so small, we tend not to have a problem with an in-flux of non-local produce or flea market items.  If it did become an issue, we could revise the rules and regulations accordingly.

This discussion is not to discourage cities or economic revitalization groups from partnering with their farmers market or to start markets where they are lacking.  I also don’t want to discourage struggling markets from partnering with those kinds of groups in order to get a leg up.

It’s only that when “real” farmers markets (that is, the kind with actual farmers vending at them) choose to partner with these groups, they should encourage an open dialogue about where their and their partners’ interests lie–where they come together, and where they diverge.

That, to me, seems like the best way to keep it real.


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