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When I moved to my little town over 11 years ago, there was hardly a farmers market to speak of. The market that did exist took place in a dusty, sun-baked parking lot at the edge of town. Market hours were from 9am to 1pm on a Tuesday—not prime shopping hours for most 9-to-5 working types. Needless to say, consumer participation was low.
Vendors at the market were in short supply. There were five tables: three vegetable growers and two crafters. The growers and crafters that participated were not local (other than one), and the produce they furnished was likely (based off of its appearance) something that didn't sell at the nearby Saturday market and so was trucked back to the farm, reconstituted in water and held until the following Tuesday in marginal refrigeration. Not exactly the awe-inspiring display one wants to see when taking the time to shop local.
Challenges Joining a Farmers Market
In those days, the market that existed was an off-shoot of a larger organization located nearly 25 miles to the East of us. There was an absentee market manager, no advertising, awful signage and the impression that our town’s produce needs really weren't all that important to anyone in charge. It was dismal.
Back then, my husband and I were newbie farmers…well, more like over-producing backyard growers who were tight on cash. On a whim, we contacted the market board to see if it was worth our time to participate in our “local” market. The short answer, after reading through the fine print and seeing the vendor fees, was a resounding “no.” There was no incentive for local small producers to participate in the market process. Discouraged, we searched for a better outlet for our abundance.
Fast forward one year in time: Our small backyard enterprise had since grown into a 1.5-acre mini-farming operation and we were desperate to establish some steady markets for our crops. I attended a farm-to-table event in a nearby town and was introduced to several other young growers, plus a slew of agency staff. As we were departing the venue, one of my new acquaintances hinted at the idea of creating a new farmers market and was actively recruiting participants. This is how, nearly 8 years ago, I was pulled into the market creation process.
6 Steps to Start a Farmers Market
Here are a few of the things that I have learned
1. Farmers markets can be contentious; prepare for a fight (even if you aren't looking for one). This was a huge eye-opener to me. Who wouldn't want a successful market in their town? Apparently (and obviously) anyone involved with the other market that already existed. To be fair, in our effort to keep from reinventing the wheel, we approached the board of the original market and asked if they would allow us to become our own, self-governing entity. They very vocally and rudely declined. As part of our community outreach, we held a public meeting to discuss the possibility of creating an additional market in town, allowing the original market to continue to exist but adding a second market on a different day that would be run by our new entity.
During and leading up to the public meeting, members of the original market board were openly slanderous and vocal about their dissent and went to lengths to discredit our planning efforts (including setting up several secret meetings with city officials, placing anti-market ads in the local papers and even placing anti-market radio spots).
Fortunately for us, the positive support we received from the remainder of the community was enough to convince the City to issue a second permit allowing us to create a farmers market independent of the first market without forcing the shutdown of the original market in the process. From our perspective, this was the closest thing to a win; let the customers decide where their allegiances would lie.
2. Be prepared for internal growing pains and choose a strong group leader. As with any new entity, there were massive differences in opinion about the best way to organize ourselves. The most well-intentioned neighbors and volunteers were, at times, reduced to yelling matches over our boardroom table. Items as simple as choosing a name or the day of the week and timing for the market became heated debates. In those early stages, we lost many participants because of the strain of these decisions. It was only with the designation of a strong group leader that we were able to make it through these formative decisions into the real meat of setting up a market: bi-laws, market rules and a budget.
3. Research other markets for guidance on rule making and budgeting. All markets are not created equally. When starting a new market from the ground up, you will be faced with decisions that set the tone for your market’s “feel,” which will ultimately be its identity.
Will you allow re-sale? What will your crafter-to-vendor ratio be? How much will you charge for stall fees? What will the ratio be of vegetables to fruits? Will you allow GMO crops? How will you handle nonprofit booths? Will you host live music?
We were fortunate to have a strong and engaged group of rule-makers who were willing to do the research and legwork the first time around that led to the construction of a strong framework of bi-laws, market rules and operating budget. Over the years, there have been some adjustments to our original bi-laws (For example, our inaugural board was limited to seven members but has since been increased to 11.). But for the most part, the original framework remains unchanged.
The strength of this ground floor rule-making has allowed for the smooth transition between the original board members and all new board participants. Our documentation has always been strong and transparent, making it easy for a new member to come up to speed on the reasoning behind each of the rules or regulations.
4. Foster a good relationship with city officials and community members. Our little town has many regulations regarding signage and setbacks that added some complication to our application process. Fortunately, our board members have always been on good terms with city officials and an open channel of dialog has kept us relatively free from controversy. This isn't exactly an easy task. Shop owners in town have felt threatened by the market from the very beginning and constantly nag the city to limit the reach of the market. This includes limiting prepared food, wine sampling, crafting etc…anything that may be viewed as “competition” to the other downtown businesses.
Because of our strong relationship with the city and our ability to concede on much smaller issues (such as signage regulation) we have been able to continue the growth of the market with little regulatory impediment. Our strong commitment to our community and their strong commitment to us has allowed us leverage when negotiating larger political potholes, such as lobbying for free parking on market nights. In a town where revenue is intimately tied to parking fees, this concession by the city would not have been possible without our strong community base of supporters.
5. Hire a good Market Manager. The Market Manager is the mouthpiece of the market board. He or she is the face of the market that the community and your vendors are most intimately involved with. It is therefore important to hire the right person for the job.
The manager should be personable, responsible, strict (yes, strict) and tireless. Fortunately for us, we found the right candidate our very first season. Our manager arrives early and leaves late. He is the voice of our radio spots, organizes the pre-season vendor meeting, sets up signage and amplification, marks out booth locations, keeps our vendor ratios favorable, manages disputes and directs traffic during vendor un-loading and loading. Essentially, he rallies the troops and keeps us in line without alienating a soul. To show our appreciation as a board, we have built into our budget an annual salary review and bonus process. This has kept the working relationship between the board and the manager strong.
6. Hire a bookkeeper. Originally, bookkeeping duties were the job of our board Treasurer. What became apparently obvious as members of the board reached the end of their term was that the hardest transition to keep seamless was the finances. This was due, in part, to the heavy workload involved with both maintaining the books and then explaining the system to a newcomer. We made the unanimous decision to work into our budget a little extra money allocated for external bookkeeping services. This has taken pressure off of our volunteer board and keeps our bookkeeping from becoming sloppy.
We are now entering our 9th market season. Much has changed over the years and I feel fortunate to be involved in a market that does not seem to be going away any time soon (That original Tuesday market didn't last more than another season after the formation of our new Thursday evening market).
In fact, participation continues to grow, with a wait list of potential vendors and ever-increasing consumer participation. The strength of our market regularly attracts customers from as far as 100 miles away and our vendors receive frequent praise about the quality of the market experience. Most certainly, there will be future challenges that are yet to be anticipated. But for the most part, the decisions we made early on in our formation have proven to be sound ones. I can only hope that some of you who will be undergoing a similar process can find guidance from the words that have been written here today.
Photo by Leah Hemberry Ricketts
If you would like to read more from Eron including essays, past garden-related articles and more, please visit her personal blog, Farmertopia. If you would like to be connected with her farm, please follow the Tierra Garden Organics Facebook page or visit the Tierra Learning Center website. For more information on farming activism in North Central Washington, check out the FARMY Facebook page.
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