Conversations from the Field
ATTRA talks to movers and shakers in the sustainable ag movement
Conversations from the Field features interviews with sustainable agriculture leaders. It is designed to highlight successful practices, creative programs, and progressive ideas, and to encourage readers to develop a more comprehensive understanding of the sustainable ag movement. We welcome your feedback on Conversations from the Field.
Farmers Market Coalition - Stacy Miller
In August, USDA announced that its 2010 National Farmers Market Directory lists 6,132 operational farmers markets, representing 16 percent growth over 2009. With farmers markets growing increasingly popular and successful, it's an especially appropriate time for a conversation with Stacy Miller, the Executive Director of the Farmers Market Coalition. Stacy has worked with farmers markets from a variety of vantage points: vendor, manager, researcher, and consumer. She has grown and sold everything from Asian mustards to zinnias, and more recently served as the manager of the Morgantown Farmers Market for two years. In 2005, she earned a Masters of Science in Agricultural and Environmental Education from West Virginia University, and has since co-authored articles on farmers market impacts and characteristics for academic agricultural publications. She believes strongly, on personal and professional levels, in the power of farmers markets to sustain healthy farms, healthy communities, and healthy economies. NCAT agriculture specialist Tammy Hinman recently spoke with Stacy.
Q. Could you describe how you became interested in farmers markets, and your role with the Farmers Market Coalition?
A. My first real job in high school was on a berry farm where I helped supervise pick-your-own strawberry and blueberry fields, so I developed an appreciation early on for the role of direct-marketing and, in particular, the importance of connecting children to agriculture and healthy food. I began selling in farmers markets years later, when I was working at Even' Star Farm, a certified organic farm in Maryland, from 1999-2001. We would sell in the DC area and Northern Virginia. I got my first perspective of farmers markets from the producer's side: selling cut flowers and vegetables. The energy that validates a week's worth of hot, sweaty, bug-bitey days—that culminates in a celebration that you share with other people—was really special to me. I was also inspired by being part of an informal community economy in which farmers and food producers bartered with one another. That is why I ended up pursuing work in the farm/agriculture field. I began researching farmers markets in graduate school at West Virginia University. At that point I didn't dream that I would be able to work on farmers markets at a national level, so when this opportunity with FMC happened a few years later I jumped at it. My role presently as Executive Director of the Farmers Market Coalition is to manage the day-to-day operations of the organization and oversee pretty much all of the communications with members, marketing, and program management. We are a grassroots, volunteer-heavy organization; thus I serve many roles with the organization. The Farmers Market Coalition Board of Directors is fantastic (all seventeen of them!) and I am happy to have them invest the time that they do.
Q. What is the Farmers Market Coalition and what is its mission?
Stacy at the Ann Arbor Farmers Market; fall 2009.
In many of those ways we are just getting started, as we try to adapt (and help our members adapt) to the rapidly changing environment in which farmers markets operate. For example, there are a lot of concerns with food safety and with national legislation, such as the Child Nutrition Act and the role of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly Food Stamps) and other federal nutrition programs.
The notion of "what is a farmers market" has gained attention in the media lately. It's challenging for grassroots, shoestring organizations to ensure the integrity of their mission and to maintain transparency about the products being sold, who is selling them, what policies are in place to ensure compliance, and how to communicate effectively with customers and community members about those expectations. These are complicated issues because farmers markets are all very different. They are not franchises and they do not adhere to a cookie-cutter model. All markets are managed a little differently. Sometimes they are managed by professional staff, sometimes by farmers, sometimes by a municipality, and sometimes they are not managed at all. They have different goals and missions and varying levels of capacity to reach those goals.
Earlier this summer, our board approved language proposed by a task force that created an established position about what a farmers market is, which distinguishes it from, say, a grocery store, or a produce stand, or a market full of resellers. What the task force arrived at is this:
A farmers market operates multiple times per year and is organized for the purpose of facilitating personal connections that create mutual benefits for local farmers, shoppers and communities. To fulfill that objective farmers markets define the term local, regularly communicate that definition to the public, and implement rules/guidelines of operation that ensure that the farmers market consists principally of farms selling directly to the public products that the farms have produced.
This sounds like an easy, common sense principle, but there is not necessarily agreement within the farmers market community. Now that we have this overarching principle, we can engage as a sector in constructing some agreed-upon typologies that help delineate and respect uniqueness and innovative models. I think this will encourage farmers markets to invest thought into their missions, and be transparent to the community about who their beneficiaries are. This will make it easier at a national level—and for markets at an individual level—to garner support and build partnerships on the ground. We want people to understand that a farmers market is not just something you put on a sticker or sign, like a grocery store trying to promote the freshness of their produce by putting "farmers market" above their produce section. We are trying to differentiate farmers markets from this kind of cooptation. This is the main goal of developing a common understanding of what exactly a farmers market is.
The work is exciting because I am always learning new models and innovations so it makes the work very interesting and engaging.
Q. Certainly in Montana we have the full gamut of farmers markets, from roadside impromptu markets to full-blown city street markets with thousands of customers. Could you talk about how you see farmers markets playing a role in the local food movement?
A. I think diversity in a food system is just as important as diversity in ecology or in human culture. Farmers need diverse marketing outlets in order to manage their risk, just as much as we consumers need diverse options to insure community food security and that we don't have one monolithic corporation selling us everything. It is important that consumers have food available from a variety of producers in a variety of outlets. So I do not see farmers markets as the best or the only local foods outlet, but they are very often the hub from which other pieces of the local food system can spark, expand outward, and thrive, whether that be community supported agriculture, restaurant sales, or custom orders that a producer diversifies based on relationships that were started at a farmers market. I see farmers markets as relationship builders from both the producer and the consumer sides. Farmers can build relationships that can help to expand their marketing base and improve the viability of their business at markets. They also educate consumers about agriculture and how things are grown and their ability to reinvest in the community. The money doesn't immediately leak out of the community, or region, and go to some corporate headquarters across the country or across the world.
Farmers markets are not the only local foods outlet, but they are unique in the local food system, in that farmers can gather together and create a one-stop-shopping environment. Each vendor comes with a different kind of niche and together they create an atmosphere. The shopper has an incentive to go because they can find a wide variety of products at very high quality that they would be hard pressed to find from one farm alone. So farmers markets are unique in the local foods system, but they are not the beat-all, end-all of local foods systems. I also do not see them solely as an incubator out of which farmers evolve once they're considered successful. Farmers markets can be a part of a long-term marketing strategy that can support a rural family.
Q. Through my work as a farmer and with the ATTRA project, I have seen many career farmers market vendors. Their sales expand and customer base keeps growing. Do you see this in your work with farmers market vendors?
A. What is inspiring to me is to see a part-time farmer, working off farm at a job they hate, get to a point where they can actually sustain their farm business without off-farm income. That takes a lot of work and dedication on the part of the farmer. It is a testament to the notion that farmers markets are not just for retired 'hobbyists' growing in their back yard and not contributing to either their economic well-being or to the economic viability of the community. It lends legitimacy to the idea that farmers markets are truly incubators for entrepreneurship. That said, even part-time income can make a significant contribution to both the local economy and a family's well-being.
Stacy giving the keynote at the Washington State Farmers Market Association annual conference; January 2010.
Q. Does the Farmers Market Coalition provide any resources for vendors or only for farmers market managers?
A. Up to this point, we have chosen to focus mainly on market managers and farmers market organizations more so than the farmers themselves, because there are so few other places those folks can turn for resources. Nevertheless, we are hoping to make additions to our resource library to expand the number of tools useful for producers and potential vendors. Where we do reach out to both is in our "Information Marketplace." This is a project where we provide Education and Training Mini-Grants to farmers market organizations to develop and hold workshops for vendors and managers. Because a lot of the needs of farmers markets are in their capacity as organizations, we probably represent market managers' and organizations' professional development needs more so than farmers themselves. Also, Extension and other providers...are already doing a good job in that role for producers. We definitely look forward to increasing collaboration with these organizations, though.
Q. The country recently celebrated the annual national Farmers Market Week. Could you give us some background on this event?
A. The US Department of Agriculture-Agriculture Marketing Service (USDA-AMS) established the first week in August as Farmers Market Week starting in 2000. It was really meant to celebrate farmers markets and raise public awareness of the impact that farmers markets were having. The USDA AMS had...noted a dramatic increase in the number of farmers markets throughout the country. They wanted to acknowledge this growing trend and that farmers markets were a new social enterprise where farmers were able to access new markets.
For years, though, the actual dates of the week were not solidified and it was announced without a lot of lead time for market organizations to sufficiently prepare. In 2009, the Farmers Market Coalition partnered with USDA-AMS to try to increase the profile of this event, and it was institutionalized as the first week in August. Our role is not to educate the consumers, but to provide resources to farmers market organizations themselves, so they can conduct education and outreach about farmers markets during this week through press releases, op-eds, and inviting decision-makers to speak at the market. We provide templates for press releases, frequently asked questions, and talking points if markets do not have the resources to develop their own. We also developed a Farmers Market Glossary in collaboration with the Marin Farmers Market and the Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture. We created bookmarks, decals, and postcards, and made those tools available to farmers markets at a national level so that they could have a national context to do their own outreach at a local level.
Q. Did you gauge the success of this effort, and are you planning on continuing it?
A. We still have those tools available. Last year, the theme was "Markets Are Up"— a play on the Wall Street crash that left all of us feeling jaded and distrustful of any kind of market. I don't know that those feelings have faded much; at least not for me!
We have had some great feedback from our members that it was really helpful to finally be able to plan in advance. In particular, people really seemed to like both the decals and the glossaries. We are grateful to the organizations that supported us to be able to provide the materials for free and to ship them to markets. We still have limited quantities available for ordering, but are focusing on the online tools, in particular the talking points and Press Release Template which we just updated (http://farmersmarketcoalition.org/membership/markets-are-up-campaign/). We're focusing more on providing data points and information that markets can use when they are communicating with stakeholders and trying to build partnerships. We are finding that markets need assistance with this more than anything else; more so than to educate consumers that are already coming to their market. I'm always on the lookout for local or regional studies evaluating the economic and social impact of farmers markets, so we can continually improve these talking points.
Q. Farmers markets are increasingly trying to find ways for low-income people to access local foods. Could you describe what these efforts are and if you know how many farmers markets are participating in them on a national scale?
Stacy at the 'Real Food, Real Choice' Press Conference in Brooklyn with
NYC Greenmarket; July 2010.
Another significant barrier is the limited capacity and staffing resources to operate nutrition programs and conduct the outreach and education that's needed to help overcome the shopper barriers that I just identified. The one-time technology costs of wireless terminals (which should be available for free to non-traditional merchants like farmers markets, the same way that wired terminals are provided to brick-and-mortar grocery stores), is not the biggest challenge. Markets need technical assistance from their peers to identify the best model for their market. When there are resources for promotion, outreach and staffing, farmers market SNAP programs can be very successful. We just need to fight to make sure those resources are available, which is possible when the federal government, state agencies, and the spectrum of stakeholders all come to the table.
Q. When and where will this report be available?
A. The report is available online at: http://farmersmarketcoalition.org/wp-content/uploads/2010/07/EBT-SNAP_Final_Web.pdf as well as on the Community Food Security Coalition website.
This page was last updated on: December 12, 2014