MARKET WATCH: Who starts a new market—and why?
Because of my coordination of the Winter Farmers Markets, I am sometimes contacted on behalf of fledgling farmers markets by organizers who think I might have something to offer. My first question is usually, “Why do you want to create a farmers market?” Because of my initiation with farmers markets through Churches’ Center for Land and People, I’m in it for the farmers and the rural communities they represent. I get concerned when the purpose for creating a farmers market strays too far from benefitting the farmers, so I always want to know, Why? Who benefits? Some of the possible answers to this are:
- small farmers and rural communities
- the community (people) who will shop at the market through (a) a fun, community-building event, (b) education about where food comes from, and (c) accessibility to fresher, more nutritious foods
- the environment and planet due to less transportation and sustainable farming methods
- the business community surrounding the farmers market
- fundraising for the sponsoring organization
The order of my list no doubt betrays my own biases. Because I come at farmers markets from the perspective of farmers, I’ve never quite understood the “food-only” or “food-first” focus of some markets. Before I start getting hate mail from the many fans of Green City Market, let me say that I love, love, love Green City . . . I sell there, I shop there, and there’s nothing like it! Although it’s not in their name, they certainly do identify as a “farmers market.” Their stated mission includes education about and accessibility to locally and sustainably grown food.
But that precludes, for example, a small, sustainable farmer who raises sheep, shears them, dyes their wool with dye from her farm-grown vegetables, and spins the wool into yarn—definitely a farmer by any definition, but not eligible to sell those yarns at the premier farmers market in Chicago because she doesn’t also sell meat from her flock. What do you think about that? Do you care? Should I care? I’m as concerned as the next person about a farmers market not becoming a craft fair or an eclectic French Market, but the requirements of Green City Market—not to mention their daunting application—should keep any slippery slope concerns in check.
All that said, a fledgling market is pretty far removed from such arcane distinctions; it’s hard enough to get those first few vendors—any vendors—that lend enough critical mass to a market to get it off the ground. And chances are they’ll receive applications for multiple bakers, kettle corn sellers, jewelry makers, and coffee grinders before the first vegetable or fruit vendor darkens their door. They’ll be hard-pressed to hold fast to their best intentions for locally- and sustainably-grown produce as the date for the first market nears, and may unknowingly succumb to accepting a produce wholesaler. But every market has to start somewhere, right? Or does it? Which brings us back to, Why?