MARKET WATCH: Who starts a new market—and why?

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March 4, 2010 at 11:23 am

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
  • restaurants/chefs/foodies
  • 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?

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9 Comments

  1. Laura W says:

    Robin,

    While I agree that the Green City Market application definitely is daunting (we are trying to get high quality vendors who are committed to our sustainable mission), we do have a a vendor (Liberty Family) who sells yarn from their sheep.

    Laura

    • Robin Schirmer says:

      It’s my understanding that Liberty is only allowed to sell their beautiful yarn because they also sell lamb meat. That’s what I meant by “food-first.” It’s not wrong . . . it’s just more food-focused than farm-focused. And that’s okay. It’s just that I come at farmers markets “farm-first” which isn’t necessarily right, either; it’s just my bias.

      I’m glad for the dialogue, which is why I’m asking in my entry, “Do you care? Should I care?”

  2. Laura W says:

    Additionally, The Chicago Honey Co-op sells candles and other various beeswax products at the market during the summer.

  3. mark p. says:

    “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.”

    Hi Robin,

    This is incorrect. Green City allows many non-food items to enter the market so long as they are a direct byproduct of the vendor’s agricultural practice. For example Liberty Family Farm sells yarn spun from the wool of sheep they raise, Chicago Honey Co-op sells multiple beeswax products (lip balm, candles, etc) Kinnickinnik sells soaps made from a long list of byproducts that are the result of their farming practices, Majestic Nursery even sells birdhouses made from dried gourds that they grow. Your thought that the “daunting application should keep any slippery slope concerns in check” is absolutely correct. It does, and it allows farmers to sell the items mentioned while ensuring that the Market never looses it’s focus on sustainable agriculture.

    • Robin Schirmer says:

      Mark, thanks for responding. I’m basing my statement on my understanding, borne out (I think) by the following provision of the 2010 Rules and Regs for Green City:

      NON-FOOD ITEMS
      Non-food items are only allowed at market when they are a bi-product of the primary agricultural product or practice. For instance, wool is allowed if sold by a lamb meat vendor. Also, for example, soap made from goat milk is allowed if sold by a goat cheese producer, or when the
      goat is utilized in the production of other food products that are also sold at market (example: manure for crops; milk for feed). Green City Market reserves the right to limit non-food products sold at market.

      Am I wrong about the eligibility of my hypothetical sheep farmer? If she’s not eligible, so be it . . . but it’s a distinction that I don’t understand for a “farmers” market. Green City Market does just fine as it is, and doesn’t need to look for more ways to add to the mix, and certainly doesn’t need to please me. I’m just sayin’ . . .

  4. mark p. says:

    Let me say that when I wrote my post Laura’s response hadn’t posted to the site yet, sorry if it seemed like the “crazy GCM fans” were jumping all over you. The provision you site was created, not to limit what “kind” of farmer could attend the market, but to ensure that only a farmer would be allowed to sell non-food items. Hypothetically I think a sheep farmer whose sole farming practice was the (sustainable) production of yarn would probably be eligible. That said, I think that this hypothetical farmer is very rare, generally I think if you a have a small heard of sheep in the midwest you’re probably doing more than just sheering them… maybe not always, but usually. My personal opinion is that any non-food byproduct of sustainable farming should be fair game. I think that the greater the variety of product available at a market, the more appealing that market is to the public, the more profitable the market is for the farmer. That’s all ;-)

    • Rob Gardner says:

      Thanks Mark. No need to feel crazy. Because Laura is not registered, her comments had to be approved, something we can not always immediately do. We appreciate both of your responses and the passions you bring to farmer’s markets.

  5. Kristina says:

    Hi Robin: I am the organizer/manager of the new Morton Grove Farmers’ Market (Saturdays, 8930 Waukegan Rd, there’s my plug). Why am I so passionate about starting a farmers’ market in town? Growing up in a small town in NE Iowa, I witnessed the life of small farms and their families, how hard my friends had to work to help their families make it. I am determined to make a difference, offer real farmers a vibrant place to sell what they grow in spite of the odds. In turn, I see how our suburb is made up of separate communities, bordered by language differences and cultural/religious differences. I have this unending need to see people come together, and food unifies people. I have been pleasantly surprised by how quickly farmers have come forward and shown interest in our market. My dream is to create something that truly balances farmers’ needs with our community’s needs. Wish us luck.

    • Robin Schirmer says:

      I’m delighted to hear your rationale for starting a new market and to hear of the success you’re having so far in recruiting farmers to follow that vision. Thanks for sharing your thoughts….and I wish you continued luck in bringing it forth! Thanks, too, to Brad Moldofsky for sharing some of the blow-by-blow behind-the-scenes interactions that have gone into the planning of this new market.

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