Dependent markets versus independent markets

Consider for a moment the way farmers’ markets are organized. Not whether or how they are incorporated, not how many or what kind of members they have, but rather how and whether the membership is involved in the management of the business of being a farmers’ market.

There seems to be two general categories: those that are sponsored by separate organization and those that are self-organized. The first category I will refer to as “Dependent Markets” and the second as “Independent Markets.”

Dependent Markets

Many farmers’ markets exist only because they have been created by another organization, either a non-profit, a town, or even a business. Generally the call goes out to farmers to come join the market, sometimes with a meeting of farmers beforehand to determine opening & closing dates, general setup and to determine what kind of vendors are interested in attending the market.

Some dependent markets have their own bank account and collect dues directly from the market members. Sometimes expenses are covered by the sponsoring organization, so there are few market expenses and dues are kept low. Other markets pay dues directly to the sponsoring organization which then covers market expenses.

A market manager is often hired by and is an employee of the sponsoring organization. The market manager takes into account the interests of the sponsoring organization as well as the market members when making decisions about the market, and when there is a conflict, the sponsoring organization’s interests tend to take precedence.

Although the individual market members benefit from attending the market, the purpose of the market is to fulfill an objective of the sponsoring organization. Presumably there is a close match between the interests of the sponsoring organization and the interests of the market members, but the two drives have their origins in different places. The former is (depending upon the organization) to promote local agriculture, promote use of the area in town where the market meets, promote the specific location where the market meets, or to otherwise fulfill the organization’s goals. The interest of the market members arise almost solely from the need to make a livelihood.

Although these two interests can align nicely, there are several instances where they might not. Here are several examples. While trying to support local agriculture, the sponsoring organization might want to have as complete a line of locally grown produce as possible, to the point of allowing members (or non-members) to send local produce to the market. Sometimes these can be the same items that members are already bringing to market, although what may be perceived as in insufficient quantity. This is akin to the question “Who is the market for, the shoppers or the members?” In other words should the market be driven by altruism or by self-interest? Since the sponsor may be interested in serving a non-farmer constituency, it may come down on the side of altruism, expecting the market to be organized primarily for the shoppers. For the sponsor, market members are a means to an end.

Another example is when the sponsoring organization’s interest is to have the market set up in a particular location to attract shoppers, yet the market members may believe that another location would be better for business. For the members to move would mean they would lose the organizational cocoon they have become dependent upon. They would have to do more for their market themselves.

Diversions of interests often mean that the sponsoring organization has its way, and the market members have to go along with it because they are dependent upon their sponsor for so much. Members are lead to believe they are fortunate to be allowed to be a member of the market, and they are told that the interests of the sponsor are their interests, too.

Since it is important to the sponsoring organization for the market to be successful, promotion of the market is often undertaken by the sponsor and not by any organization of the market members themselves. Whether from grants or not, the sponsor often has far deeper pockets than the market, so promotions generally occur at a level of expense the market could not itself bear, regardless of their effectiveness.

Independent Markets

Independent markets exist because a group of farmers got together to create a market, based on their individual self-interests. They are organized and managed by the members, and the ongoing existence and success of the market is solely dependent upon the market membership itself.

Sometimes groups of farmers are invited by a landlord or a town to come set up a market at a particular location. There may also be restraints within which the market must operate, such as not allowing crafts in the parking lot of an auditorium that also has craft shows inside. However, beyond these restrictions, the market is free to operate as it wishes, to set its dues and membership requirements as the members see fit. The landlord is clearly not a sponsor and has no role in the management of the market.

Conflicts in interests are confined to differences in interests among members, all of whom are looking to maximize their profitability at market. Participation at market is generally a prerequisite to selling items at market, as is selling only what has been produced by the member.

The old question of “Who is the market organized for, the shoppers or the members?” is almost always resolved in favor of the members. If the market isn’t working for the members, they won’t keep attending. Shoppers needs and preferences are catered to with unending subservience by the big retailers, and no market is ever going to be successful compete with the big retailers on treating the shoppers as a mass market.

Promotion of the market is generally discussed at membership meetings in great detail, for it is their own meager funds they are spending. Effectiveness per dollar spent tends to be greater, although mistakes can be made when the membership is influenced by media professionals with high priced promotional packages to sell. But this is self-correcting, as future membership meetings decide high profile, low effectiveness promotions are not worth it.

Market members each operate their own business. Additionally, there is the business of the farmers’ market itself, sort of a “meta-business” that, in independent markets, requires the attention of at least some of the membership to manage properly. The management of that level of business is qualitatively different than that of any of the members and needs to include and merge the interests of all of the members’ businesses.

There are many models for dealing with this higher level of business that the market represents, ranging from autocracy (where the officers manage the market as though it were there own business) to democracy (where all of the members have a hand in managing the market).

The autocratic model is often adopted where market organizers “do it all” in an effort to get things done “efficiently”. Members in an autocratic market have it easy in that they are not called upon to do anything besides show up and sell, but they often have problems with the way the market is run, which they feel they have no say in, regardless of any structures dictated in the by-laws.
The autocratic model has much in common with the way dependent markets are organized, but they come about for different reasons. In dependent markets, the sponsor often has overriding say in how things are done because the market must fit in with the sponsor’s goals. In independent markets, autocracy arises because of the impatience or lack of skill in duty-sharing on the part of some of the more active members. Often in autocratic independent markets there is a tension between the leaders (who feel that “no one ever helps out”) and the membership (who feel the market is run without their input.) This tension may last for years, but it is a weakness in the market that eventually will be addressed, sooner or later, for better or for worse.

The democratic model requires market members to come to terms with the needs of the market as a whole, and hence with the needs of the other members. Although no market can be expected to be a “perfect democracy,” democratically managed markets do require more of members than just attending to their own businesses. Because attentiveness to the needs of all members is required of each member, a commitment arises to the community of farmers, bakers and crafters who make up the market. Members make decisions on the basis of “what’s good for the whole market” rather than only what’s good for their own stand. Internal difficulties get resolved because everyone is working together to make the market work, and working together develops trust.

Therefore, what seems to be the ideal way to organize a farmers’ market is to strive for democratically controlled independent markets. At a market’s founding, there often needs to be considerable learning among the new membership about how to work together for a goal greater than their individual businesses, plus the skills of whole market promotion, management of a common treasury, and general management of a multi-member business. It helps to have several members who have attended democratically operated markets to show how things can be done.

What it comes down to is creating a model whereby people learn to do things for themselves versus a model where they expect to be reliant upon an institution with hopefully benevolent motivations. How we go about developing markets in the near and far future shapes not only local agriculture, but our whole society.

About Tom Roberts

When I started attending the Brewer Farmers’ Market back in August of 1983, my sole concern was being able to sell the produce my farm was growing at a good price. After attending market for a year or two, I began to realize that how the market was organized had a great impact on my sales. And how the market was organized also influenced how it made decisions about dues, new members, what could be sold at market, and how it promoted itself—and this, too, had an impact on my sales. So I got involved in the market’s steering committee and began to understand how various market members thought the market should operate. Some wanted a market czar, some wanted everyone to be allowed to do their own thing. But everyone seemed to agree that if the market as a whole did well, then so did they.