Thinking about Farmers’ Markets
There are lots of ways to direct-market foods at a farmers’ market, some of which perhaps not everyone is familiar with. To better visualize the distinctions among them, it is often helpful to such arrange variations on a theme along a spectrum. This article is presented as a description of what is currently happening in Maine farmers’ markets, followed by a bit of editorializing.
Admittedly there are other ways to categorize markets, each with its own possible gradations. Some examples might include: urban vs. rural, small vs. large, member-managed vs. managed by others, wealthy neighborhood vs. poor neighborhood, supported by locals vs. supported by tourists and summer people, and so forth. Nothing in this article intends to negate these and other ways of looking at markets. Rather, we explore here what slicing the pie in this particular way can reveal about our markets.
First, let’s look at the two end points on the spectrum.
A Peddler’s Market is a market in which some or a majority of the market members buy in all or much of what they are offering for sale to the public. Sometimes there are restrictions to native products or those “locally” produced. Peddlers’ markets allow producers who buy in nothing to attend as well.
A Producer’s Market is a market in which all of the market members produce all of what they are offering for sale to the public. The attending market members are the actual producers, their family members, or their employees. Each market member has a stand in which they sell only products they have produced themselves, as market shoppers generally expect. Producers’ markets do not allow peddlers to attend.
In between these there are several gradations that tend to lead, albeit unevenly, from one to the other. Most Maine farmers’ markets fall somewhere in between the two extremes and many would fall under more than one category.
Peddlers’ Markets. Minimal buy-in markets, ghost member markets, and single product buy-in markets represent markets which are decreasingly like peddlers’ markets.
Minimal Buy-in Markets allow members to buy in a minimal fraction of what they offer for sale. The Maine State Farmers’ Market Law defines 75% as the amount which each farmers market member must produce themselves, allowing 25% to be purchased directly from another Maine producer. The law also allows markets to impose stricter requirements than these percentages. Most Maine farmers’ markets are minimal buy-in markets.
Ghost Member Markets allow producers to join the market (paying full dues) but to never attend the market themselves. Their products are sold by another market member who does attend market. This is often done in newer or smaller farmers’ markets where it is uncertain whether enough products can be brought to market to attract sufficient shoppers to the market to assure market prosperity. Several Maine farmers markets are ghost member markets.
Single Product Buy-in Markets are those farmers’ markets which allow members who, upon request, are allowed to bring in single items or lines of items that are not currently offered by any producer at market, or are brought to market by the producers in clearly too small a quantity to meet shopper demand. Frequently permission is given to such members only with the acquiescence of potentially competing producer members of the market. Several Maine farmers’ markets are single product buy-in markets.
Cooperative Stand Markets are farmers’ markets which allow two or more market members to sell as a single stand, with perhaps some degree of co-mingling of product display and/or cash. This allows two or more smaller producers present a single large display, or to share a single stand in different seasons, and to incur a lower market fee per farm. This is often done when there is limited market space, and is a way of controlling the number of stand spaces available while allowing more members to join the market than there are spaces available for the market to set up. At least two Maine farmers markets have cooperative stand arrangements.
Cooperative Producer Markets are farmers’ markets that allow two or more regular market members to set up a single stand with both members’ products, but the producers also have a cooperative production arrangements between them that is wholly outside the market stand. This allows two producers to attend two separate markets at the same time, and to send only one person to sell the products of both operations at each market. There may be some co-mingling of product displays or cash. There are a few Maine farmers’ markets what allow cooperative producer stands.
Sharing-a-Tent Markets. Most farmers markets allow (or would allow) market members to share a single stand or tent for their set-up, especially if each one is small. Both market members join the market and attend and sell their own products, with no co-mingling of products or cash.
Producers’ Markets. Cooperative stand markets, cooperative producer markets and sharing-a-tent markets are types of producer markets, although it remains to be seen whether the various cooperative arrangements might eventually undermine the connection between shopper and producer.
One of the most valuable assets that constitutes today’s public image of a Maine farmers’ market is that shoppers get to buy directly from the producers, whether farmers, bakers, or crafters. That desire to Know Your Farmer is what brings a large proportion of shoppers to any farmers market. Those economic reductionists and consumerists who assume that it’s only about the food are missing a critical aspect in the big picture of how farmers’ markets affect the social and agricultural communities they touch.
When organized by the producers themselves as a means to market what they produce, farmers’ markets tend to lean toward being producer-only. They see the principle purpose of the farmers market is to serve the producers, and secondarily to serve the needs of the shoppers. In this view, the farmers’ market is principally for the farmers, even though the shoppers (and the community generally) certainly benefit. This turns the consumer-driven paradigm on its head, since what is available at market is limited to what the market members produce.
Markets organized by others, such as municipalities, non-profits, or landlords, tend to prefer some amount of buy-in be allowed to assure the broadest possible overall product display at market. They feel that serving the needs of the shoppers should be the market’s principle purpose in order to better assure the market’s success. Thus the producers—who do the vast majority of the work that results in the market actually happening—become secondary, like interchangeable plug-in parts in service to a consumer culture.
An additional motive, which arises from within some market members themselves, is to increase sales and/or make shoppers happier by buying in products for re-sale. Slow sales days can be perked up a bit by selling things produced by others and by increased offerings more shoppers can be enticed to visit. Many market members are in an ideal position to increase sales of local agricultural products by wearing two hats, that of producer and that of peddler. Assuming the economics can be worked out and assuming the re-seller knows how to handle and market the product, this can be of benefit to both producers and to shoppers. Yet it is a step away from being strictly a producer in a producer-only market, so this activity must be watched carefully by the whole market membership lest it get out of hand and dissipate one of the market’s most valuable assets.
If a person were to invest, say, $10,000 start up capital in purchasing products for re-sale, and do absolutely no production of their own, they might actually make out pretty well. This of course assumes that the market allows such behavior, that they do the math, and that they know how to handle and market the products. Some of the income generated would go toward purchasing more product for the following week, and so on. If successful, at the end of each market cycle they would have made more than they spent. What is such a person called? A capitalist, since they used their initial $10,000 in capital to bootstrap their business. They did indeed invest a lot of their own labor and skill, but none of it was in production, it was all in being a middle-man, someone who steps in between the producer and the consumer to provide a service that neither the producer nor the shopper is willing to do themselves.
Sometimes this activity is presented as a delivery service, or as a store, or a wholesaler. I believe this to be a very honorable vocation, and on a small scale is beneficial to our culture. History has shown, however, that this all too often becomes all about the money, all about moving product, and the bigger the scale the more product can be moved and the more money can be made. As the business grows there arises a greater disconnect between the interests of the producers and the shoppers on one hand and the business person on the other. Unfortunately the way our economy works not only allows, but encourages and demands this. Corporations have a fiduciary responsibility to maximize return to investors. Their rules do not include refraining from destroying the planet or disrupting society.
So, back at our smaller scale, we see ourselves daily operating where the markets all began. We owe it to ourselves and to future shoppers and producers to keep producer-based markets from being overcome by the tendency to think of our own work and of our markets only in terms of the money we made and the amount of product we moved. To be sure, we can’t ignore those factors, but we mustn’t allow our thinking about our markets to be dominated by those factors alone. What other factors are there when thinking about the value of how our markets operate? Relationships with shoppers, bringing the lives of the producers and the consumers into direct contact, the self-reliant confidence a community develops when it sees itself producing a large portion of its own food, raising families in a culture of self-reliant agriculture, keeping productive open spaces in our own communities, providing vibrant public spaces in the communities where the markets take place, getting to know and cooperate with other producers in the running of the market, all of these things and more are benefits to us, to the shoppers, and to our communities, present and future.