Growth creates challenges for farmers market success

As local farmers markets grow, market organizers may want to consider more formal organizations and working to fund paid staff to support their efforts.

Farmers markets are growing across Michigan for very good reasons. More people are seeking out fresh products they can buy directly from the farmer and support local agriculture. Customers are increasingly finding markets that fit into their lifestyles by offering a wide variety of produce; some provide handcrafted items, locally made cheeses or unique bakery offerings.

More and more markets in Michigan are offering conveniences like the use of credit or debit cards and access for people using food assistance like the Michigan Bridge Card. Last year more than 80 markets in Michigan accepted the Michigan Bridge Card or Federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) food benefits. The number is growing as farmers and vendors reap monetary benefits from customers. But behind the scenes at markets, this growth may create more challenges to markets in transition.

The United States Department of Agriculture defines a farmers market as “two or more farm vendors selling at a common direct retail outlet at the same physical location on a recurring basis.” Within that definition, there are an infinite number of kinds of markets.

According to a 2007 report from Oregon State University Extension, there is a range of complexity to farmers market organization from no organization or agreement among vendors other than location and time to non-profit organizations with a board of directors who oversee the market and employ managers to enforce rules and regulations. Markets that are growing are also growing in complexity. Those without paid staff find that volunteers are being asked to work on a larger number of tasks. Those with paid staff are asking the staff to undertake a number of jobs to keep the market going.

 A typical day for a manager at a farmers market could include arriving well before the market day begins and greeting vendors, making sure everyone knows where to set up. They perform tasks to ready the site for the day. They address vendor questions and concerns, collect fees, prepare for special events or entertainment, help customers (which may include using a point-of-sale device for credit/debit/Michigan Bridge cards) and closing the market at the end of the sales day.

In addition to all of these tasks performed during market hours, there are many tasks needed to prepare for market including establishment of market rules for operation, working in partnership with local government officials and businesses for space to insure smooth operations, promotions and marketing, fundraising and all the other things that arise during a season.

Farmers markets that operate by informal agreement and with volunteer management may need help to transition to a board of directors, formal agreements and paid staff. In their survey, the Oregon State researchers found that 53 percent of small markets – those with between nine and 30 vendors – had paid staff. Larger markets – those with more than 30 vendors – all had paid staff, clear guidelines for vendors and assigned spaces for vendors. Many of those larger markets, 92 percent, also had additional paid staff.

Michigan markets that are looking for assistance can reach out to their market colleagues and for additional help through the Michigan Farmers Market Association (MIFMA).

For more information on what to expect when visiting a Michigan farmers market this 2012 season, see “Find a variety of plants and produce at Michigan farmers markets.”

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